Thursday, April 7, 2011

Peer Pressure

"No," said Mark flatly. He handed the binoculars to Chris without looking away.

Chris snugged the eye pieces to his face and adjusted the focus, "I can't tell who's vision is getting worse, yours or mi...." His view came into sharp focus. He panned the binoculars in silence.

Mark didn't ask for Chris' opinion. He knew Chris didn't keep his thoughts to himself much and sooner or later he'd say what's on his mind. Chris said it was just 'thinking out loud'.

Sighing heavily Chris glanced at his long time friend. Mark's expression reflected his decision, 'no'. Chris looked over to the small group of people who were watching them for any sign of what the two were thinking. Chris turned back to looking through the binoculars as an excuse to not look at the people and buy himself some time to think.

"On the upside this would get us some good word of mouth," said Chris. "Free water and food anytime we're in the area."


That gave it away. When Mark dug his heels in, and he could dig them in deeper than anyone Chris had ever met, you'd have a better chance of uprooting a redwood tree with a toothpick. But when he made up his mind that was the end of discussion. He never repeated himself. Ever.

Mark was mixed on this one. Chris wanted to do it but he wasn't stupid. They hadn't made it this far by making bad decisions. Except for Seattle. That would be a lesson neither of them would forget no matter how hard they tried.

"Tell you what," said Chris. "We'll get inside, do a quick look and if it's too hot we call it off." Mark hadn't moved since he'd handed the binoculars to Chris. He knew the people were watching and didn't like it. His body language was like white noise. Chris gave Mark time to mull it over. He wouldn't argue with him. If his friend said 'No', then it was 'no'. Each of them had to be 'in the game' when they did wet work. Any distraction was just asking to get killed. No matter how glib they were about it they knew this was serious and there were absolutely no second chances.

"Alright," said Mark.

Both climbed down from the top of their ZUV and suited up. The final piece of gear was their combat vests. Each was unique. They could be customized to special needs but the core system was the same. Chris carried either a cutlass with a steel basket that covered his hand or a katana. Marks had a scabbard for his Louisville Slugger. Any of these could be carried on the vest in a variety of configurations. After a few near misses where each had pulled their weapon and almost clubbed or sliced the other, they'd had seen the value in practicing drawing their weapons so even in close quarters they could get weapon in hand without dropping each other.

"I hate rescues," said Mark. Chris nodded, "It's not a rescue until we walk out with the kid."

The rear hatch of the ZUV thunked close and the small group of people hurried over. "We can't thank you enough," said a man in overalls. A woman, her eyes red raw from crying, only took Marks gloved hand and kissed it. They'd been down this road before. Neither Mark or Chris offered any words of hope or optimism. More than enough times things had ended badly and instead of returning with a loved one they brought back a ring, watch, or some token that could be identified, and an assurance they were now and forever at rest.
But a contract was a contract; alive or dead they got their full payment.

At one time it had been an apartment building. I suppose it still was, in name only. It was one of those high rise buildings that both Mark and Chris knew they couldn't have afforded before the ZI. The building wasn't their mission. The kid they were looking for was somewhere in the underground parking. Feeling the weight of the gear Chris said, "On the bright side we don't have to climb stairs." "What climbing?" asked Mark. "You're not carrying me?" They reached the beginning of the drive way which sloped away from their feet down to a battered security gate nearly hidden in the shadows.

There'd been a small raiding party that had swept through the local village and along with supplies, they'd taken a small boy. This was pretty standard stuff. They'd sell the kid for a good price and then go on to the next village. The raiders hadn't figured the village was armed and all but three of them were wiped out. The villagers had followed the remaining raiders and the captive kid to this building. Nobody knew if the raiders had a hideout in there or had simply panicked and ran in to escape the villagers. Either way Mark and Chris had no clue what to expect.

