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The Last Flag
Notch’s Publishing House
© 2016, Wren Cavanagh, Daniela Morescalchi, AgileArt, Notch’s Publishing House. All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the writer.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
To all the loved ones. What, where would I be without you?
Prelude: Like any predator, go for the young. Or the weak.
It’s all about the money.
Let the sexiest man alive start you off
First flag for Cobras
First flag for The Righteous
Slow and steady won't win this race
Don’t forget about me when you're gone.
Even snakes love their moms.
A link to the outside
First flag for the She Devils
What’s your emergency?
You don’t have six months
we got played
Cobras’ second flag
Righteous splits up
Abandonment issues, yeah I got them
Snow in her eyes
All coming up roses at the Roses Terrace
I hear gunshots
There is a live, talking dead woman there
off the air
Uncle sam just dropped in
The Army is here
So, I was finally rescued. Almost.
Kate and Logan, where is Cho?
Say hello Dr. Aluri.
Welcoming the workforce
It’s locked tight, damn it.
Like a pied piper
When you stumble and fall
Please review us
Prelude: Like any predator, go for the young. Or the weak.
1. a man, woman, or child of the species Homo sapiens, distinguished from other animals by superior mental development, power of articulate speech, and upright stance.
2. Decent, kind, a person with empathy and strength. Not an asshole.
The heater in the car was on high, as it fought off the early morning chill and the driver checked her appearance in the rear view mirror. She wiped the corner of her lips for an imagined lipstick smear, patted down the curves of her hair and ran her fingers across some unruly strands. She examined her eyes intently for almost a minute, then decided it would be okay.
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” she smiled tightly to herself, and stepped out of her black BMW.
She walked past the iron gates and took a clean new cement path that cut through a carefully landscaped lawn to the entrance of the private school.
She had been here before (Invited to an obligatory school recital, obligatory in so much as the invitation had come from the boy’s father, who was up on company ladder than herself, but she was sure the boy wouldn’t remember her), so finding her way around wasn’t a problem and she knew just where to look. The woman walked deeper into the maze of school corridors, past halls and walls adorned with drawings, posters and notices, past arrays of lockers and classes.
There. There was the boy.
A small, shy child, who according to the father: was an intelligent little bookworm, sensitive, and artistic. The man could drone on about it. The father loved the boy very much, which surprised everybody, as the boy was not even his real son.
As she walked up to him he turned toward her. The clicking of her high heels on the tiled floors had announced her arrival.
“Nate, hi.” She leaned toward him and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Your mom is waiting for you in the office. Come with me.”
“She just dropped me off,” the puzzled boy mumbled.
“She said she forgot to give you something. I forget what.” She smiled at him “Must be a cool surprise! C’mon.”
She walked down the hall, the high heels beat an unpleasant rhythm that echoed in the hallway, the small boy quickened his pace to keep up. As she went she tested and inspected the doors along the way until she opened a door to an empty stockroom.
“Come here a second. I need to grab some paper” Her words were cold and no longer even held the memory of friendly tone.
The boy hesitated briefly. Puzzled, uncomfortable but obedient, he followed her inside.
There she closed the door after him, her smile turned to a grimace, and she fell on the boy. She gripped the child painfully tight and pushed him to the floor, clamped his mouth shut with one hand, while with the other she grabbed one of his thin arms, brought it to her mouth, and bit down hard.
It’s all about the money.
“So, about fifty blocks. The town itself is just barely over fifty square miles. Not too big. Not too small.”
Frank “Fats” Whitford observed as he pointed to the map. “Two days. Any extra is overtime with penalties.”
The other executives around the table nodded. They were all excited to finally be getting the show on the road. To everyone’s surprise, the undead apocalypse had arrived; it was no longer a fictional cliché, however, it wasn’t quite apocalyptic yet and humans were making do. Because that is what they always do. Humans, like roaches, can survive just about anything. It’s what they do.
It was now nearly three months since the event finally hit the news. All the news. All the time. Everywhere. For weeks, days, twenty four hours a day, every day. “Turned” fatigue followed. The “returned”. The “turned”. Only the most garish, low class, attention-seeking news services and entertainers called them zombies. Returned or turned seemed to be the term of choice and it also allowed for some wiggle room, as no one really wanted to admit that they were really, no doubts about it, dead.
