Ramey was ahead of him. Red was back in Nebraska, he had left the farm after a surprisingly fast tutorial on how to keep Jimbo out of his mind. It turned out he had a pretty strong defense against what Jimbo called 'the push', which was any effort by other zombies to get into his mind. Even Jimbo had to cheat to break hold through Red's defense and then, infuriatingly, he didn't tell Red how he did it. Red suspected the man couldn't explain some of the philosophies he was developing and how he did what he did. As for how fast Red was able to develop his defense, well, Jimbo had an analogy for that too.
“Remember when you learned how to ride a bike?”
“It was a long time ago Jimbo.”
With startling clarity Red suddenly did remember struggling to ride a bike, and how it felt immediately after he did so.
“I thought you weren't going to mess around in my head?”
“I'm not messing, just helping you remember. That's not messing and this is important. Now you recall how often your dad had you out there, how your friends were watching and cheering you on and how you fell over time after time. Except the last time. Then it was like you were flying along two feet above the ground, it was magic. One minute you weren’t riding the bike, you just had the fear of falling and the stronger desire to join the big kids pedaling around. The next minute, you got it. This is like that. I showed you how to ride the bike. You'll get better at it with practice, but you can still ride it pretty well right now. You should be okay. I held off Nancy, when push came to shove. How much more powerful than you is this guy you’re going up against?”
“Just slightly more powerful than me, enough to dominate me.”
“You'll do fine.” said Jimbo.
Now Red wasn't so sure. The man ahead of him was herding the zombies, thousands of zombies. Tens of thousands of zombies. More than he Nita and Hugh ever handled at one time.
'He has more precision than we ever had too.'
The zombies were not quite marching in an orderly fashion, but they were avoiding fences, buildings and other obstacles with an almost military precision. After arriving on the edge of the pack Red found he could pull up Ramey's surface thoughts without any effort at all. He was reluctant to press into the man's mind, it was one of the tricks Jimbo had mentioned, the first attack might succeed, or it might just be a critical distraction when the man was doing something like trying to dodge as Red shot at him. Neither he nor Jimbo thought Red had much of a chance to get into Ramey's mind, but they both thought the effort might serve as a distraction.
Red was rather proud of the fact that the other zombie didn't know he was here, before when he had approached Ramey knew he was coming, they were aware of each other. Slowly Red searched through the minds of the other zombies, looking for Hugh. He thought Ramey might keep Hugh close by him, but so far Red couldn't find his friend.
Jimbo and Veronica had filled a couple gas cans and then they drove Red to his motorcycle, where he fueled it up and turned east. He left them there waving goodbye, Bobby looked sad, the boy had found another pellet gun and had them both in the back of the pickup truck with him. 'I suppose he hoped we might get in a game along the way.' Red mused to himself. ‘Kids, ever the optimists of the next generation.’
Riding across most of Nebraska to catch up with Ramey had taken Red the entire morning and he arrived close to the tail end of mob around noon. He didn’t get close enough for the others to hear his motorcycle, instead he ditched it by the side of the road, pointing it west first with the optimistic hope that he would be riding it back that way. After that he proceeded on foot and it took him very little time to catch up with his foe, Ramey was walking in the middle of the highway, surrounded by other self-aware zombies. None of them were paying too much attention to their surroundings; they were, however, keeping a close watch on the sky.
Red was hidden behind one of the many wrecks littering highway eighty, when the helicopter came over the horizon. It did not attack Ramey; instead it struck at the front of the mob, raining down a stream of lead into the lead zombies. The bullets from the Gatling style cannon literally cut the slow shamblers into pieces when they hit them, throwing body parts thirty feet into the air and causing a black mist to form above the mob from the spray of blood.
Ramey and his friends took cover behind more stalled cars, but did not return fire. The helicopter hovered and fired for less than a minute, then turned and flew east, apparently out of ammunition for its gun.
