The two riders thundered down the debris-littered road, a horde of vacant-eyed, moaning creatures closing in around them. As two drew too close, Phillip swung his machete—his weapon of choice—since there weren’t enough working guns to go around. He severed one’s head and it toppled backwards as the other lunged for the horse’s neck. Thunder, Phillip’s trusted steed—or rather, the Collective’s—hesitated and reared. Phillip knew Thunder had been bitten and infected by the zombie. His forward momentum halted, the other undead—surprisingly fast in quick bursts—rushed forward and attacked the wounded horse, tearing its flesh with their sharps nails and biting it with their teeth.
Thunder hung in mid-rear, before toppling over as the pressure on his one side increased, his hoofs knocking undead off their feet. Phillip, anticipating the inevitable conclusion, leapt from Thunder’s back, terrified of being pinned under him, helpless against the zombie onslaught. Phillip fell heavily as more undead rushed forward, but they were focused on the large wounded creature who was more appetizing, now that they could smell his blood. The horse whinnied, though the sound transitioned to a squeal, kicking with all his might. He and Phillip realized he’d perish in moments as more undead piled on, sucking his life from him.
Phillip, knowing Thunder’s end was inevitable, sprang to his feet. Clutching his machete, he struck another undead in the shoulder, spinning it around, blood splattering everywhere as its arm dislocated. The other zombies nearby lifted their heads, sniffing the blood of their own kind, and attacked their fellow, giving Phillip room to slip past those congregating on Thunder.
Kicking one in the head as he ran by and hearing the sickening crack of its spine, Phillip grinned as he sprinted. He kept his mouth tightly shut lest he inadvertently swallow infected contaminants.
Phillip was a thin man, with stringy, unruly hair and a skimpy goatee, but wore a heavy leather overcoat designed to protect cuts from infectious splatter.
Ahead of him, Taylor’s horse, 5-Spot, also faltered, falling as three zombies clutched his neck. Taylor managed to jump free but landed between two zombies, knocking all three to the ground. It was a bone-jarring fall, and he took a moment to recover, something the zombies didn’t suffer from. They clambered to their feet, barring their teeth, unafraid of their own contagion.
Closing the distance, Phillip swung his machete. The blade cracked one’s skull and as its head twisted, Phillip remembered the danger of such a weapon. The blade embedded in the creature’s cranium, pulling Phillip over as it fell, not quite killing the creature.
The secret to killing zombies, as every child in the collective understood, was to sever the head or snap the spine. Anything else might cost you your only weapon, leaving you defenseless. Yet Phillip held on, even as he and the zombie collapsed to the ground.
The second zombie—unable to decide which victim to attack—gave Taylor time to clamber to his feet, drawing his long-bladed knife in one hand and his short spear in the other. While neither was a decent severing tool, he could attack with either hand and still afford to lose one weapon. Kicking the zombie under Phillip—who died again—Taylor jammed his knife into the eye of the standing zombie—risky since the blade was likely to wedge in the bone.
Luckily, the lifeless zombie fell straight back as Taylor jerked the knife back. Phillip sprang to his feet, yanking his machete free, again sending contaminated blood flying. Both turned their heads to avoid it, but you never knew about contagions. That was why they both wore heavy coats, to protect as much exposed skin as possible, despite it being a balmy 87° day.
“Glad to have you back among the living,” Taylor gasped. “I was afraid I’d lost you.”
“You wouldn’t be so lucky.” Phillip severed another head, which slid off the zombie’s shoulder before it could collapse, leaving a bloody trail in its wake.
As more zombies rushed forward, they focused on the exposed blood of their companions, giving the two living men an avenue to escape. Both horses’ screams were cut short, reminding the men what would happen if they dawdled.
They realized the loss would cost the Collective dearly. Fully grown draft horses were worth ten men. Humans could be replaced, whereas draft animals, especially fast ones, would severely impact the Collective as a whole. Men also couldn’t do the work the horses did. If their mounts died, they’d have to account for those losses, but that wasn’t either man’s priority at the moment.
The men had a free run for several seconds as the sounds of the horses’ thrashing and kicking hooves diminished, before their footsteps attracted the zombie’s attention and they began their attack anew.
Their destination in sight, they grit their teeth behind closed lips and poured on the steam, hoping to make the gate before being overwhelmed.
“Hello the hold!” Taylor screamed, pausing to stab another undead in the face. Only this time, his spear was ripped from his hands. His knife was only good for close combat, something he wasn’t eager for, the risk of being cut and splashed with spittle or blood was too high.
As the undead swarmed in an almost unending stream, the two men fought them off as best they could. It was simpler—and safer—to kick or shove them away, rather than chance losing their sole weapons. At the speed they were running, a momentary distraction was enough to buy their escape, but the undead were easily replaced by more. They realized they didn’t have much time.
The sound of a gunshot echoed over the open space, bouncing off the stone walls and bare trees surrounding them. Those features helped the outnumbered Collective survive as long as it had, but they’d never faced the odds they did now—making their survival so essential.