With a wink, a nudge, and the encouragement of the government and corporations that wished to prevent massive destabilization, along with the short attention span and news cycle of the modern media, they were surpassed by the traffic news and the event or cute animal of the day, but retained a steady presence nonetheless. That bit of news had become a threatening constant undercurrent that everyone was trying hard to ignore.
The “Outbreak” was being managed. Now, at least metaphorically, the living ate the dead with as much gusto. To men and women who saw challenges over problems, opportunities instead of issues: the rise of the dead was a glorious. Glorious event, opportunities abounded!
In their shambling wake the cadavers brought along new businesses and new products, and foremost: the likelihood that immortality was finally at hand. You just had to isolate the factor that kept the shambling horde shambling past their dead due date, and apply it to the living without turning them into mindless, aggressive, cadaverous biters.
So far, science had no inkling on how to do that, but God knows they were looking. The security and medical sectors were buzzing with activity and new stocks rose and fell. Money rolled in. Rich people got ever so much richer. Poor people mostly got eaten a lot faster.
Not last or least: the entertainment business embraced the event: Yes. This was the apocalypse they were waiting for.
Fats and thousands like him that fed products into the media and entertainment funnel thanked God for the turned every day they got out of bed and put their feet on the floor.
“This town was cleared when?” he asked.
A blonde, thin L.A.-styled executive answered his question with no hesitation or pause. Fats did not have a reputation for patience. “The town of Prideful was declared clear of healthy, unaffected people yesterday morning; my FEMA contact called me and let me know as soon as he could.”
A thin, condescending and confident smile creased her lips. “We could have gone in as early as last night. Some of his people earned extra money by dropping off the flags and prizes at indoor locations as early as a week ago. I had the helicopters drop the outdoor flags overnight.”
“Good, good,” Fats smiled at her and turned to another one of his managers, “Do you have the teams ready?”
“We’re good to go.”
“Cheryl, how many of the returned do we have there? The viewers need to see a credible threat to the contestant or they’ll watch something else.”
Cheryl’s answer was ready. “At least five hundred. We’ll use noise to attract them to the flags. They respond to noise very well.” She lifted an elegantly manicured hand as if announcing an upcoming magic trick and continued. “But my friend said the army and guards used the town as a storage camp for returned from other areas - filled up the town as they evacuated everyone. He's not sure how many they trucked in before they shut the town down and fenced it in. So... Maybe a lot more. We're good to go. I've sent our production team ahead and they're waiting at the entrances. Camera crews, production vans, contestant. Everything is ready.”
“Great,” Fats nodded “Have our lawyers on standby - first amendment, freedom of the press, speech...Whatever. Let’s get this show on the road.”
Fats looked at the map and aerial footage of the town. He wondered what would happen if it ever got bad enough that they had to contain something the size of Mexico City. He imagined that if it ever got that bad, things were probably past being containable or manageable.
Prideful, thank God, was containable. It had been a quiet, comfortable town, large, but not too large, quaint, but not too quaint. Set in the Oregon countryside in a beautiful agricultural area, yet conveniently close to larger, more populated and spread-out cities. It had been growing and on the verge of gentrification as larger business and corporations had settled nearby, and their well-paid workers looked for affordable housing in an attractive town with a slower pace of living.
In early August, the turned openly began to afflict the town: the missing friends, the newly aggressive neighbors could no longer be explained away. Within two months the town had been evacuated and left to the dead. Two rings of reinforced chain link fencing now kept them from the outside world. After its fall, the Army and National Guard had not even left guards outside the town. They fenced Prideful and moved on. They had other fires to put out. The town was up for grabs.
To capitalize on the hungry dead event, Fats had his production crew assemble four teams as quickly as possible, to enter the town and compete for prizes. The production for The Last Flag was rushed, but they had no time to waste. Cheap blitz marketing followed with Comic con events, Twitter blasts and as small an investment he could put into promoting, so he could capitalize on the returns.
The show was marketed as a race through a zombie-infested wonderland, a modern haunted town filled with danger, obstacles and mystery. Each team would be dropped into the town at the same time, with two days to collect a minimum of three flags. A member from each team would be allowed a blunt weapon of choice going into the game.
Each flag was worth five hundred thousand dollars. Backpacks with additional rewards and weapons would accompany the flags. Once you had your three flags, you could call it quit and run for the roof of the tallest building at the center of town and retrieve a last flag for the payout and end the game. Or gather more flags for a bigger payout.
To make it more devious, whichever team reached the flag and ended the game would also take the money and prizes that had been earned by the other teams and get a ride back out by helicopter. The others would walk back in shame to the original entry points, to be picked up and go home with a consolatory five grand each.
