Book 3 of the Plagued States of America series
When a helicopter carrying presidential hopeful Senator William Jefferson crashes in the Quarantine Zone, zombie half-breed Penelope Hope is enlisted into the most unorthodox rescue team ever assembled for a mission to save the very man leading the effort to wipe out her kind from the Plagued States of America.
It didn't matter whether or not she was a zombie, but...it always did. Being a zombie half-breed put Penelope partly in the world of men, but mostly in the world of zombies. It felt a lot like being stuck in the middle of the enormous river that separated the Plagued States from the Rurals, afraid to swim to either side because of what she might find. Then again, on days like this, she wished the channel were endlessly wide and she could keep swimming away from both sides.
The television kept showing the same footage of the helicopter crash. It was near the end of it now, with smoke swirling inside the chopper, making everything dark, obscuring the frenzied activity as one man after the next climbed up through the side door, which faced skyward. Penelope watched the television with her head turned sideways, enthralled by the fact that she knew everyone in there, all of them frantically climbing from the burning wreckage. First went the Senator's bodyguard, flinging himself up and out of camera shot. Then the woman-the tall, thin black doctor named Kennedy. She kept saying she could cure Penelope, an obsession that made Penelope's skin crawl. Next went the Senator, struggling to lift himself over his own head. The two men still in the chopper pushed him up by his legs.
Tom groaned in frustration as he paced in front of the television, his hands clutching tufts of his own hair. "Dad," Tom groused at the TV and the image of the Senator...Tom's father.
Penelope sat rigidly, afraid to draw Tom's attention. His anger surprised her because it was the first time she had ever seen it. She didn't know what to do for him, or how to cope with the idea that the one person in the world she relied on for everything might lash out against her. She wanted to hide, but there was no place in their cramped apartment.
In the past, Peske put her in her cage each night where she curled up in a blanket and hid her head beneath a pillow. Even though the only real barrier between her and the horrors of the world were those bars, it felt solid enough to repel anything.
The apartment she and Tom shared was supposed to be the same thing, a safe haven from the intrusive eyes of the world of men. This new cage was much larger and more comfortable, but today she shared it with a pacing lion.
"This is bad," Tom said repeatedly.
The scene on the television restarted, taking them back to the beginning, before the crash. A suddenly upright camera showed no sign of smoke, the passengers all sitting orderly in their seats. The camera panned from passenger to passenger.
"Once again," the television said with a woman's voice. "If you are just tuning in, this is breaking news. Senator Jefferson's helicopter has crash landed somewhere over Scott Air Force Base, near St. Louis, which is inside the boundaries of the Quarantine Zone."
The Quarantine Zone was what outside people called it. Inside the zone, even here in a safe region like the Elevated Platform Station (EPS), everyone called it biter territory or the Plagued States. In the years since her rescue, Penelope learned it all meant the same thing. She also knew there was a different world across the big river, a land without the constant threat of zombies. A place she wasn't allowed because she was still part zombie herself.
The television showed the interior of a large helicopter, with three plush seats facing the camera. The Senator sat in the center, wearing a dark red jacket with its high neck zipped up. Beside him sat a man in a black military uniform, like the men who guarded the station. To his other side sat the doctor-the woman named Kennedy whom Penelope was so afraid of. Kennedy wore a blue jacket similar to the Senator's, likewise zipped up. Her hands were in her pockets, and her head was beneath a knit hat. Her eyes glared across the cabin of the helicopter toward the camera, as if she were looking right at Penelope.
"There's the Senator before the crash," the television said, "sitting with Eloran chief scientist Danielle Kennedy. The man to their left we believe is one of the security guards from the Elevated Platform Station, which is where the chopper took off from earlier this afternoon.
"These images were intercepted by the Skywatch blog and are being re-broadcast unedited, in their entirety. These shots came from an eyeglass-mounted video feed worn by Lowell Abalos, a reporter who was with the Senator at the time of the crash. Mr. Abalos was transmitting the feed using a portable, two-way satellite wireless hub."
The camera swung to the side, looking at the Senator's bodyguard, the one who never talked. He was just as unsavory as Kennedy, except that he was always eerily silent by comparison. He wore a thick gray jacket and dark sunglasses to hide his eyes. The camera swung the other way to show another man in a black uniform. This one ran a hand over his shaven head, then pulled on a black, knit hat that fit tightly to his skull.
"The Senator had flown to the EPS two days ago in response to the devastating events at Rock Island. He was at the EPS to review security policies and to revise the self-destruct initiatives which claimed so many lives at both Rock Island and previously at the Hill. At this time, we are uncertain as to the reason for his unscheduled flight plan."
