“You actually want me to believe this crap?” Max said to Aubrey.
“You have to believe it, I can provide you with some proof, but I need…assurances Max that you won’t reveal anything to any of our kind. I’m barely holding it together this close to Sentry, I don’t trust anyone else. You saw the guys who brought you in, do you think they were with him?”
“I thought they were with you.”
“I contacted them. I can still do that, and they were hard to find. There are some of us who have fallen off Sentry’s radar, he is a busy…entity, and some people he never knew about, others, like me, he thinks are incapacitated. And then there is that third class, who figured out some way to avoid being subjugated altogether.”
“And it can be taught?”
“More like, they can give other zombies a bit of a vaccine against the compulsion. It isn’t a full vaccination either. I don’t think I would do well against Sentry if we were in the same room. This guy with Red gave me the basics and that was at a great distance. He wasn’t willing to meet me either, which tells me something.”
“Red? In Nebraska?”
Aubrey’s mouth turned into a small ‘o’ of surprise, but she nodded, “You know Red?”
“He helped me out. But he killed some people who didn’t deserve it.”
“That club has a large membership these days, Max.”
Shrugging his shoulders Max nodded. “So what did he tell you?”
“First, his actions told me a lot in and of themselves. We might not be of the same lineage, but he was afraid to get too close to me. The closer I am to weaker zombies, those that haven’t consumed enough flesh and blood, the easier it is for me to control them. That guy who brought you in? I had to ask him to help me. I couldn’t make him do it.”
“Does that matter, you are all working together.” Max said bitterly.
“You really think so? It might surprise you that we aren’t. I had to convince him. And it was not easy. I had to share something pretty important to get his help.”
“How to avoid being controlled by stronger zombies?”
Aubrey nodded, “Yes. Something I don’t want to become common knowledge.”
Max grimaced and said, “Oh, no we wouldn’t want that would we? I mean that might mean people get to do what they want again!”
“You don’t really understand what you’re talking about. When we are…freshly made, we are hungry. But I think Jimbo stumbled on this technique of his when he was still hungry, it could be taught to others, with no one to control them humanity is doomed.”
Max thought about that for a moment and responded, “You seem to be making a case for leaving Sentry alive.”
“You haven’t met him. The man is deranged; something went wrong with him when he turned. He killed, as far as we can tell, all the first zombies he created. But there is a rumor…”
“Alright, I’ll bite, a rumor of what?”
“That he wasn’t the first zombie.”
“What?” Max shouted, “You have got to be fucking with me! I’m coming all this way, leaving my family and this tool isn’t even the guy I need to be looking for?”
“It’s just a rumor. He made me in his clinic and the oldest zombies there weren’t that old, but it was whispered that Sentry wasn’t the first. One of us who could use the computers in his office, found evidence that there were experiments on prisoners…and others before Sentry came along.”
“How did it start?”
Aubrey shrugged, “Hell if I know. But the rumor is that Sentry killed the first zombie after being bitten.”
“So that doesn’t help us, if the first guy is dead…”
“Wait, let me finish. The first zombie didn’t just infect Sentry, he infected someone else too. A cop of some sort.”
“So Sentry has a sibling, how does that work?”
“Well affecting a lessor zombie is easy, no matter who it belongs to. Affecting someone more powerful is dicey, even if you are more stronger than they are. Siblings are altogether different, some are worse than your parent zombie, some are easier. I don’t know why. But I did a few experiments on my own in Chicago and I know it is true.”
“So finding this guy, if he can be found, is a crapshoot.”
“I think I know who it is.” said Aubrey.
“Yeah, who? And how did you find that out?”
“I found it out by getting a list of the security detail from the clinic, it was a short list. Everyone thought it was a guy named ‘Gabe’, one of the first children created by Sentry. But I met Gabe, briefly, before he was sent somewhere in the Far East. I think he is the only one of the first group to survive and I think that is why Sentry sent him halfway across the world. The other guards I ran down one by one, talking to people and putting together a picture of who I could confirm was dead. The only one missing was someone named Dan. Daniel Gears.”
“And where is mister Gears?”
“I don’t know.”
“Gosh, I wouldn’t have guessed that. So I have to find one guy, who may or may not help me, in the entire fucking world? He could be anywhere!”
Aubrey shrugged, “No. You got it wrong Max, I’m just throwing you that in case you can find him. It is one of three things I am working on right now. You, finding Dan and one other thing that I am saving as my ace in the hole.”
“Why do you want me?”
“I want to know what your plans are. Maybe I can help. We both want the same thing.”