Every zombie’s head snapped up at the gunfire, as if they were capable of recognizing the sound for what it was. Still, the distraction increased the odds of the two men’s survival significantly for every second it bought them. The sound was more effective than any slain, since shells were so dear and those killed had little effect on the distressed humans. They worried—as always—that early warning shots might cost them later essential killing shots their lives might depend on.
Swinging the flat of his machete, the blade struck the side of another zombie’s head, sending him reeling. While the action didn’t risk Phillip’s weapon, the blade vibrated in his hand almost causing him to drop it. His hand stung, even as he drew it back for another attack.
Taylor faltered, missing two steps. Phillip hooked his arm around his friend, pulling him along until he could regain his footing, leaving both men unable to fight off the attacking horde.
Clutching fingers tore at their bodies, protected—for now—by their heavy coats, but there was no telling when such protection would fail. Like everything in this post-apocalyptic existence, your life hung in a delicate balance on the thin thread of luck and timing. A single momentary breeze in the wrong direction, and your life might be over.
Phillip, now in the lead, hit one undead with his shoulder, bowling it over into those behind it. As they fell, those near them stopped to consider a new potential victim, unable to differentiate between friend and foe given the overwhelming draw of fresh blood. As long as neither man bled, it was a toss-up which they’d attack, though given time, the undead could smell the fresh blood within their veins. But at the speed they ran, the odds were slightly in their favor.
Taylor elbowed another and again faltered. Phillip feared he’d been injured, implying he might already be contaminated, still neither had time to worry. If it came to it, Phillip could kill his friend once they were both safe. They both realized, once infected, you were no longer human and your life no longer mattered.
Another shot rang out, louder this time, and a zombie before them lurched forward, stale blood splashing behind it and ahead of the two men. The other zombies surrounding it were distracted long enough to scent its spilled blood, turning on their still mobile companion. They focused their hunger on his flesh, buying the two a few more seconds.
A door opened in the tight Collective citadel, and two men bearing their own weapons stepped forward. One wielded an antique sword, glistening in the fading sunlight, while the man behind him carried one of the few remaining shotguns.
“Hurry, it’s not much further!” the lead man yelled, brandishing his sword. The light glinted, focusing the attention of the undead, again causing a momentary hesitation. Phillip hacked off an arm while Taylor stabbed another in the face, while shoving a third away with his open gloved hand.
Between the various distractions, the two men broke free and ran even harder, their breaths as labored as their two dead mounts had been. As they neared the two men awaiting them, the one blasted another zombie with a partial load of buckshot—all they could afford to use. The blast—one final distraction—bought Phillip and Taylor their freedom as the two ran past the men into the safety of the Collective’s refuge. The guardians backed in, shutting and locking the metal-encased door with a heavy, heartening click. They were safe—for now!
“I’m glad you made it,” Thomas Gilford said, surveying the two while holding a pistol on them. “We’ll talk about the loss of your mounts later. Strip out of those clothes, we need to ensure neither of you was wounded.”
“I’m okay,” Phillip said, struggling out of his heavy overcoat. “I’m not sure about Taylor, though. His leg seems hurt.”
“Hey!” Taylor protested, holding his hands up, delaying his own disrobing. “I sprained it stepping in a hole.”
Like most survivors, the men had endured many hard years. The ‘pretty boys’ had been winnowed out over the years. Now only the hard-hearted warriors remained, those willing to sacrifice whatever it took to continue.
Thomas was a congenial fellow, his winning personality allowing him to survive multiple power struggles over the years. He wore a thin beard, as neatly trimmed as he could manage, sharp clear eyes and a disarming smile—which often disguised his brutal decisions.
Jefferson and Phillip made an odd-match as their appearance made those addressing them unsure of their state of mind, though when it came down to life and death matters, each had proven themselves time and again. Phillip, his beard grown out and untrimmed, offered a disarming face since his cross eyes kept everyone trying to position themselves in his line of vision, often sidelining their primary aims. Jefferson kept his hair short for his frequent forays into combat with the undead.
Phillip had the look of a Wildman, which described his fighting style. He was a mass of fast actions, quick hands and unpredictable behaviors. Unlike Taylor, his hair was longer and scruffy, bearing a short goatee, his face wrinkled from years spent guarding hideouts under the glare of the hot sun.
“Good to see you’re still rational, but that doesn’t prove you’re not infected.” Thomas waved his pistol as the other two men surrounded them, weapons ready. “Keep going.”
Understanding the expectations; both stripped, removing every bit of clothing, dropping them in a pile. They’d be scanned, hung up to dry and scraped clean afterwards. A lengthy process, but safer than handling the contaminated gear.
“How’d the mission go?” Thomas asked. “Did anyone get through, or is everyone else dead?”
“No,” Phillip huffed, still regaining his breath as he tossed his shirt and undershirt to the side. “Anderson broke free, making good his escape. Since we didn’t have a clear passage, we retreated, splitting the active zombies between us. He was mounted like us, so I’m guessing he broke free.”
“Except no one knows whether the surrounding terrain is as densely infested with this newest horde,” Jefferson Peters reminded them, poking Taylor in the back, reminding him to continue undressing.
