14: Saving Mankind’s Last Hope
In spite of everything,
I still believe people
are really good at heart.
The group awaiting Leza was different from before. The same men stood waiting, but there was a new component of four women: Helen, a medic; Linda, the Collective’s veterinarian; Cynthia, Fredrick’s assistant and Rebecca, a community cook. What’s more, the women were positively bubbly, fidgeting with excitement rather than the dread the men had faced their previous encounter with.
“There she is!” Rebecca cried.
“Right on schedule,” Thomas declared. “For someone without a watch, she’s got a natural sense of time.”
“Has the number of zombies grown?” Phillip asked.
“It’s increased every time we’ve encountered her,” Jefferson said. “She claimed those surrounding the Collective before she arrived were waiting for her, somehow anticipating her arrival. She absorbed those and then wandered around, picking up any strays. Yet even after she adopted every orphaned zombie, she keeps adding more.”
“For each one she picks up, it’s one less we have to worry about,” Thomas reminded them. “It’s like shooting undead on the farm, any too preoccupied to threaten you aren’t a risk, instead they’re helping you.”
Shouted commands echoed behind them, followed by an aborted squeal by a pig.
“Are you nervous?” Linda asked.
“Are you kidding? Incredibly so,” Cynthia replied, trying to guess how many followers trailed the woman who led them today. “This could go south in so many ways, but anything is better than sitting inside a walled compound, worrying what might happen. However, the chance we can domesticate the undead, keeping them out of trouble and unlikely to attack, is an opportunity we can’t pass up. Being on the front edge of such an innovation is intoxicating!”
“Please, don’t pee your pants,” Taylor complained. “It’s not such a walk in the park. One wrong move and everyone might be slaughtered. Believe me, with that many undead surrounding you, there’s literally no escape. This is going to be an extremely long day, and you’re unlikely to sleep a wink tonight.”
“I’m not so sure,” Fredrick said, surveying the newest volunteers. “They’re so wound up, they’re likely to be exhausted after everything is said and done. They might surprise you.”
“Actually, from what Leza keeps saying, I doubt it’ll be that bad.” Helen took in her companions. “Women have been nursing difficult patients for thousands of years. From combative family members, drug addled patients, disruptive school children stronger than us and whining babies heading for disasters, we’re used to coping with danger while helping others. We’re well aware of the potential harm—after all, we’ve watched everyone we’ve loved killed by zombies. Yet if we can change the nature of our conflict, believe me, we’re all in.”
“I still suspect you’re underestimating the danger,” Taylor cautioned, unintentionally holding his sheathed knife. “Despite our having survived our encounter, there were so many times we screwed up and might have been slaughtered. The potential for disaster is astronomical!”
“Yet Leza’s prepared for that. We’re feeding the zombies,” Linda said, even as the front gate opened and women began carrying the bowls of fresh blood out. “They won’t be as edgy or desperate. They’re used to Leza, and are now accustomed to you guys. Face it, however long it takes, they’re adjusting. It’s like the early domestication of dogs. While working with wolves is always dangerous, they understand the mutual benefits. If you’re aware, give them their space and respect them, you’re unlikely to be injured.”
“Just don’t get cocky,” Jefferson said. “That was Leza’s first lesson. Always be watchful. Yet her second was to remain relaxed. However you’re managing it, you seem to have the second part down pat. Don’t let paranoia crop up when you start to tire.”
Leza, now half way towards them, held her people back as Rebecca’s cook staff companions set the bowls of blood down before hurrying back inside. Once they were done, she pointed out seven individuals, who broke from the pack and trotted forward.
“I hate to say it, but her zombies are majestic,” Rebecca marveled. “They’re healthier than we’re used to, disciplined, they follow orders like the Queen’s Guard and they know what they’re doing. They’re not so terrifying once you get down to it.” She turned and glanced at Taylor. “Besides, your voice is terrible. I’m not sure your singing sooths the savage beast, or they behave to shut you up!”
The girls giggled, which didn’t please their male companions. The advance zombies knelt, drank their share and collected the spare vegetables, before returning, the next team already heading out to replace them.
“See, they know what they’re doing,” Rebecca said. “This is old hat for them. They aren’t as unreliable as you’re afraid of.”
