Dominic stood as upright as he could, a labored challenge due to the many injuries suffered in the last few hours. It was nearing mid-day, and the heat was beginning to wear on the men fighting for their right to live. Near him, Mason reeled from several rips to his shoulder caused by the creature towering above them.
Its long gangly form stretched in every direction with a look of malnoutrishment to the point it appeared to be suffering from muscle atrophy. The arms and legs are drawn so thin it was hard to determine if muscles were actually present. And then it moved.
Silent and graceful, the creature stalked around the two men with such fluidity that it nearly appeared to be floating. Its speed was well beyond that of anything ever to walk upright.
As it stalked around, feet from Dominic and Mason, it eyeed hem both, back and forth, recognizing its disadvantage in the two to one stand-off. It then lowered itself, placing its hands on the ground to move on all fours. Its long arms serving to keep this position from being awkward for it, and it now resembleed a very large, rabid animal. Its taught skin appearing to nearly snap and break its tension around the long form.
It backed away. Not in fear or a lack of confidence, but tactically. It knew it had the advantage in speed, and the stillness of the two weary men presented an opportunity for the creature to further assess the situation.
In the field between them and the stand-off, Franklin hastily approached, but was hendered by the uneven terrain of the grassy field. In his approach, he stepped on a dried stick and snapped it, alerting the creature.
It stands back to its upright position, allowing it to look over its foes to glimpse the third combatant nearing the scene. It had to do something now, or the disadvantage of three to one would be nearly impossible.
Mason, seeing the feral zombie tip off the addition of one of his friends, took the opportunity to move to the side. This maneuver eliminated one small advantage for the creature in that they were side-by-side. Standing several feet apart, it could only attack one at a time; opening itself up for an attack from the other.
Dom could see the strain this put on the wild thing’s face as it ran through a way to resolve this predicament in its mind. “Hey,” he said to Mo softly, not wanting to provoke an attack just yet, “It’s thinking. This fucking thing is smart.” His tone was deliberately unaggressive, and threw the creature off even more.
It had watched them from the trees after they arrived the night of the Awakening. More specifically, it took special interest in watching Dominic, who displayed recklessness and anger, and this behavior was unexpected.
“If I can catch this thing,” Mason began, his voice was somewhat hurried, but low in volume, “you better stick it.”
Mo took another sidestep, crossing his feet in a deliberately cautious manner, and prepared his mind for a fight. It was something he had done many times over the years as a mixed martial artist.
A phenomenal fighter with an careless regard for his own safety, Mason had splashed onto the regional fight scene an instant contender, but took an excruciating beating in his last fight that left him hospitalized with swelling in his brain.
This was a different situation, he knew. A bad result here was not going to end with a blemish to his record, but with the loss of one or more lives. As quickly as the thought formed in his mind, his decision was made. He would gladly give his last breath if it meant his daughters still had a chance.
One more slow sidestep to position himself and Dominic on either side of the creature. It had to be this moment, and he rushed in. A quick glance to Dom, and he tossed the knife in his hand softly into the air. Time passed slowly for him, but the speed of his enemy was electric.
With a quick swipe, the wild one lashed out and caught Mason in the chest. “Damn he’s strong,” Mo thought to himself. The blow caught his bulletproof vest, and its clawed ripped into the fabric encasing the armor. It knocked him to the side, and to the ground. He recovered quickly, righting himself to a knee, and using his legs to shoot forward in an attempt to take the creature’s legs in a grapple.
He found success in the maneuver, but underestimated its ability to fend off the attack with pure strength.
Dom watched the knife land at his feet, grabbed it, and made his move. With Mason’s arms wrapped around its legs, it became very vulnerable, but still a formidable opponent.
It seemed to sense Dominic’s attack, and allowed itself to be taken to the ground. The sudden lack of resistance shook Mason who landed awkwardly on its legs; breaking his grip.
It slashed at Mo again, ripping the back of his vest along with part of his shoulder blade and shoulder. Mason rolled away just as Dom lunged with the knife, bringing it down from an overhand attack, missing the beast’s head by an inch as it also rolled to the side.