Jefferson looked the role of a preeminent fighter. A middle-aged Hispanic, he had hard features and intense eyes—effective at intimidating dissent in a crisis. Like Thomas, he kept his hair cut close to his head and his face clean, as his several nicks with a dull razor testified.
“It was the best we could do, and he had a free run ahead of him,” Phillip said, dropping his drawers and stepping out of them. Completely naked, he performed a slow turn, holding his hands over his head. “There’s a decent chance he made it, while we gain nothing being overly paranoid.”
“Except the zombies have never been this active, or this congregated before,” Thomas said. “We have no clue what’s attracting them, but it won’t be long until we’re overwhelmed and they start climbing the walls. If Anderson doesn’t make it, or it takes too long to mount a rescue, we may all be dead before help arrives.”
Taylor dropped his own pants, wincing as he did his own spin.
“Let me see under your arm,” Jefferson insisted, poking him again in his side. Taylor lifted his arm, holding it up until Jefferson nodded.
“You’re clean. Go wash up. Red will accompany you, in case either one turns. I’m eager to hear your summary, but I need to remain to watch how the zombies respond. They’re dangerous and unpredictable when aggravated like this.”
“We’re both healthy,” Phillip argued, heading off in his birthday suit. “I hate the idea of someone with an itchy trigger finger accidentally reacting if I sneeze.”
“You know the protocol,” Red said, following them. “We’ve lost enough people who thought they were healthy, but turned in the shower. One free undead inside the compound costs more lives than twenty outside. I won’t shoot unless it’s necessary, but I ain’t takin’ no chances either.”
Red, as his name implied, an Irish redhead, his beard disguised with flecks of white and dirt, hid his face when venturing outside. He was short in stature, a physically strong man but more willing to follow orders than leading a charge. He was often a better disciplinarian than an opinion seeker.
Both men nodded they accepted his logic. It’s what they’d do—and had done before. It was one of the many compromises the living made in this land of the undead.
“What do you think, Thomas?” Jefferson and Thomas surveyed the shambling hordes gathered below. It almost looked like a living brown soup bubbling from beneath, constantly in motion, the occasional spot of fresh blood peering out.
“I don’t know. We’re facing an unparalleled threat,” Thomas said, running his hand along his scalp. “Our small enclave is surrounded, making recon trips all but impossible. We’ve struggled to make our encampment invisible, but if these groups realize we have living here and attack, we may not be able to turn them away. There are more undead than we have weapons to fight them off with.”
“We don’t have a choice. As always, we battle with what we have and hope for the best.”
“Yeah, but without reinforcements, we don’t stand a chance.” Jefferson looked in each direction, scanning for gaps in the assembled zombies. “They’ll catch our scent sooner or later, despite our attempts to diminish their draw. Once they do, they’ll overwhelm us and we’ll be unable to hold them back. Without David’s group, or someone else riding to the rescue, we’re all dead.”
“Still, the work we do here is essential,” Thomas said, always looking for the positive. It was a trait which had helped him convince everyone in the collective to follow him on his insane idea of farming inside an enclosed compound which restricted their bounty. “Our biggest resources are our animal research and breeding program. Because we provide food for the surrounding holdouts, they can’t allow us to be cut off for long. If we’re hemmed in, they stand to starve, so it’s in their best interest to aid us.”
“That’s if they can break through, if they get the word, and if they can spare enough people to win the day. Those are all unlikely, given how thin our communities are.”
“What you say is true, but our survival is necessary to everyone else’s. If we die, so do the others. It would be better for each of the other groups to make a stand here, joining us, than standing on their own. Even if they don’t face the same numbers we do, they don’t have the resources to survive without us.”
“Still, packing up every man, woman and child, dragging whatever they can, and fighting their way here is a tall order. Given how sparsely populated we each are, it’s unlikely they’d survive.” Jefferson peered into the distance, observing the lone road crowded with the mingling undead hemming them in. “Even then, if anyone else abandons their home, we’re lost too. If we lose David’s, we lose their small gas refinery, meaning we lose the electricity we rely on. If Martin’s group goes, we lose their smithy, metalsmithing and pottery, which we need to maintain our ever dwindling weapons supplies. None of us can survive without the others. Even if we could, there’s no way we can feed and house so many additional people with our limited resources. Our best bet is if a small group can break through and help defend us until the horde moves on, before we all return to our own abodes. We’ve never seen these numbers before, there’s no way they can sustain these odds for long.”
“We’ve said the same thing before,” Thomas said. “Yet the undead continue to multiply while the living continually shrink. It’s been over a decade, and we continually lose ground. This may be the new normal and we all face similar odds. If we are, there’s no chance any of us can break out to seek a new home. Without our meager resources, there’s little chance we’d survive on the open road for long.”
“It’s looking like this is the final stretch,” someone else commented beside them. “Either we pull through, or it’s over for each of us.”
Thomas sighed, watching the hundreds of undead stretched before him. “Then let’s pray there’s a solution and we discover it before it’s too late. We’ve fought too long, at too great a cost, to surrender to the inevitable now.”