Peering over the car he was on Red had the bad luck of being spotted by one of Ramey's crew as they got up and started walking again. The older woman zombie pointed back in Red's direction while saying something to Ramey out of earshot.
Ramey's head turned around and he scoured the area for Red. Of course Red had taken cover behind the wreck and concentrated on not being seen, 'I am glass. I am invisible. No one can see me.' Red chanted mentally, feeling foolish.
It did work, either that or Ramey just missed seeing him, however the zombie was more cautious as the march resumed. Red suspected he had somehow checked his subordinate's mind and verified that she had seen something. His thoughts were confirmed when two of the smarter zombies stopped in positions that a human would not have seen them in, if they were coming up on Ramey from behind.
Red liked this idea. The two zombies left in ambush were much weaker than he was, and he could tell they both resented Ramey's heavy handed approach to giving them orders, they were resentful and angry at having to march towards Iowa with the rest of the zombies. The woman on the right wanted to go home, to North Dakota, to check on her mother and father, the man wanted to go to Kansas City, he heard there were still humans to eat there, humans who were not soldiers and didn't have any guns. Breaking into their minds was simple because of their age, he didn't need permission from them or to seduce his way in. Red took them over easily, but in his haste he didn't know what to do with them. This was not something he had practiced with Jimbo. Worse still, he felt something else grabbing a hold of their minds and in an instance he knew it was Ramey, shadowing them, using their eyes to keep watch on what it was behind them. The only good news was that Red was pretty sure Ramey didn't know he had grabbed the two of them.
'Will he notice if I leave?' Red wondered, remembering the lessons Jimbo had taught him a day earlier.
Red decided not to find out, he stayed in their minds and read them in case Ramey gave them any orders, which he would then relay, hopefully the zombie wouldn't notice. With the two held in his grasp Red convinced them to both look north as he slipped closer and closer to end of the pack, in short order he was past them. He didn't release either of them, just in case Ramey would notice that, and proceeded to sneak up on his opponent.
Ramey had gone about a mile ahead of the two ambushers before he relented and called them back. Red was torn between attacking the other zombie while he had less help or waiting, but decided to wait because of the relatively clear stretch of highway ahead of him. Red didn't think he actually was invisible and doubted he could sneak up on the man given the conditions of the road right now.
'I'll wait until we get to another pile up. Let's see what I can do with Sue and Chuck there.' Sue and Chuck were the names of the two zombies Ramey had left hidden behind him. Ramey had given them orders to join back up with him, then left their minds, both were, somewhat resentfully making their way back to him. Ahead the road turned to the north and dropped into some lowlands, it looked like it was going to be crossing over the Platte River again, only this section was very wide and required two long bridges. The bridges were a mess of wreckage, smoke was still pouring from a line of vehicles at the far end of them. ‘I can take them up there, after the main horde gets through and they are left alone.’ Red thought.
The zombies were having a hard time pushing through the wreckage and Red crept up along one edge of the highway about a quarter mile into the heavy brush and well out of sight of Ramey and his crew. This wasn’t an ordinary wreck, this was a barricade made on purpose. He saw many military vehicles and at the far end two tractor trailers were butted up against each other with sand bags on the top of them. To get around this barrier one of the trailers had been smashed inwards on the southern end of the road, it looked like Ramey had directed one of his zombies to drive another semi-tractor into that edge at high speed, which had edged the trailer over enough to make a gap that the zombies could walk through. The wreck of this vehicle was sitting on the ground below the bridge, where it had somehow been toppled over, probably with just raw zombie power. Guns and true corpses littered the ground around the barricade, though all of the cars blocking one lane of traffic had also been man handled over the edge. Ramey was funneling all of his zombies through this small opening and it was probably because of this that things had taken as long as they had.
‘Why didn’t he just push them through the river?’ Then Red thought about it a little more, the river here was fairly slow and meandering, but it was also deep, which would sweep the mindless undead miles downstream and make it harder for their keepers to get them back together. ’I guess bridges will still have a part to play in this new world.’