Dominic was slightly off-balance now, but the creature was unable to capitalize as it scrambled for survival.
Mo lept again, spearing the feral zombie with his shoulder dead center of its elongated torso. It let out a grunt and muffled roar as it felt the weight of Mason land atop it. In the scuffle, however, Mo’s momentum caused him to skid over the top, and lose position.
Dom, injured and weary, watched and waited for another chance. He knew that, especially in his current condition, his friend had to shoulder the burden of this assault.
The creature growled, rolled to its stomach and sprang upright with a supernatural quickness, its eyes locking on to the knife wielder.
With its back turned to him, Mason rolled and brought himself to one knee. “Why isn’t it attacking,” he yelled to Dom before leaping forward from his lowered position.
Mo had it now. Even with its staggering height difference, he managed to slide his arms around its body, raising them to fit his elbows into its armpits, and locking his hands behind its head.
The beast made no attempt to escape. It accepted the result, and never broke eye contact with Dom who stood quietly with the knife in his hand. He studied the wild one for a moment. Dom took the knife, holding it gently between the fingertips of each hand.
“You’re going to die now,” he told it. “Do you understand what that means?”
The creature grinned before looking away; finally breaking its gaze upon its soon to be killer. “Yeeeesss,” it said in a breathy voice as if it took every molecule of air from its lungs to say the single word. “Buuttt, n…n…noowww hee knowssssss.”
The words took them both by surprise, and Mason almost lost the focus to maintain his hold. Recognizing this, Dom secured the knife in his right hand once again, and lowered it before quickly bringing it up into the fleshy area between the chin and neck. The tip of the blade slid quickly and decisively through the creature’s head until the tip of the knife stuck out from the top of its skull.
Mo felt its body go limp, and released it. It crumbled to the ground, falling in a way that the back of its head laid upon floor of the woods. It eyes were still open, and it seemed to be looking into Dom’s eyes once again.
The two men took a moment to collect their thoughts. There were so many questions swirling for them both, but the two mutually agreed to remain silent as they glanced at one another before trying to relax.
Having been consumed by their fight, neither of them had noticed Franklin still approaching in a slowed sprint across the field of tall grass, and the unseen lumps and divots. “Where did it go,” he shouted in a panic.
Dominic looked up at him, “Look, mother fucker, it’s right here.”
Angered, Franklin continued looking around Dominic and Mason, frantically searching for his missing figure. He then eyed Dominic intensely, “There was another one just standing and watching. It was right…” His voice trailed away as Jed pulled up in a truck, killed the engine, and stepped down from it. “You saw it, right,” he turns to Jed and asks.
“If you’re talking about the mad scientist lab coat wearing asshole, nope,” he mocked with a grin on his face.
“Wait,” both Mo and Dom said in unison.
Dom continues, “There was another one here while we were fighting him?” The question ended with a kick to the ribs of the zombie dead at their feet.
“Him,” Jed asked with hesitation. “You don’t recognize her do you?”
Mason knelt beside the body, looking it over trying to make a connection. He knew this person, but the time and place swirled about his mind without coming immediately forward. Dom remained standing, not wanting to deal with the pain of getting a closer look, but made the connection the moment the wind swept the zombies chaotic hair from the side of its head.
“Holy fuck,” he exclaimed. “Mo, this…” He tried to find the best way to say it without sounding as if he’d seen a ghost. He inhaled and exhaled slowly before continuing, “This was the chick we saved at the trailer park. Look at the ink on her neck!”
Confusion set upon Mason’s face quickly as he tried to organize his thoughts. “Are you sure,” he asked. Those earliest moments of the night were a blur to him now, and he questioned how someone could go from being human to such a powerful beast in less than a day. Especially considering that she was human when they found her, making her one of the last to turn.
Franklin and Jed stood silently. They were both unsure of what do to help their friends. Then, something alerted Jed, causing him to bring his rifle back to a ready position.
Plenty of light shown through the thick wooded area, and it now lit an even larger group of zombies making their way toward them, with a lone, well kept figure leading the way.