"Let’s do this the easy way," said Chris.
"After you," replied Mark as he gestured Chris to lead the way. 
At the gate Chris took out and opened two tubes marked Thermite, and scattered the silvery powder on the ground on the other side of the bars. He closed the tubes and checked to make sure he had none of the stuff on him.  Mark pulled out his bat and banged it on the gate. The clattering echoed into the darkness of the garage. "Hello!" called Mark. "If you can hear me, stay hidden until we tell you it's safe."  "What do you want them to do if they can't hear you?" asked Chris with a grin. Mark frowned at Chris. "Are you done?" "Yup," said Chris sprightly. "I think so." A grunt brought them back. Their banter helped break the tension and settle their nerves. Murky shadows were shuffling towards them, but they didn't have to see what they knew was coming. A moment later a rotted face pushed itself against the bars. Then another. Then another. Arms stretched out grasping at Mark and Chris.  "Ready," said Mark as he covered his eyes. "Fire in the hole," warned Chris as he lit a match and tossed it at the edge of the slivery powder. He quickly turned and shielded his eyes. Instantly the Thermite ignited in a cloud of roaring, brilliant white fire. Even standing several feet away the guys could feel the intense heat. They moved farther away as they heard wet snapping sounds. The heat was so sudden and powerful it flash boiled body organs which would literally pop. When they first started using Thermite, Chris had seen a zombie head pop. He wasn't able to look at food for a week. A few minutes later there was nothing left but a wide puddle of wet ash. The bars glowed dirty red. Both men hooked their grapple hooks on the bars and easily pulled them apart to create an opening they could pass through. Careful not to touch the bars, they moved inside.

In only a few steps both men were swallowed by the darkness. They switched their lights. Rows of cars appeared in the broad beams as they swept their lights in search of the kid... or what was left of him. It wasn't something they wanted to spend much time thinking about it.

"What do you think?" asked Chris. His voice sounded small and flat in the cavernous garage. "Go on, or head back?" Mark stood, scanning his light around. Chris knew his answer already, but he didn't rush him. After a few more seconds Mark nodded at Chris. "We go."

They headed down to the next lower level of the garage painting their path with lights. It was cooler down here and quiet, like the air hadn't moved in a long time. Before moving very far into the garage Mark slapped his hand loudly on the hood of a car. Better to draw any gooey’s out instead of having them surprise you. The men stood and waited a long five minutes with no reaction. They went in. Car after car they shined their lights into, searching for the boy with no success. As Chris started to cross to the next row of cars he saw dark lines on the ground that disappeared into the gloom. Dried blood. He recognized the streak pattern as well as any hunter would know the tracks of an animal. Someone had been dragged off and judging by the splatter, they had been putting up a fight while it was happening.

Chris waved his light at Mark. Getting his attention, he used hand gestures to signal what he found. The blood trail led around a wall to the last few rows of parking. Chris pointed to the blood trail, his eyes then around the corner indicating that he would follow the blood. Mark patted his head signaling he give cover.  

All the signs they'd seen said there shouldn't be too many gooey’s here. The parking gate was closed. The garage being underground meant access was through stairs or an elevator. But the noise they'd made at the gate drew several, more in fact than they expected. There could be more and finding them in close quarters where there was only one exit was risky. Risky had gotten a lot of people killed.

Mark flexed his fingers and Chris took a couple of slow deep breaths. They slipped around the corner. Instantly, Chris' light fell on a pile of rags only a few feet away. He crept forward, his head on a swivel. The rags were shredded clothing with splinters of gnawed bones scattered around. He backed up until he was next to Mark and put his fist under his chin saying it had been a man, not child. Good news, bad news. The boy may still be alive, but they'd have to go further into the garage.

Carefully moving forward they saw no sign of anything. Row after row of dust laden cars lined their path. In the distance Mark saw something at the edge of his light. He flicked his light at Chris then pointed ahead. Chris gave him the 'okay' and moved forward.

This section was used for campers and motor homes. Large white and beige monoliths hunched shoulder to shoulder with empty spaces every now and then. Chris could see the far wall of the garage and a lone motor home there. There was something about it that looked wrong... out of place. He crept closer until his mind made sense of what his eyes could barely see. The motor home was ringed with un-dead. They weren't moving but by the ripped and gouged siding of the motor home they were pretty active at one time. They wanted something inside there and Chris had a good guess what it was.

He flashed his light in Marks direction, signaling him to come up. Mark could move quietly but he had to work hard at it. He was a big man and not built for stealth, but stealth wasn't everything. Chris had seen him cut five gooey’s in half with a fifteen foot length of heavy tractor chain. He dislocated his shoulder on the third gooey, but never said a word until they were all 'really' dead. Later he joked that the shoulder didn't hurt nearly as much as the broken toe he got from dropping the chain on his foot.