The men grumbled, but gave up arguing the point. They’d have to monitor the women, calling them on it if they took too many chances. Yet as Jefferson acknowledged, their being relaxed was safer than their being as paranoid as the men were on their first foray.
When Leza left her people behind, reaching the increased group of humans, the girls let their excitement bubble over.
“It’s such an honor to meet you,” Cynthia gushed, rushing several steps forward to shake her hand. “You don’t realize what this means to me. You’re doing what everyone has always wanted to do, to make the zombies more human, more approachable and more reasonable.”
“She speaks for all of us,” Helen said. “You’ve done what no man, no matter how tough, has ever dared attempt. What’s more, you make it look so easy.”
“Believe me,” Leza said, blushing at their praise, “it’s anything but. I’m continually monitoring them. They’re a little like herding cats. It’s difficult keeping them on target as their minds wander. That’s especially true when I’ve tried to include humans in the mix. It doesn’t take much to startle and frighten them, at which point their hunger returns with a vengeance.”
“Well, we’ll try to avoid making that mistake,” Rebecca giggled. “Still, with eight of us this time, it’ll be a little easier herding those cats. Certainly simpler than when you were doing it all by yourself.”
“Ah, but I never had so many surrounding me; nor did I have to worry about everyone’s actions. I was always cautious about encountering other humans, but at least those encounters were few and far between—which is partially why I sing when I travel—just so I don’t surprise anyone.”
“Yeah,” Martin interjected, “there’s nothing that puts the fear of God into someone as a beautiful woman singing. It’s no wonder you’ve never had any problems with them.”
Leza straightened her shoulders, standing ramrod straight. “Believe me, I’ve had plenty of troubles over the years. Never assume this has ever been easy on me. I’m always aware of the potential for disaster around the next corner. Frankly, the thought that inviting you men along was a fiasco only occurred to me every couple seconds. I was as surprised as you were when you all survived. However, my extended family always surprises me, demonstrating their humanity at the oddest times, in the strangest ways.”
She motioned the women to gather around her. “You’ve no doubt heard all the details from the men, but they were likely trying to impress you with how brave they were. So let me discuss the basics, in case there’s anything you might have missed.”
This trek, unlike the last, was almost a joyous expedition. The women’s enthusiasm and excitement—despite knowing the potential consequences—was contagious. The zombies caught their excitement and sang along as best they could. The women figured out their vocal abilities—unlike the men—and quickly adapted their delivery. Now, they sang instructions to the individual zombies, asking Leza what each was named.
Leza tried to remain separate, evaluating how the men conducted the exercise, but didn’t mind giving the women a personal glimpse into the lives of her people. She grinned, observing the humans and undead interact, getting along and enjoying spending time together. It was a far cry from the situation they encountered only a week ago. The women took the time to brush the hair and comment on the zombies’ dress. They might be deceased, but they still appreciated knowing they looked good. After having spent years without a mirror, even the undead feel self-conscious.
The three men were more taken aback, used to taking the proceedings with a degree of resigned paranoia. To get the men to relax, the women wrote notes bearing puns and had individual zombies deliver them to wear down the men’s skepticism. Once they realized the women weren’t likely to antagonize their wards, they allowed them to take the lead, though they remained along the edges, still planning their respective escape routes if anything went wrong. The women sent them notes about that behavior as well, enjoying teasing the grumbly old sourpusses.
The four women led the procession to Leza’s house, from where they planned to set out for their overnight trip. Leza monitored everything to take corrective actions if anything went amiss, but wanted the men to gain experience teaching and the women to feel they were in control. The women, of their own accord, had taken different positions in their procession. Cynthia took the lead. She imitated Leza wearing a colorful flowered dress so they couldn’t miss her. She’d let her long hair down, letting it hang loose, her smile leading the way. Linda and Rebecca marched on either side to monitor anyone meandering, as well as watching for any wayward, unaffiliated undead. Helen took up the rear, encouraging any laggards to pick up the pace. The men continued pointing out various items to the women, as well as correcting their various undead brethren, but allowed the women to get used to dealing with them on their own.