He waited until the last of the zombies was on the bridge, then headed back towards the highway, confident that he would catch up to the tail end long before the last of them were through the narrow gap at the other end. The river bank on the far end was littered with the bodies of the true dead as well, for the most part they looked like head shot zombies, but there were a few incapacited zombies missing legs and arms down there as well, casualties from going up against the humans. The body count was impressive. ‘How can we take this many losses and keep on going?’
Red imagined that getting rid of the slower zombies was a good thing, even if he hadn’t been willing to do it himself. When Nita, Hugh and he were trying to slow the zombies down they locked them in houses or, in Nita’s case, tried to fit as many into cars as they could. They rarely killed any of the zombies. What if someone found a way to reverse what had happened? Not that Red gave that serious consideration. ‘We’re done. There ain’t no going back from this, only forward.’
By the time he reached the edge of the bridge Ramey and his crew was halfway across, following the last of the horde as it crawled along at a very slow walking pace. The cars in the one lane gave Red easy places to hide when he needed it, but Ramey and his friends were not looking back. Red was able to get within throwing distance of Ramey and was picking up snatched of his conversation as he drew closer. He went into Sue’s mind and nudged her anger and resentment into rage, then watched to see what happened. She causally turned her gun on the zombie next to her and blew his head off. The other zombies reacted immediately, but Ramey held out his hand and Red felt an iron grip descend onto Sue’s mind. Seeing the opportunity Red worked on Chuck, leaving Sue gasping and wondering why she just killed one of the people she was travelling with.
“What the fuck Sue?” yelled Ramey. “Don’t tell me that was an accident!”
Sue’s arms were slack and her rifle slipped from her fingers to clatter onto the pavement.
“Fuck you Ramey! You son of a bitch.”
Better than Red had hoped for, she thought everything was her own idea, she also knew what was coming and was now choosing to go up against Ramey rather than back down meekly. Unfortunately Red knew she didn’t have a chance. Chuck seemed reluctant to get involved. He was not responding well to the pushing that Red was doing. Instead of having the man shoot a random zombie Red was trying to make him go for what his old man would have called ‘the money shot’, in this case shooting Ramey in the head with his shotgun.
Red continued to berate Sue, escalating the tension all the zombies were feeling. Chuck finally broke, he let out a cry and Red seized control, trying to bring the gun up before Red could close down the other zombie’s mind. The sob had been too much warning, Ramey was already on edge from earlier in the day and Sue had just heightened the unease that he felt. ‘Fuck I played this wrong. I should have just waited and worked on Sue, she would have blasted that mother fucker if I had….wait…’ Red went back into her mind. ‘Son of a bitch.’ Sue was a much less powerful zombie than Red was, getting inside of her head was easy, not as easy as Bobby, but close. He went through her head looking over her thoughts until he found what he knew had to be there. Orders. All of the zombies knew they could give tasks to those weaker than themselves. If the tasks were loosely worded or had a loophole a smart zombie could twist what the stronger zombie wanted, given time. Sue had orders not to harm Ramey. Plain as day. She might hate the man, just like Chuck did, but she was helpless to overcome that simple set of orders.
Now Ramey was inside Chuck’s head looking him over for some sign, almost as if he knew someone else had been there before him. Red stayed on the periphery, looking for a way to break one of the others. Sue was locked down, Chuck was paralyzed by Ramey as well, both were as good as useless to Red now. Finally Red found Virginia. A portly middle aged housewife, who had watched zombies devour her husband and, worse yet, her beloved dog. The woman didn’t want to be here, she wanted a new dog and though she fit what Ramey needed; a zombie strong enough to help control other zombies, she was not on his favorite zombie list. She only had a revolver to work with and she thought she was down to four bullets too. Better yet she hated the man named Keith, who she had watched kill another dog somewhere during their trip. Red stoked that anger to hate and that hate to rage, then had her pull up her gun and shoot Keith in the head. This time, instead of leaving her to Ramey’s hold, Red gave her a list of targets and formed a wall to shield her mind from the more powerful zombie. This meant Ramey was rebuffed when he tried to grab the woman and stop her. Something that shocked him so much he let go of Sue. In the split second it took for Ramey to regroup and breech the walls Red had erected the woman shot three other zombies, two in the head and one in the neck.