“Is there nobody else they can go after,” Jed complained.
Having been spotted, the leader of the group stopped moving forward, and allowed the horde of draggers to move ahead of him.
“How many of them are there,” Franklin asked without expecting an answer. The men could see that it was the largest group they had seen, and were all thinking the worst.
A second later, the group stopped completely before a single zombie began walking at the survivors. A second one then began walking, and then a third. They formed a single file line directly in front of the leader, and slowly walked ahead. This continued until they lost count of zombies marching their way.
Jed took aim once the first zombie was roughly twenty yards away, fired a single round, and dropped the one leading the line. It fell slumped over to the side, and those behind it simply marched around it.
Jed fired again, and the line shifted once more.
“Wait,” Mason said, putting his hand up to signal a stop. He lowered his hand, and gripped the handle of the knife embedded in the dead creature next to him. He removed the knife, “Save your rounds. If they’re going to make it this easy on us, we’ll stick ’em all without a fight.”
The march continued until the first in line was just under ten yards away. Jed kept his sights trained on the one in front.
“Greeeeeeetiiings,” it breathed, startling Jed into pulling the trigger. As it slumped to the ground, the second in line took its place.
“Pleeeasssse,” it begged before slumping down beside its counterpart after another shot rang from jed’s rifle.
The near fluidity of the continuation of speech was impressive, but the men struggled to understand how. They appeared to be sharing a collective mind. The moment one died, the next one in line awoke and maintained the communication.
“Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot,” Franklin uttered under his breath.
“Pleeeasssse, I assssk yooouu tooo,” another shot rang out as Jed squeezed the trigger once more.
“Aaallllooww meee to speak.” The line of zombies grew shorter toward the front, but the moment one fell another took its place in the back.
“Damnit, Jed,” Dominic scolded half-heartedly; more upset that he kept having to switch his attention to another dragger. “What do you want?”
Jed relaxed, sliding his finger to the side of his trigger guard rather than on the trigger itself.
Once this happened, the line began to shift and part to both sides, creating a walkway for the one controlling them. It took roughly thirty seconds for him to reach a reasonable distance from the men, and he began to talk.
“Thank you,” he began with a slight scratch to his voice. His speech was easy; not labored and breathy like the others, but a point was made to say it’s word with deliberate and enunciated patterns. His posture and look was that of a healthy man, but his skin held the muted look of a dead body. A dirty, but unstained, lab coat rested around his shoulders, and came together at the front where his hands sat in his pockets. Other than the dirt and obvious look of death, this particular zombie looked very much like a human.
“I simply wanted to take this opportunity to show my appreciation. I’m sure by now, you all have questions that don’t seem to have an answer. However,” he grinned at Mason, “You and your friends have earned a bit of a reputation.”
Dom stood tall, unintentionally puffing his chest slightly, “Yeah. My reputation is hangin’ like a horn. Wanna blow it?”
A slight chuckle came forth from the zombie standing before them. “Perhaps in my former life,” he said with a smile. It tried to wink, but only managed to slightly squint one eye. “Now, if you don’t mind, I have a proposal for you.”
The men looked at one another, not exactly sure what to do next. They all decided to say nothing, and waited for it to continue.
“Good,” it said with confidence. “At least you are willing to listen. Would you walk with me?” It made a nod toward Mason, and turned to walk.
Mason looked at his buddies. They returned the look, and Mason saw Jed slide his finger down to the trigger. They exchanged looks, Mo’s saying, “Don’t miss.”
The two walked away, slowly and casually. “You need not have him point that at me,” he said. “But, if it makes you feel more comfortable, I will not take offense.”
“Fuck’s sake, asshole, I don’t care if you’re offended or not,” Mason blurted out. “I want answers, and you said you have ’em.”
“Indeed,” was the response. “Oh, where are my manners? My name is Jeonn, but you may call me whatever you wish.”
Mason turned and asked loudly, “Hey Franky, what do you want to call this prick?”
Franklin looked confused, and simply said the first thing that came to mind. “Xena the Warrior Princess!”