Max laughed. “Oh, that’s awesome. I’m one of your three methods of attack and you don’t even know what I am doing! What the hell, if I don’t tell you, you’ll just beat it out of me, won’t you?”
The look Aubrey gave him was reproachful, but she nodded. “I have a need to know.”
“We’re going old school sister. We brought a bomb to blow the motherfucker up.”
“Not a beacon? You’re not going to call down an airstrike?”
“No, it’s a bomb. Although it wouldn’t surprise me if it doesn’t do jack shit. The guy who gave it to me has a history of honesty impairment.”
This earned him a puzzled look from Aubrey.
“The guy is some sort of Special Forces bad ass. He doesn’t think much of me and frankly the feeling is mutual. He headed to Washington to see if he could rescue any parts of the old government there.” said Max.
“Then you won’t be seeing him again.” said Aubrey shaking her head.
“I hope not. In my nightmares I see him is as a super zombie, and I think I’ve only ever been lucky dealing with your kind so far.”
With a smile Aubrey said, “I’ll take luck. We’re going to need it. So now that I know what you are doing I can help.”
“I know the roads are clear, but there are going to be checkpoints as you get into Florida. Sentry may be crazy, but he has some sense. I can clear the checkpoints away for you. I can keep the zombies away from you when you need to sleep.”
“I don’t think the people I am travelling with would care to have you with us.”
“Oh Max, you’re such a joy! I can’t travel with you! I have other things to take care of. You’ll never see me at all.”
“Well that will make things easier, but what am I supposed to tell the people I’m with about the roads being clear?”
“Tell them what you want. Just go fast, things are coming to a head more quickly than I would like. I hope your bomb is bigger than a bunch of hand grenades.”
“It is, by a pretty large magnitude, if it works.”
“I tracked you in Chicago, you know. It looked like your group was avoiding the zombies I sent after you. When I spoke to Jimbo he said Red told him stories about you too, that you could see us with your mind.”
Max said nothing.
“I know that humans get something when they kill us. I don’t know what it is, but Ella, she was that woman the old guy with you killed in Chicago was human.”
“I know, I could tell.”
“So you do have some sort of sight, I knew it. You can tell who is human and who is dead, can’t you? I can do the same thing.”
“That’s…not comforting. I don’t think I like being able to see things the way you do.”
“I think I have greater range than you, close to four hundred miles.”
Max shook his head, “I can’t go that far, not even close.”
“But you have other abilities don’t you?”
“Not that I’ve noticed.”
“Ella was fast and healed quickly, her eyesight was improved, her other senses were sharper. But she seemed to go rotten after she reached a certain point. She was sex crazed and wanted blood like a zombie.”
“Could you control her like a zombie?” asked Max, thinking about that made his skin crawl.
“No, but she said she was starting to be able to boss around the lessor zombies around us. I’m glad she is dead. She was annoying. So Max, when you look at me, what do you see?”
For the first time since he met her, Max engaged his secondary vision and looked at Aubrey and her companions. He was surprised and Aubrey read the look on his face with satisfaction.
“I think I know what you see.” Aubrey said smugly, “Or rather, what you are not seeing with your mind’s eye.”
“I don’t see anything.” Max said, concentrating on getting a mental picture of the woman sitting less than a foot away from him, “You’re off my radar completely!”
“Good. I hope it works against Sentry as well as it does against you. Now we have to get you back to your friends.”
“Just drop me off at the campground. I doubt they’ve left yet.”
Aubrey tilted her head sideways and looked at Max closely, “Can you see them?”
“No. They are out of range…”
“So your range is shorter than I thought, we’re only a couple miles from where they picked you up.”
“But we walked all morning!” protested Max.
“Didn’t you keep an eye on them as you went?”
Shaking his head Max said, “It doesn’t work like that. I have to focus, unless they are really close.”
“So try now. If it helps they are over in that direction.” Aubrey pointed into the woods.
“Can you see them?”
“No, they are living. Didn’t Jimbo explain this to you? I thought you were best friends or something?”
“He killed my wife.”
“So you owe him one.” Seeing the look of anger on Max’s face Aubrey asked, “Too soon?”
“I loved her.”
With a sigh Aubrey said, “We’ve all lost people. You’re nothing new. I was out of line. I’m sorry. I didn’t lose all emotion when this happened to me, but sometimes the line of appropriate behavior gets blurry. I really am sorry.”
Max nodded, but his eyes still smoldered.