“She is a fucking good shot with the piece, a natural.” Red said to himself. He watched as Ramey crushed the walls around the woman’s mind like tinfoil, but by then Red was well clear of her.
“What the fuck is going on with you fuckers?” Ramey yelled, “Have you all gone crazy? Stop shooting each other. Do not shoot each other anymore! Do not shoot me. Only shoot the people I tell you to. If you feel any desire to kill anyone first drop your gun.”
The orders came down like a ton of bricks, crushing the insidious whisperings that Red had been starting in all of the zombie’s minds. ‘Six, I got him down to six friends. And two of them won’t get in my way. I don’t think I will get better odds than this.’
Red stood up and started walking towards Ramey.
Ramey didn’t notice him at first, he was too busy trying to reinforce his orders in his companions minds. One of the other men did see Red and raised his arm to point him out to his master. Red yelled loudly, putting force behind his words, “Do not shoot me. Do not harm me. Do not get in my way.” He wasn’t certain that his words would override Ramey’s, but all he needed was a moment’s hesitation on their part, if they took any action against him.
Ramey pulled out of Sue and Chuck’s minds, Red felt him leave, both of them were in a state of near shock. Red stalked forward, staying close to the cars, in case he needed cover. Ramey just stared at him and smiled, “Poor Red. You shouldn’t have come back.”
“You have one of my friends.”
“Oh so if I give him to you, you will just go?”
Red paused and then shook his head, “No. I am afraid there is more to it.”
Throwing his head back and laughing Ramey said, “Of course there is! What do you plan to do Red? I have you, you got too close. It’s a neat trick how you got up here without me seeing you.” Then Ramey grew quiet for a moment before continuing, “But you didn’t did you? That was you back there that spooked me.” Realization dawned on the zombie, showing as slight surprise, “And you fucked around in the heads of Sue and Chuck! How’d you manage that?”
Inside his head Ramey reached out for Aubrey, his ‘parent’ in Chicago, only to be rebuffed. She had a curt message for him; that she was busy. Focusing on Red again he tried to seize control of the other zombie to bring the conflict to a quick end. Red felt the attack coming and raised his shotgun, also hoping for a quick end. The shotgun blast hit the same time Red was physically thrown aside by Ramey’s mental attack. Ramey had rebounded off of Red’s shields then changed his attack as he saw the shotgun come up. To Red it felt like someone had driven a bus into him from the side, he flew up onto the truck of a light green sedan and then hit the rail of the bridge. Frantically he clawed at the railing with his hand, digging a furrow into the metal as he went over the side. The shotgun blast was intercepted by one of Ramey’s men, who found himself involuntarily moving into its path. The pellets caught the zombie in the middle of the chest and twisted his body around in a diagonal summersault; he ended up face down on the ground unable to use his legs.
“C’mon!” Ramey yelled to his remaining followers as he rushed towards the edge of the bridge.
The shotgun was gone and Red hit the swollen North Platte river fifteen yards upstream, he was certain his right arm and leg were broken, ‘Hell maybe some ribs on that side too. What the fuck was that he did to me?’
Above Ramey reached the side of the bridge just as Red was being swept underneath it. By the time Red flowed by the bridge his bones had healed and he was striking out for the eastern bank of the river. Ramey spotted him as he pulled himself up onto the bank and Red felt another mental assault, he braced himself to be hit by the invisible bus again. After not receiving another blow he looked back and saw that the group was moving along the bridge, heading towards him at a jog.