The fast-tracked production went into full live streaming activity. These were uncertain times and nobody knew for how long the dead would keep walking around. They might drop back to old-fashioned dead again tomorrow, and become relatively useless once more. So those who could, would milk the event for all it could bring in. Also, and not a minor thing: no one knew how long the situation would be manageable or keep attracting the viewer’s interest, after all. One day the viewers might be too busy trying to stay alive to watch a show.
The Last Flag would be televised live by the camera men and woman embedded into the teams, camera-equipped drones, and helicopters equipped with gyro-stabilized cineflex and wescam camera systems that would follow the contestants in the sky. The helicopters alone would run around five grands a day. At least the drones were cheaper.
Everyone in the room was excited: money was about to be made.
“Alana, put on the live feed,” Fats ordered, addressing the pilot that had joined them remotely and was on the speaker phone. “Ellis, give me a quick tour, from the center of town outward. Let’s see some dead people.”
“Sure thing, Fats.”
1089 miles away from the L.A. meeting, in the low-lit, comfortable trailer parked outside the fenced-in town, and reserved for the drone pilots, Alana Croy guided her high-tech toy into the town.
Once over the fence it flew over abandoned homes, the once pristine yards now unkempt and covered by autumn’s fallen leaves, the wind’s broken branches, and large toadstools. Past churches, schools, and small local mom-and-pop stores that people in larger towns no longer saw much of now days, all now abandoned.
Every so often, a lonely figure would be found walking about, and as they closed into the center of town the figures multiplied. They milled in the streets, the new inhabitants of Prideful were aimless and homeless until they rotted on their feet, however long it may take. Toward the center of town a large crowd of the dead milled. They shuffled as a group but went nowhere.
“Okay, that's a good turnout,” Fats muttered, then something anomalous showed up on screen. “What is that? Hey fly back - go back.” The pilot back tracked the drone. “I thought I saw a woman looking directly at us. She didn’t look like the others.”
Alana lowered the drone closer to the crowd. “You see her?”
Everyone was watching now. Looking at the screens for Fats’ mystery woman, who ‘Didn't look like the others’. Minutes passed. “Okay. Maybe I imagined her. Don’t see her now. Go ahead, move on.”
Far below and far away, she saw it leave. When it turned back she had wanted to shout with joy, scream with relief. But her scintilla of hope burned out in seconds. Too slow and too silent, she had not been able to get its attention and too quickly it flew on, uninterested. It left her behind. With a silent wail, she covered her face with her hands and fell to her knees.
Let the sexiest man alive start you off
1. (of a person, animal, or plant) living, not dead
2. (of a person or animal) alert and active; animated.
1. no longer alive or living : no longer having life
2. not able to feel
3. not able to move
4. very tired
5. not what it used to be
Away from the Los Angeles heat, outside Prideful chain link fences in the cooling November air, Tom Cotton stared at the abandoned ghost town. He saw no shambling dead. He saw nothing alive, nothing dead. Not a dog, not a cat, not a bird. Prideful looked deserted and dead unto itself.
Just like my career. How the greats have fallen, he mocked himself. Two years ago, he was a hot commodity, sexiest man alive, thank you very much People’s magazine, and now this, a shill for a reality show. He followed that thought with another pull from his silver flask then took surreptitious guilty look over his shoulder to see if anyone had noticed the early drinking. Nope, he was in the clear. The monogrammed flask went quickly back in his jacket’s inside pocket. What the hell, he thought. It’s gotta be past ten o’clock somewhere: A pathetic rationalization that he had been using far too often lately.
Tom zipped up his coat and was glad to have it as he walked back to the production staging area. The Oregon Indian summer had lasted well into the last days of October, but was now finally giving way. He had hoped for the contestants that the comfortable weather would last a few more days, but it was looking chilly. And the forecast was getting twitchy. Oregon weather was not without surprises.
In the space of a few days it had become a miniature town set up not even half a block away from the fence: vans, trailers, gear, a large enclosed cafeteria tent where the crew members lined up for breakfast, lunch and dinner if they didn’t feel like taking the long drive to a real town. Quality food carts, tents and toilets, and with the exception of the bustling production people, nothing moved under the gray overcast sky. Everyone was ready to go.