“As to your question, no I can’t see the living that far. I seem to be limited to a mile or so, but as I’ve gotten stronger I’ve noticed that buildings and trees don’t seem to interfere much anymore. When I first came to, I was lucky to be able to see people through a wall. But undead are like lights in the darkness. I can see them all, like maggots crawling across the corpse of the world. And I can tell how strong they are too, it is color based.” said Aubrey.
“Red told me…well he said people were like rainbow colors full of swirling life, he didn’t really mention about what other zombies looked like. But what you are describing is what I can see too.” Max said.
“Have you noticed that you can see zombies farther out than living people?”
“Not really. I haven’t tried much. I knew Red could see people a long way off, like a hundred miles.”
“I think it varies among us. It probably does for you too. Maybe you should try to extend your range a little. Maybe it’s like a muscle; you need to exercise to get better using it.”
“I’ll get around to it in all my free time.” Max said.
“Will you know Sentry? I mean will he stand out? Will you be able to tell what he looks like from a distance without seeing him?”
“I am pretty sure, yes. He’ll be like you.”
Aubrey laughed, “Oh, he is nothing like me! C’mon, get in the car.”
“No bindings?” Max asked, more than a little surprised.
“I don’t tie up my allies Max. And you are my ally. Trust is hard to come by. Plus…”
“I don’t have any weapons anyway.” Max finished for her.
Aubrey didn’t deny it, but gestured for him to get into the back with her. Once they were strapped in Aubrey told the driver to head back to the last exit and go west. Another Humvee, a half mile behind them, was already turned around facing north on the southbound lane, it pulled out behind them after they passed.
“Yes. No need to worry.”
The vehicles pulled off the highway onto Raccoon Valley drive.
“How far is it from the highway Max?” Aubrey asked.
“Not far, less than a mile, on the left.”
“Okay. Got it.” said the driver.
Max concentrated a moment and determined the driver was off the radar too. “I can’t see him either. I thought you were guarding the secret? Not handing it out like candy on Halloween?”
Aubrey smiled, “Jimbo taught me a few other things too. Among the things he taught was how to mess a little with lessor zombie’s memories. I can go in and edit their minds. I can put in false memories, I erase things I don’t want them to know. It’s not too precise and I’ve already had a few of my experiments go bad, but I am getting better. Nathan there couldn’t explain to anyone why they can’t see him. Could you Nate?”
The driver shook his head, “I have no idea what you are talking about.”
“That is…that is cruel. Can you change them back? Or is it a one way ticket?”
“One way...unless I am very careful. Like I said, I have a few experiments out there. I can’t just press a key and revert to a saved copy of their memories, not exactly. Jimbo was pretty cagey about that, warned me to be careful and he only showed me the very basics of it. I had to do a lot of practice in the last few days.”
“Is that it?” asked Nathan, pointing a hand at the Campground sign.
“That’s it.” said Max.
He pulled into the campground and Max scanned the area. “They left.” he said, stunned that his friends would leave so quickly.
“Pragmatic. Are they carrying cell phones? Are you?”
“No… Wait! I’ve got a radio. God! How did I forget my radio?” Max fumbled in his jacket to turn it on. It was supposed to have a five mile range. Talking into it he said, “Stewart? Bill? Anyone?”
Silence reigned in the back of the Humvee.
“Looks like you’re riding with me for a while more then. Do you think they went back?”
“Do you think they are still trying to finish the mission to kill Sentry or do you think they went back?”
“Probably they would go on. But without me…I mean, they can’t find Sentry, so what would be the point.”
“Look at you, mister important! I doubt they gave that much thought, probably they figured out they could find him somehow. If they went back we might be screwed. Nate, pull up the gps and tell me where this road goes.”
Nathan did as instructed and Aubrey looked at the screen. “This road by passes the city, if they cut over here they could rejoin the highway….about there.” She said pointing to the map. “Nathan, take us back to the highway and we’ll cut them off. We’ll drop Max at the highway 162 and 75 exchange.”
“It looks longer.”
“It will be faster, the road is clear.”
“You can see that?”
“I just know, trust me.”
“If you say so. I think that was the idea, to skirt Knoxville.”
“Normally that’d be smart, they didn’t know Sentry had the roads cleared.”
“Why? Do you know?”
“He didn’t fill me in on that. But I think it was just to get things organized again. I did the same thing in Chicago. It’s hard to get around when there is an accident blocking the road every two blocks.”
Nate took the Humvee up to slightly higher than normal highway speed and they made good time driving through the fringes of Knoxville. Aubrey was silent most of the way and Max stared at her for a few minutes before she noticed, then smiled at him, “Sorry, I’m multi-tasking. I’ve got things going on. Many pots on the fire, that sort of thing. Did you need something?”