Chris didn't need to point for Mark to see the ring of gooey’s, but he did all the same. "Now, the problem is, how to divide thirty zombies from one motor home and have two handsome men left over?" whispered Chris.
"I might have an idea, or two," Mark said quietly. He tapped the vest pockets on Chris' chest then held up three fingers. Chris pulled out three tubes of Thermite and handed them over. "Careful." Mark only smiled. Chris had almost burned a hole in his arm when he was first experimenting with how to make the stuff. Quick thinking on Marks part had saved his him. But, it was weeks before Chris had a full head of hair again.

Without any stimulus the gooey’s wouldn't move. They acted on reflex. Sound, motion, and if their tongue hadn't rotted off, sometimes smell. It didn't look like they'd gotten what, or whoever they were after but if the person inside stayed quiet the gooey’s would, kind of, forget and shut down. As Mark moved further back up the garage Chris melted into the shadows.

Mark went about half way between Chris and the corner to the next upper level of the garage. Picking a random car he went around to the rear and firmly rocked it, cocking his ear. He moved to the next car and did the same. This time he heard the sloshing sound of a full gas tank and twisted off the gas cap. Unscrewing a tube of Thermite he poured a small pile under the tank then made a narrow trail with the remaining tubes back near Chris. Returning back to the car he smashed the driver’s side window as quietly as possible which wasn't. The gooey’s began to stir. Mark reached under the dash and yanked on a cluster of wires. He quickly stripped some wires and touched them together. They sparked.

"Does America know how to make a car, or what?"

The undead were starting to mill around when the quiet was ripped open by the blare of a car horn. As one the gooey’s turned and began moving towards the sound. From his vantage point Chris watched as Mark skirted behind the cars back to him. Soon the car was surrounded by the un-dead who pawed the car. They seemed confused that there wasn't a living body making the noise. Suddenly there was a sharp snap and hiss as Mark lit the trail of Thermite. The brilliant line of white fire burned an after image in Chris' eyes and he quickly shielded them. When the fire reached the pile under the car it flared like a blow torch, and began burning through the steel of the gas tank. In the two seconds before it burned a hole in the tank the temperature inside flash vaporized the gas which funneled out of the opening where Mark had removed the cap. Gas vapor filled the immediate area. The timing couldn't have happened better. The Thermite fed on the molten metal of the gas tank and blew sparks into it when it punched through. The chain reaction was literally breathtaking as utter chaos reigned for the next single second. The cloud of gas vapor exploded obliterating every zombie for forty feet, and blowing out every car window. The pressure of the down force crushed the surrounding cars and blew every tire like it was paper. The explosion burned a hole in the atmosphere creating a huge aberration of airless space. The hole collapsed on itself in a vacuum that almost sucked the air out of the lungs of Mark and Chris.

"Holy shit!" Chris expelled.
"Oh, you gotta make more of that stuff," Mark said, ogling at the destruction.
What was left of the cars looked like a giant had pulverized them with a massive war hammer.
"That was amazing,' said Chris with admiration.
"Actually," said Mark. "I kinda thought it would, you know, just burn."

Both men got up on wobbly legs and made their way to the motor home. Chris tried the door but it was locked. Mark drew his CZ97B and aimed it at the door. Chris knocked, tap, tap, tap-tap, tap... (Shave and a hair cut), and paused.

'Thunk, thunk' came the response from inside. The men smiled at each other and Mark holstered his gun.

Mark and Chris squinted stepped into the bright sunlight. In the distance they could see the huddle of waiting people. The woman was too far to see her expression but they could see her catch sight of them and turn expectantly. The bundle in Marks arms waved and called out, "Mom!" The woman gave out a scream of relief broke into a run towards them. Mark set the boy down and he took off to his mother.

Looking over Mark saw Chris turn his face up and close his eyes. "Sun feels good," said Chris. "Remember swimming at the beach?"

"No," said Mark with a smile, and patted his friend on the shoulder.
Authors note
Most people don't like underground parking structures. You can feel those dead slabs of concrete hanging above you and the sun feels very far away. 
This story was giving a small view of what was happening in the world, how society is working itself out. Plus, ya gotta have good creepy action, right? 

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