The introductions of the four competing teams had been filmed weeks prior and were now getting edited judiciously into the live feed. Carefully cut, the scenes would go from the live action and back to make up for the slow moments. Anything dull would be supplanted by brief bios, team training videos and of course, commercials. Lots of commercials.
At least it’s a job. Mentally, Tom thanked Fats again for this opportunity. The fat man was a good friend. Say what you will, once he took a stake in you, friend or family, he stuck by you.
Tom walked into the main editing trailer and closed the door behind him. “Nice and warm here, people!”
“We like it,” the senior editor replied with a yawn. “We're going to need it,” added the younger, “The weather might be turning soon.”
A side of the trailer was dedicated to screens, computers and control boards, Tom crowded in to look the screens, he watched himself introducing the competing teams to millions of viewers worldwide. Tom assessed his performance and appearance - the chiseled features still held their own against the passing of time. His blond hair was long but not too long and gray but not too gray. The blue eyes were intense and brooding but not unkind. At least, so thousands of articles had said and he agreed; he had very kind eyes and he still was in good shape. Nice...Nice, he thought. Looking good, my friend.
As he looked on, he felt like he was looking at a carny introducing freaks to other freaks too lazy to get off the sofa or do something constructive over watching TV. Step right up! Step right up!
Gaze upon the She Devils! Three beautiful women — young, sensual and attractive; not fat or flat. They will use the money to finish college and do good deeds and go on vacation. Whatever. But you can easily tell who has the bigger and shapelier breasts as they work out, jog, play in the pool.
But hold on a moment! Let them tell you about themselves: Fairy Princess Cho. Yes, that is her real name, legally changed. A senior from UC Berkeley, majoring in something pertaining to the “business”, wanted all to know she would be the “Notorious FPC” henceforth, and that she had a boyfriend and a girlfriend. She was also spiritual, a Pilates/Yoga instructor, and liked puppies. She still found time to party, but is “real”, and the team leader. On meeting her, Tom had found himself liking her. The woman was out there as hell and competitive, but didn’t have a mean bone on her body.
Kate Keller, a business major from PSU and a Portland native is a bit more intense yet a lot quieter; she self-elected to be the team’s navigator. Tom liked her too, but his liking went past her personality. He had a thing for sculptural blondes, and good God, she was well sculpted. The first time they met he got eye strain as he fought to keep his gaze firmly, professionally not on her chest.
Last, and Tom thought, least, of the all woman team: Xhiu Lee, a senior from the OHSU medical program. She wants to be a pediatrician, speaks two languages and is shy. Xhiu is the team medic. He watched her as the video montage showed her working out, walking through a busy hospital hallway and reading a medical tome on the couch of the apartment she shared with Kate.
“She might be a great baby doctor one day…” Tom said.
“But zero screen personality,” the senior editor finished his sentence for him.
“A wall flower — a fern,” Tom agreed. “Moss, even.”
The Striker team was the next feature: Blue collar tough, hard working Americans. The older but still slender, fit and slender, dark-haired Emma Aquilla: A veteran of Doctors without Borders, Mercy Corps, and now an ER nurse at her local hospital, she is the team medic. Strong, but kind. Not blonde, not sculptural, but Tom wouldn’t have kicked her out of bed.
Lew Ramsey is a black belt martial artist, outdoor enthusiast and paramedic who can break your arm and then set it. He is fit, tall and his back is broad and powerful. He is attractive and looks approachable, his short blond hair is still long enough to look tousled.
Lew and Emma are an attractive couple, they bring an interesting dynamic to the team, their closeness make the team leader the odd man out.
Joe Riesling, rodeo bull rider and decorated vet who won the battle over his PTSD and is now a top chef at his renowned family restaurant, is the leader for the team. But he is the group’s third wheel. He leads only because neither Emma or Lewis care to. At times it feels to Tom like they have other plans.
The three are likable; all three are attractive, hot and fit. They would be dropped in at the North of town
Tom took another quick drink from his flask and watches on. As his screen persona gazes intently in the camera and introduces the next team. Stay back as you consider these three tough young men from “the ‘hood”. Again—all kindsa hot, not one of them too “hood” or too “scary”. American TV doesn’t take to ugly, or to minorities that are truly angry and not being a good sport about being a minority. The three young men who, in the wisdom of their years, have decided to introduce themselves to the world as Team Fat Cobras: are a trio of rappers and movie stars-gonna-be. This show will launch them. Or so they think.
Alvin and Ty, two black kids: Alvin, smart and media savvy, slender but muscular, like Michelangelo's David done in dark chocolate, was the natural team leader.