“Alright, Xena,” Mason grinned, “you have my attention.”
“Aren’t you going to tell me your name,” Jeonn asked politely.
“Nope. You can call me Björn.” The name meant nothing to Mason, only that it appeared within his mind above all other possible options.
“I see,” was Jeonn’s response as he stopped walking. “That is definitely worth noting.” He took the moment to look Mason over. “Definitely worth noting,” he said with emphasis, taking another step to continue their walk.
“Start doing actual talking or that rifle behind us shuts you the fuck up real quick.” Mason’s tone was growing hostile and impatient.
“Ask me a question, then.”
“What’s going on,” Mason began and quickly cut himself short. “I mean, why are you…well…you? And why did we,” he asked, making a slight encompassing motion toward his friends, “not change?”
“Ah. Right to the entrée,” Jeonn said with a smile. “No foreplay with you, but a satisfying question indeed.”
Mason O’Conner stopped walking, grabbed the arm of Jeonn, and turn the zombie to face him. “Answers. Now.”
“Of course, Björn. Of course. But,” a smile appeared on Jeonn’s face, “we’ve yet to discuss my proposal.”
Anger began to swell within Mason’s mind, “Answer my questions, Xena, or I nod to my friend back there and that round plays pinball inside your skull.”
“An unmistakable point, Björn,” said the creature in the lab coat. “I’ll do this for you. After all, you showed a level of trust by walking with me.”
Jeonn began walking once more. The pace remained slow and carefree. “I was reborn as you see me now. Before the Awakening, I was a geneticist. Suppose I still am. However, my mind has grown in the knowledge of my field. For instance, you and your friends back there share something that we, and others like me, do not. A genetic variance that, in some, makes them more than human.
“You see, not all of the Unturned have what you have. And by that, I mean, their new evolution did not trigger as yours did. You truly are special. Of course, as evident by your friends there, you’re not a singularity in this evolutionary event. It is rare that four such as yourself and your friends all have the gene that ignited the evolution, but there are others.”
Mason shook his head slowly, “So, we’re evolving? Doesn’t that take hundreds of years?”
Jeonn smiled again. “The virus you know as Covid-19 is not what they say it is. Your media. The world, even. You’ve all been lied to. Tell me, Björn, have you seen any African Americans that were Unturned? Hmm? Allow me to assume you haven’t, because there are none.”
Mason began to object, but had nothing to truly object to. Jeonn was right. So far, he had not seen anyone that had survived that was of African ancestry. In a town with a larger than normal minority population, it was devoid of diversity.
“The answer to your next question is quite simple. The genetic traits I speak of trace back to the Neanderthals. Your ancestors, I’d wager, are Scandinavian. Yes?”
Mason eyed the geneticist.
“Of course. That is why you called yourself Björn. I’m aware that is not your real name, but why, of all of the possibilities, did you give me that one? Satisfying, is it not? The virus has attached itself to your DNA, and has begun changing you. All of you. Your friend there with the gun aimed at my head. American Indian, am I right? I thoroughly enjoyed watching him last night.
“You see, I know you all better than you know yourselves right now. You want to be my friend.”
Mason looked over at Jed who looked back questioning the intent. “Your proposal. What is it?”
“Fair enough,” Jeonn remarked. “My master wishes to form a sort of alliance. At the Awakening, he and three like him rose to power rather quickly. But, the others formed a pact to remove him. I guess you could say, it’s a territorial dispute. They all want the city, and, you know, boys will be boys. They’re awfully bad at sharing, and we simply do not have the numbers to fight this war.
“Help us, and we will help you. Your family. You want them to be safe, don’t you?” Jeonn left the matter hanging in the air. He turned, removing his hands from his pockets, and held them out to show he had no bad intentions. “Do not answer me now. Today was just to see you fight with my own eyes. You and your friends exceeded expectations. ”
With those words, Jeonn turned his toward the large gro of zombies, and began to walk away. “I’ll return soon.” His hands remained outstretched until he was well enough away, placed them back into his pockets, and disappeared into the horde. They all turned, and slowly left.