‘I should have stayed with Jimbo another day and learned more about this mental crap.’ Red thought, struggling through the thick mud to take cover under the bridge.
Red concentrated on keeping himself undetectable from Ramey and he was pretty sure it was working. Five zombies dropped down on the downstream side of the bridge, four of them landed in the mud and sunk up to their knees, the fifth landed softly and padded under the bridge as if walking on solid ground. ‘Another useful trick.’ thought Red. With no time for subtlety Red launched himself at the first zombie while the other struggled to clamber out of the mud. ‘I guess my mind control didn’t override Ramey’s’ Red told himself, launching a mental attack before he impacted the middle aged female. With one outstretched blow he tore her head, part of her shoulder and one of her arms from her body. Her head and mouth continued to move, making a muffled gurgle noise as Red bent over and picked up her body by the legs. He twirled it once and flung it at a three of the zombies who were close to each other in the mud, knocking two over. The one he missed ducked quickly and fired at Red with an assault rifle, the fourth man joined him a split second later.
Bullets pounded into Red’s body, most flew through him, but he felt his shoulders and ribs cave in under the barrage and flung himself down to grab for the woman’s gun, which lay at his feet. Rolling towards the water Red fired an inaccurate burst that did little to dissuade the two firing on him. He had some luck and one of the zombies weapons jammed. Red concentrated on the only zombie firing at him, his next three round burst struck the guy in the neck and face, shattering his jaw and blowing off one of his ears. The thing went down, but was still moving. The two Red had knocked over with the body were now prone and firing in Red’s direction, but they could not see him very well from where he was laying close to the river. Fountains of dirt spit up near the top of the bank and after a furious minute of firing, all gunshots ceased. Red was out of ammo. He raised the barrel of the rifle up to one side of where he was, another short fusillade rang out and then stopped. Slipping and sliding Red rose in the mud and jumped sideways as the bullets stuttered to a stop. Feeling around mentally Red looked for Ramey. The zombie was on the upriver side of the bridge, as Red watched he jumped off and seemed to glide down underneath of it.
The bridges were very wide, the highway in this part of the country was six lanes wide and Ramey was at the end of a long, low corridor. Red felt he could deal with the lessor zombies before having to face Ramey again, but he kept a tab on the man so he would not be surprised. The three zombies who were still up moved towards Red with a purpose, their guns held as clubs. The arm and head of the woman he had struck initially had a bloated sack attached to it where the zombie’s body was trying to re-grow, red counted her as out. Likewise the man he had shot in the face was still crawling around on his hands and knees. The three to one odds didn’t bother Red in the least; these were lessor zombies, things not even of Jimbo’s quality. Stepping up to the first one Red laughed as he ducked under the swung rifle, then came up fast and broke the zombies arm at the elbow. He launched a fist that struck the thing in the side of the head, crushing its skull and flinging bits of brain and both eyes to the mud when his hand passed through it.
Both of the remaining zombies looked like they wanted to run, but Red couldn’t risk having them turned by Ramey and used against him. The zombies saw no mercy in him, even as their eyes pleaded that they had no choice. Both jumped him at the same time, hindering each other more than helping and Red grabbed on by a flailing arm and spun, letting go when the zombie was swinging towards the river. The zombie sailed out over the water and hit the concrete support twenty feet off shore, it dropped like a misshapen, white sack of flesh, no longer resembling a human body. The last zombie had fallen after making the poorly timed jump and swung his legs around to sweep Red’s feet out from under him. Red was not quick enough to dodge and fell on his thigh in the slippery mud. Both scrabbled to their feet and stood facing each other. Ramey ran up firing his gun, at the same time he grabbed ahold of Red’s mind, trying to pin his opponent in place to make a head shot possible. Red was surprised at the ferocity of the mental attack.