Tyshon, —Ty— stockier and beefier looking, but muscle-beefy with an abrasive personality, he’s not exactly dumb, and he’s definitely not pleasant is very much caught up in keeping up his gangsta image. He has a strong dislike for Theo, the third team member.
Theo: a boy so white he could make fresh milk look dingy and gray, whose eyes were bright blue and blond hair was almost shoulder lengt. He was Alvin’s unlikely protégé, and followed him like a puppy. Theo did look awfully young but was supposedly legal, and the production’s agents had vetted him. The Cobras would come from the west most point of Prideful.
“Alvin, you're the leader. Speak for the team: why are you taking this chance? It's going to be dangerous,” Tom had asked during the interview.
“Make our mark, mark our lives, live our brand. We got a real chance here — a real chance to finance our music career, our freedom, our lives! Make the world aware of us. We are on our hero journey.”
“Hero journey?” Tom asked.
“Yeh.” Ty had replied as he squared up to the camera, he stared into challenging anyone watching. “Heroes.”
The view on the main screen switched again to show rapid-fire segments of the young men: shirtless and fooling around rapping, pouting, and wrestling, relaxing by a swimming pool. Perfect young muscular bodies.
Last but not least he watched himself in the company of the last team: Team Righteous! A family values team. Mr. and Mrs. Pine with children in tow. Yes. Children. This family will step into danger to save the life of one of their own. Tom looked on, as his screen-self addressed the daughter, the youngest member of the team whose eyes were as blue as the summer’s sky and hair was as blonde and as long as Kate’s.
“Tessa, when did you find your mom’s Lupus had turned for the worse?”
Shy and nervous, the girl swept loose locks of hair from her forehead over her right ear. She looked at her mother who was sitting, sandwiched between Tessa and her brother, Carson. After a moment of hesitation she took her mother’s hand and held it.
“Mom started to have problems keeping her food down and her stomach started to hurt all the times, so...We worried...”
“Do you think you’ll be able to save your mom?” Tom cringed, embarrassed that screen Tom had asked that question...part of the job.
Her father stepped in to answer it. Scott Pine was large muscular man with light brown hair and a surly little mouth that was normally barely visible under the walrus-like ‘stache and goatee. There was nothing wrong with him physically, but his personality made him hard to look at as far as Tom was concerned. Of all the contestants, this was the one Tom had been unable to work up any empathy or liking. Scott Pine had quickly proven to be a narcissistic, self righteous, asshole if he ever saw one, but all the same he cared for his family. His daughter seemed to have him wrapped around her little finger.
“Absolutely. We'll win and the money will go toward Amber’s cure. We prayed long and hard over this, as a family. God will help us through this.”
Tom put his hand on the man’s shoulder and gave it a manly slap. “A family of strong faith! The American people like to see that.” He paused, for a bit of suspense then gave an intense at the camera, “We’ll see if it’ll be enough to pull them through.”
After that ominous parting shot the viewer was treated to a collage of more rapid-fire images whose main theme was the abandoned city, intense swirling graphics, and the team members getting ready for action. More pre-recorded segments would be edited into the show later on and they'd help move it along during the slow segments.
That would be when he would go into depth about a team or a contestant’s profile or weapons carried by them. Each team lead was allowed one weapon of choice going in. Blunt instruments only. More might be provided later. It had been a baseball bat for the patriarch of the Pine family, with a large cross burned into the blonde wood. A Japanese Bo had been Lew’ choice, A Chinese Staff for Cho and another baseball bat for Alvin. Alvin’s bat was aluminum and decorated with the signature and well-wishes of all friends and family members near and dear.
All the segments were two to three minutes long. Don’t let the grass grow and add dizzying camera tilts to go along with the action-themed score. Screen Tom babbled on about the dangers of the run. Real-life Tom yawned then shivered. It was getting chilly. On the screens, the show segments cut away to ads for erectile dysfunction whose only protagonist was an attractive woman getting ready for some romantic action. A spot for the newest Ford product followed it, a loud beer commercial trailed that one.
Sex, cars, and beer. The original American dream, he thought as the door to the trailer opened and let in a crisp wind. Zisk, the show’s director, followed it in.
“So we're ready?” Tom asked him.
“Yeah. We need you to go out and do your thing in fifteen minutes,” replied Zisk. “You’ll be on a ‘central helicopter’ looking over the others as we drop ‘em into town.”