“What’s it like?”
“It sucked at first. It could be worse, I could be Nate or one of the other lower order zombies. I wasn’t much in life, but I would have stayed alive given a choice.”
“Do you sleep? Get hungry?”
“Not for flesh. I could eat more, it would beef me up, but I made a lot of children already in Chicago and it feels like each additional bit of power is less than the one I got before. Like I am getting less out of it, if you know what I mean?”
“No sleep either. The weird part is, I feel like I am still growing. Like I consumed so much that it started something within me that is only getting more powerful. You want to know how many people I ate to heal up after the building dropped on me?”
Hesitantly, Max nodded.
“None. I haven’t eaten in weeks. I wasn’t a psycho killer before I was turned and I’m not now. I wasn’t a conservative either. I wish I had been; then I would have tried to set aside a bunch of people somewhere.”
“No, not that. But I don’t think we can reproduce the normal way. How will the species go on if everyone is dead? I thought, maybe that setting aside a bunch of people might be good to continue the race. We might be able to live with them. With you. Maybe we could exchange safety for blood or something?”
“Would that work?”
“I don’t know. It worked for Ella, but she wasn’t even dead.”
“If I help you, and it works. What are you going to do?”
“I haven’t thought that far ahead. Maybe I will find some people and protect them, get society going again.”
“Really?” Max asked, “I don’t want to be skeptical, but you could have stayed in Chicago and called off the attacks in that area.”
“No, I couldn’t. If Sentry thought I was dead I couldn’t interfere. He already had others take over the hordes in that area and I could only stay free so long as I kept a low profile.”
“But Jimbo taught you to…”
“Sentry would know Max. If the zombies stopped attacking, Sentry would know something was up, probably within hours. The best way to solve this problem is to get new leaders, who aren’t so interested in complete racial genocide.”
“The king is dead! Long live the King?”
“You’re showing your education there, be careful. I envision more of an environment of multiple kingdoms. Some of them human, I hope. I will tell you this. If I survive, I will do everything in my power to help save you, your family, your friends and every human left in and around Iowa. How does that deal strike you?”
“I didn’t know I had any leverage to bargain with. Maybe I should ask for more?” Max said tentatively.
“I’m offering that up as goodwill. Afterward, we’ll use the trust I gain by helping you as a foundation for our new existence.”
Max held out his hand and Aubrey took it. Her hand was soft and cool to the touch. They shook and nodded to each other. A few minutes later Nathan told them they were approaching the intersection.
The Humvee stopped well shy of the intersection and Aubrey asked Max if he could sense his friends yet.
“No.” he admitted, “No yet.” He started to say something else and stopped himself.
“It’s just…well a lot has happened this morning and my mind is catching up to where I am right now. So…” His voice trailed off.
“Spit it out, what’s the worst I can do?”
“Okay, I’m trying to work things out here on my own first. Can I do that?”
“Sure, don’t take too long, your friends will be here soon.”
“That’s part of it. How do you know that? You didn’t know they left before.”
Aubrey shook her head, “No, I was preoccupied with you. It is easy to find people now. I can take a hold on zombies and sort of see through their eyes. It’s not as good as your radar, but it is better in other ways.”
“That’s what has me confused. You found me pretty easily and I was trying to figure out how.” Max said.
Aubrey shrugged her thin shoulders, “I wasn’t looking for you. Not necessarily. I was looking for someone and when the helicopters took off I knew I had better track them and get moving.”
“So you followed us from there, by tapping into zombies along the helicopter flight path?”
“Yeah, I couldn’t possibly know you were on board, I didn’t figure that out until you landed and split up from the other soldiers. Actually I recognized the old guy first. He made an impression on me. He is smart, maybe too smart. Sometimes smart beats youth, speed and strength. He certainly did a number on Ella. But I recognized the woman and you too.”
“Why did you contact us, and not the other team?”
Aubrey smiled faintly, “Who says I didn’t contact the other teams? Your friends are almost here. Get moving. We’re going to get out of sight before they arrive.”
“Go Max! If everything works out I will see you after this is all over.”
Reluctantly, Max got out onto the pavement and watched as Nathan turned the Humvee around and drove back the way they had come. Stretching out with his mind he could see his friends driving towards him.
As they drove into eyesight another thought occurred to him, muttering he said, “She said helicopters…she said other teams…There was only one helicopter, there was only one other team…”