‘I shoulda known he would be a fast learner.’ Red thought to himself as Ramey slowed down his reactions. Bullets walked up Red’s body, the last of which smashed through his adam’s apple and blew out his spinal column, dropping him like a rock. Red fell on his back and lay there looking up as Ramey and his remaining zombie approached.
“I guess if you want something done you just gotta do it yourself.” Ramey said, coming into Red’s view. “Look Ed, he’s a twitcher!”
Pointing at Red’s body with his gun he continued, “How long until you heal that up? A minute? Less? Probably. More if I do this.” Ramey pointed his gun at Red’s neck and let loose with full burst, then another, he fired until his magazine was empty, then reloaded.
Red felt like his head was severed, his body was not even shaking anymore and he had no feeling anywhere.
“I could kill you now. But I am going to make you wish you were dead instead.”
Red’s perspective changed, he was being lifted, but both Ramey and the other zombie were standing there unmoving, ‘The bastard is using his telekinesis on me. Goddamn it, what is my special power?’
“Red, did you know that your body will grow back? Look at Leslie over there, you did a number on her, but she will be okay. For her though, well she will come back a little less powerful, she loses something, but zombies at our level, we don’t lose anything. If I were to walk away right now, you would be right as rain in a day or two. I’ve seen it. I’ve experimented with other stubborn assholes like you. Why, I let one guy grow out three times and he seemed pretty much the same to me even after that. I think I will keep you somewhere safe, somewhere I can continue my research. Will you be the same after a hundred times? I mean, think about it, is that even possible? Physically, it makes no sense; you don’t need any sustenance, so where does this power come from?”
Red croaked a reply, but his throat was still too mangled to make a response.
“Shhh. Shhh. Don’t talk.” Ramey said, putting one finger on Red’s lips, “I know you’re grateful now that I haven’t killed you--that you think you will figure out a way to overcome me and still win. And you might have, with your ability to block me out mentally. But you won’t and in the end I will get inside you and figure out what you did, then I can do it too. Then Aubrey and I are going to set down and have a little chat. Oh that’s right you don’t know Aubrey do you? She was sent to Chicago along with James and me. Much like you and old what’s his name went to Denver. Don’t worry about that now, no you just rest. Bring him Ed.”
Feeling was returning to Red, and that feeling was pain. He wanted to scream as his body healed itself, it felt like a million burrowing insects were making tunnels into his brain, involuntarily he grunted and his control slipped, causing Ramey to jerk his head around and stare at him again.
“I felt that. Hurts a bit doesn’t it. Don’t worry, it gets worse and when it does I will be here to get inside.”
Red felt Ramey pounding on his mental defenses, scouring them for a weakness as the pain built up. Everything stopped for a moment, a moment that expanded into infinity as the battle of wills went on. Finally, irrevocably Red’s shields broke, unleashing a torrent of pain and anguish.
Ramey screamed in triumph as he poured into the hole in Red’s mind, Ed almost dropped Red’s body in surprise. Ramey started ransacking through Red’s very being, this was not the smooth, measured hand that Jimbo had, but a heavy, hamfisted bludgeoning that added to Red’s pain.
Then abruptly, it all stopped. Red felt the hold in his defenses snap shut and he felt calm and warm, there was no pain…deep in his mind Ramey screamed.
“Let me out! Let me…out!” A massive attack hit the inside of Red’s defenses, but rebounded like a bird hitting a plate glass window. Momentarily knocked senseless, Ramey fell into the abyss of Red’s mind, not even struggling to find a way out. Red used this time to open his physical eyes and see what was going on. His body was falling. Ramey was laying on the ground twitching as Red fell, a furry blur leaped on the body and started savaging it. Ed was still standing, but his arms were limp at his sides as Red hit the ground. This time Red fell sideways, with his view facing parallel to the river, upstream. Three figures were slowly making their way towards him.
The pain from regenerating was suppressed, and Red knew who was helping him now. Clearing his repaired throat was a struggle, but he managed, spitting out a glob of coagulated blood, he asked, “What took you so long?”