“What?!” Tom blurted. “I'm supposed to stay on the ground. Safe! On the ground.”
“Surprise man! This is sexier and more dramatic. You’ll be safe — don’t worry. Your helicopter will just hover right outside here, and then land right back down, all show. You won’t even go over the fenced area.” Zisk grinned at him. “Our editors here will make it look like you are in the thick of the action.”
“I’ll throw up.”
“Try not to,” Zisk replied, his genial smile betrayed by the look of boredom in his eyes as he left the trailer. The production manager patted him on the shoulder amiably.
“Don’t worry, you go on and vomit all you want. We can edit it out.”
“Glad someone has my back,” Tom replied wryly.
“Always, you beautiful sarcastic bastard, you.”
Familiar rock music began to play again in the background but its intensity increased. On one of the screens a live shot showed Team Righteous getting into the helicopter that would fly them into town at the east-most location. Each team, with the exception of Righteous —which had four contestants—would have three team members and a cameraman. A well-paid professional cameraman, who could take and keep a shot without indulging in the “found footage”, nausea-inducing style of movie making.
“You're up, Tom.”
“On my way.”
Tom opened the door of the trailer. With surprising strength, the wind shoved it from his hand and crashed it loudly against the wall, startling everyone in the room. Tom grabbed it on the bounce back and closed it behind him.
“Hell of a breeze,” he mumbled as out into the cold, in the worsening weather, he made his way to his own helicopter ride.
Viewers settled in for the show, from the comfort of their home, kicking back on comfortable couches. From the seats of buses or cars on the way to work, hell, their way to anywhere, looking at their phones or tablets to kill the time commuting.
A distinct feeling of blood in the water began to manifest, as of yet unspoken, over the Internet.
“Hey Jen, show’s on.” Announced a boyfriend. “Jen, you gonna miss the start.”
People gonna get eaten #omnNomNom posted @furiousGeorge.
“Do the damn dishes, you are not a little princess Serena.”
The girl whit the swollen, split upper lip, and the hollow eyes said nothing but went to the sink and began her work as the mother who wasn’t her mother sat down in front of the wide screen TV, with her father who was not her father.
The helicopters lifted off from their respective locations at the town’s cardinal points. For the landings, the pilots made a show of finding a good spot, good editing would do the rest. It would create the impression of action and urgency where there wasn’t much of it; for ‘safety’ the pilots hovered close to ground and let the members of the four teams jump out of the open doors. All a show—a few ladders and some thick blankets thrown over the barbed wire would have worked as well. Or cutting a hole in the fence. But cutting through it would have caused legal issues, worse, the noises might eventually draw out some of the town’s current inhabitants. And everyone wanted intact fences between them and the turned.
The players now had two days to reach as many flags as possible. They would be told how many flags the other teams had, for added pressure. If they went past two days the cash pot would drop hourly by hundreds of thousands of dollars. A million today not being what it used to be, the contestant had better be hauling ass.
The video streams from the aerial drones, the helicopters, and the cameramen showed that most of the teams had gotten quickly organized once they hit the ground, and trotted off without a hitch. With one exception: The voice of the senior editor came in through Tom’s headset.
“Tom, first fuck up.”
“Great, who is it?”
“Joe from Striker,” replied the man as he zoomed in on the feed for the team.
Tom nodded, he looked at the fallen man on his tablet and opened his microphone. His voice came in over the video feed. “It looks like we have a player down. A player in danger! And that can put his team mates in danger. Joe Rosling from team Striker is on the ground and not getting up! Team striker has hit the ground and is already behind. Joe Rosling! Joe, looks like you got hurt there.”
Joe, the Army vet, tall and wiry, with wild shoulder length brown hair tied back in a pony tail and biker mustache, sat grimacing on the ground. He looked embarrassed and his lips formed a tight white line on a face from which pain had already drained all color.
“Just a sprain. I’ll be okay.” He gasped through clenched teeth and killed any credibility his reply might have had. Joe tried to get up and held his hand out to Lew for support. With the other man’s help he struggled to his feet, but when he tried to put weight on the hurt foot he gave a sharp cry and fell back on his ass.
The awkward silence and frustration was palpable as the camera feed streamed on and minutes passed. Ross Boulez, the team’s assigned cameraman, panned in on the reaction of the team members. Embarrassment, anger and impatience were the predominant emotions.
“Think you can keep going, Joe?” Tom asked. “Your team is waiting on you. Do you need to be extracted?”