The bald soldier looked out the window and the camera leaned closer. There was only gray-white haze outside, an obscuring cloud filling the sky. Penelope knew it was snow. For years she had endured it without the benefit of jackets. She scavenged whatever clothes she could find, stealing off other zombies if that's what it took. Killing the dumb zombies, the shambling moaners, was easy. Half-breeds like herself had no trouble making traps, stealing their food, or hiding from their hunting packs. But unlike the full zombies, she felt pain, and the stinging cold dug through no matter how many layers she put on. Penelope shivered thinking about the cold months out there.
"That's the first sudden jolt, there," the television said. The image began to vibrate as it panned toward the other window, the passengers a blur. "The entire helicopter appears to be shaking at this point." The image of the other window rattled, but still only a gray haze could be seen. The image on the television panned to face the Senator. He sat upright, rigid, a hand on Kennedy's leg to steady her. One of her hands hooked his arm.
"Twenty-two," Kennedy had said when Tom first introduced her to Penelope. The look of shock and surprise on Kennedy's face in the television was exactly the same, then as now. Kennedy had been looking down at Penelope's mostly turned ankles and saw the two number twos tattooed on her shin just above her feet. "You don't wear heels, much, do you, honey?" Kennedy had laughed, donning a false smile, but she knew. They both remembered each other.
Kennedy didn't smile on the television. She wore a look of terror. She knew something bad was about to happen, and it made Penelope warm inside to see the woman suffering.
"The camera is visibly shaking now, as it appears something is already wrong with the helicopter. The second jolt is coming in just a moment. There. And now you can see the camera is leaning one way and the passengers across are leaning in the opposite direction."
Penelope leaned her head sideways a little to straighten the image. The Senator's grimace was apparent, even with the grainy resolution of the video. Kennedy's mouth was wide open as though she were screaming, but no sound except for the woman's voice on the television could be heard.
"Our experts believe the helicopter's tail rotor was somehow damaged, or the rotor engine broke down."
The video stopped showing the scene inside the helicopter and Penelope straightened her head to look at a digital drawing of a helicopter.
"A helicopter's tail rotor spins perpendicularly instead of horizontally, as the main rotor-"
"Ah, geez," Tom growled. "This again?"
"-resistance in the form of drag," the television continued, unhindered by Tom's outburst. "When the tail rotor slows or stops, the body of the helicopter begins to spin because of the torque of the main engine-"
"We know how helicopters work," Tom snapped and turned off the television. Tom dropped the remote control on the chair next to Penelope and continued pacing, still clutching his own hair. "This can't be happening."
His words confused her. He told her the television shows things that are far away, and sometimes things that aren't real. But this seemed real, because just a few hours ago she saw them all climb into that helicopter and fly away.
"Penny, see if you can find a different station," Tom said, pointing at the remote control. Tom unplugged the satellite phone from its charger and started pressing buttons on it. The phone beeped different tones each time he pushed his thumb against it.
Penelope turned on the television, turning down the volume instead of changing the channel. The on-screen image captivated her. It showed a wash of black and gray smoke that played a disappearing and reappearing act of the action behind it. Everything was sideways, nearly upside down, so Penelope turned her head to watch.
There were two figures standing within the swirling smoke, hoisting the Senator by the legs in their hands. The helicopter seats were sideways, which Penelope realized meant that the helicopter was on its side and the men were climbing up to the door. Where the video came from appeared to be the same place as before, and Penelope imagined the dangling, limp head of the reporter who always wore those strange looking glasses.
"God damn it," Tom shouted at the phone. "The number I'm trying to reach is in service, you assholes." He shook the phone in his hand furiously, threatening to pound it onto the counter. "Argh!" Tom put the phone down and walked away, resuming his pacing, this time up and down the hall of their apartment.
Penelope sat quietly, unmoving. The world felt scarier now that the one man she relied on for comfort was near hysterics. Before Tom, she had Peske, and even when he got drunk or angry, she still had the bars between her and the rest of the world. Peske never came into her cage. Tom didn't let her have a cage at all. He plucked her out of her slave pen on Biter's Hill and didn't let her back in because she asked him to make her human. Now she lived in civilization, or as close as anyone could get in biter territory, and it frightened her more than living on Peske's duck-his amphibious truck-and travelling the Plagued States in search of zombies.
In the video, the bald handler took a step closer to Penelope, leaning to look her in the eyes. He shook his head in disgust as smoke again consumed the image, washing him away. A moment later he climbed up and out of sight.