The man shook his head. “I'm good.” With a pained, tight lipped expression and Lew’ help, he managed to get back up and started walking. Emma and Lew clapped and patted him on the back, but they looked doubtful. The team left at a slow trot that soon turned into a slow walk, and then to a funeral procession pace march as Joe limped along and kept up as best he could.
“That guy is done. Right now he’s just looking pathetic.” Said Fats “So far, so boring. Where are all the dead people? I don’t see dead people. Our viewers want to see dead people.”
“They're there,” Cheryl snapped.
“Hooo! I see one!” A junior executive whose name no one had yet bothered to remember pointed excitedly at one of the screens. “I see one!”
Once pointed out and seen, the dead man could not be unseen. It was at the south-most point of the town, as the She Devils progressed past a tire retailer where the haggard apparition came out of one of the open bays. So well had the lack of life, the dust and grime camouflaged the man, that he had seemed invisible as he stood by a grimy and scuffed wall, unnoticed until he finally moved.
The gray man incongruously dressed in a disheveled gray three piece suit, covered in dirt and dust, had blended perfectly with the gray cement walls of the bay. He staggered out like a careful drunk and made his way toward the women like a man in no hurry, a man with nowhere special to go.
Cho, the team leader and weapon bearer, passed him by blithely, without noticing as did Kate Keller,they were both gazing straight ahead as if already locking on the final goal. Both women were oblivious to the threat and it was Xhiu Lee, the shy one who carried the food and first aid kits and already dragged behind, who saw him.
“Hey! Everyone! Look to your left!”
The two women up front stopped in their jog and turned their attention to where Xhiu was pointing. The expressionless man continued his approach but now seemed to be struggling to hasten his pace. They all looked unsure on how to proceed. They had seen the Turned on the news and in the movies. But most people had yet run into them one on one.
In the movies they were zombies, gory, noisy semi-dismembered corpses whose most prominent features were their teeth. You popped them in the head and that was it. Show business always made killing look easy.
“He looks...” Xhiu hesitated, “…normal.”
“From a distance maybe, look at his eyes,” Kate whispered.
Now a few feet away, the man’s eyes were easily visible. Opaque, cloudy pupils, the left eye was rotted and blown, visibly larger than the right.
“Okay,” conceded Xhiu, “not even close to normal.”
The forlorn figure staggered faster toward them.
“Wow. It’s like he’s getting desperate to reach us. Sad. C’mon, let's go people,” Cho said.
The three women looked at each other, shrugged and resumed their run with none of the arrogance and levity they displayed at the start of the race. The dead man began to follow them, but slow and unsteady, he was soon left behind.
“What? Damn it!” Fats mumbled to no one in particular. "We really better see some conflict soon."
Ross, the cameraman embedded in the team, remained behind briefly and kept filming the dead man.
“Good shot there,” said the nameless junior executive.
Fats grunted his assent. The cameraman had zoomed in on the wasted, impassive face of the dead man. Fats was sure he saw confusion and need in the dead man’s blasted eyes. What if there was something, someone alive trapped inside the dead husk? The cameraman waited until he had the dead man’s attention — until his ruined eyes bored into the camera and straight in the viewers’ eyes. He came closer and closer, arms outstretched, the hands opened to grasp and the lips parted to bite. Ross waited, edging in until the man was in touching distance of the lenses, then turned and ran, double-timing until he caught up to the women, who had stopped to watch the drama.
Fats checked out the progress of the other teams on the other screens set up in the room. At the east, Righteous had enjoyed the smoothest entrance. They jauntily took off with no issues whatsoever. In that group, Amber was the rear wheel but it looked like she was keeping up. In the west, the Cobras postured briefly, traded high fives before moving on.
A phone rang in the large meeting room. Another nameless executive picked it up. “Fats, you got a call. Your wife —she sounds upset.”
“I...I have no idea...” Was the flummoxed reply.
Fats chortled and looked at his smart phone. It had been in a “don’t disturb” setting. Several calls had been logged and messages had been left. He had missed them all. Sabrine was as needy and demanding as she was beautiful. It was a trade off he had accepted when he married her.
“I’ll take it.” He got up from the table and made his way to one of the private collaboration rooms that lined the sides of the larger meeting room, slid the glass door closed, and picked up the phone.
While everyone was looking at the screen or busy with data and spreadsheets Cheryl slyly tracked Fats’ retreat to the small private room. You miserable fat bastard, she thought. You are so finished. Fats had edged her out of all promotions and better opportunities for the past three years, and each year her resentment had grown, festering a bit more.
That she might not have deserved or qualified for the promotions and opportunities Fats got hadn’t crossed her mind and wouldn’t have mattered if it had. She was respected, but not liked. Able, skilled and hard working, but not given to introspection or empathy. Well, won’t we all just see about that, she thought. This show was her last chance to get even: to show them all. She smiled thinly and looked down at her clasped hands, waiting for the sliding door to open so they could move on.
She didn’t have to wait long. The conversation had been short and when the Fat man ended the call and came out he looking distracted and worried. Cheryl liked that, before she could say anything the rest of people in the room erupted in nervousness excitement.
“Alvin Boots got bit.” A nameless young executive rushed to be the first to deliver the bad news. “Idiot.”
Fats nodded, not really paying attention, his mind was elsewhere. “I have a family situation. Be back in a few hours. Cheryl, run this thing.”
She looked up at him, solicitous. “Can we do anything to help you?”
“No...No.” He looked at the room, everyone’s attention was on the large televison sets attached to the wall. He watched two of the younger interns nudging each other and shaking their heads, sharing knowing and cynical grins while pointing to the young man on the screen — whose arm was marked by a bleeding circular wound.
Both men comforted and comfortable with the unspoken knowledge that someone in their position and social group would never have to be in such a situation. Their privileged status taken for granted.
He felt his gut sour and a stab of anger, but the had his own problems to deal with.“Just take care of things, thanks for asking,” he mumbled, and walked out the room.
Don’t worry Fats, Cheryl thought as she waved him off with a friendly smile. I’ll take good care of you; I’ll take care of you all.
“Serena, brings us a couple of beers, make yourself useful.”
First flag for Cobras
In the cold bleak room, Eliza zoomed in on Alvin Boots. His face was beaded with sweat and eyes bulged as he stared at the bite mark on his arm like it was an incredible hallucination.
The Fat Cobras had been going for their first flag, their map had led them to 1698 Hollybrook Avenue — a cheaper, old two-story home. The yard unkempt had reverted to nature, chocked with weeds and carpeted with fallen leaves. A small flat-bottomed fishing boat whose camouflaged patterned, plastic covering had failed under the elements was now an algae coated, rain-filled pond. With the energy and arrogance that comes with youth and strong able bodies, the boys had made plenty of noise looking for an entrance and eventually just kicked the main door in. Inside, the home was clean if worn by age, abandoned to darkness by drawn blinds and closed curtains.
Whoever had lived here might not have been rich, but they had been house proud and had cared and tended to what they had. The only noise was insistent pinging from the beacon. The team followed it upstairs to a closed room.
Alvin had rushed to it, pushed in the door wide open and she fell on him then. The woman had been inside the room, right by the door, saw the arm push it in, and bit down. Her teeth broke through the sleeve.
Through the skin.
Through the flesh.
They kept going until the upper and lower jaws met.
Alvin had howled in agony as he tried to shake loose of her, but the woman had clamped down like a pit bull and only let go and staggered backward once she had pulled off her mouthful. She chewed, mouth open and slack-faced, with all the enthusiasm and interest of a cow chewing her cud. She seemed to take no pleasure from the fresh flesh but her eyes never looked away from his, once she regained her balance and came in for a second bite even as she still chewed the first.
Theo sidestepped her as she zoomed in on Alvin. Once behind her, he kicked in the back of her supporting leg and brought her down to her knees. While she struggled to get up, with a mighty swing he crashed a large rock into her temple. This fall to the floor was final; almost noiseless, muffled by the carpet, her open eyes at last sightless, Alvin’s flesh a gross protrusion from her mouth. For a while nobody moved in the disheveled sunlit room.
Theo yelled and broke the spell. “Ty, Tyshon! The medkit.” Ty was in shock, fixated on the dead woman on the floor and wasn’t moving.
Tight-lipped with nostrils flared, Theo sighed and headed for him, when he reached to take his backpack he finally got the bigger guy’s attention.
“Get away me, you little white fag...”
Alvin broke in. “Ty, how ‘bout you shut your mouth and help out over here.”
“Yeah.” Sullen but mindful of Alvin, he grabbed the medkit from the backpack and went over to him.
Eliza focused her shot on Theo. The boy was unperturbed, it looked like flat affect to her. She had fostered two troubled kids early in her marriage, and her experience brought that troubling behavior to her mind.