They swung around a corner in the decayed, unmaintained road, when a loud, unmuffled gas-motor roar echoed over the assembled walkers. As the zombies halted, cocking their heads and bearing their teeth at the abrasive noise, gunshots rang out.
Leza, despite her unofficial role, rushed forward to protect her people. As she ran, the undead parted, allowing her to proceed much as Moses strode across the Red Sea. The men grasped their weapons—despite Leza’s warnings—moving ahead, while the women remained behind to calm the excited zombies—a clear recipe for disaster with the humans amongst them.
More gunfire erupted, and as the undead parted for Leza and the three warriors, they witnessed the source of the confrontation.
An old reconditioned jeep, the engine still running, sat before them. Two men wearing fatigues and hoisting assault rifles stood in the back. Two dead zombies, their brains splattered on the broken asphalt, lay before them. As they watched, the men opened fire, striking several more.
Leza screamed “No!” rushing forward and waving her hands.
The men in the jeep, accompanied by two motorcycles and a small truck, turned. The members of the Collective recognized them. One was Anderson, their warrior sent for assistance a week ago. The other was David Nash, the leader of the Pump Brigade, a Collective partner running an oil/gasoline processing site containing sixteen men, women and children.
When Leza screamed, the men turned, their guns still firing, attacking whatever challenged them. She was hit twice, as were several of her zombies, her body twisting as it fell back. She struck the ground, groaning as her body bounced on the broken surface, clutching her chest. There was a collective gasp of a thousand zombies as the eight humans tensed, anticipating a disastrous response.
“Stop!” Jefferson screamed, forgetting to keep his voice low. Linda, Rebecca and Helen sang louder, trying to minimize the disturbances and calm the distraught undead, who edged forward, snarling. Cynthia followed Jefferson, ignoring the danger hoping to assist Leza before it was too late. Helen, one of the Collective’s medics, was too far back to intervene, so focused on keeping the undead pacified. “You shot mankind’s last, best hope!” Jefferson shouted. “You’ve condemned all humanity!”
A chorus of moans began sweeping the area, as thousands of undead tried to surround Leza, expressing their anger and desperation. The sound echoed over the area, casting a sense of dread over everything. Leza lay bleeding on the road, accompanied by her zombies assassinated by David Nash’s Pump Brigade. The women reassured the undead, directing them as the men dealt with David’s people and tried to save Leza.
“Wha?” Anderson asked, not believing what he’s heard, or possibly not hearing it over his gunfire.
“YOU’VE... shot our last, best hope for surviving as a species!” Afraid of the noises effect on the undead, he pointed at the truck, making a slicing motion with his hand. Accustomed to military hand signals, the drivers cut their engines, though they kept their weapons handy. Jefferson repeated the action for the two motorcycles, while waving the jeep with David and Anderson closer.
Phillips rushed in, ripping Leza’s dress open to evaluate her wounds, her blood causing it to cling to her skin. The women sang directions, reassurances and cautions, trying to calm the angry zombies crowding nearer and growing angrier. Cynthia—who worked with Fredrick and knew some nursing care—rushed forward. Shoving Phillip aside, she started treating Leza while singing out what her state was. That, more than anything else, prevented the undead from going berserk. They were more interested in knowing whether Leza might survive than in avenging her—for the moment!
“Put your guns away, idiots!” Jefferson insisted as David’s jeep neared. “Kill the damn engine before you get everyone killed.”
David and Anderson glanced at each other, trying to decide whom to trust.
“Act now or I’ll have these zombies tear you limb from limb! We’ve got to get her to the Collective, the sooner the better, even if the noise gets us slaughtered.” When he received nothing but blank stares, he grabbed Anderson and dragged him off the jeep, eliciting heightened, angry snarls from the undead near them. “Grab a stretcher and take her to our refuge. Ignore the zombies; they aren’t your concern. Tell them Leza’s been hurt. They’ll know what to do. Ask for Fredrick, no one else is qualified to treat her.”
That broke the stalemate. Without understanding what they did wrong, David’s people understood the power dynamic had shifted. Somehow, they’d screwed up by rescuing the Collective from the undead horde holding them hostage. Now Jefferson, a battle-hardened warrior, was assuring them the undead weren’t a threat unless they took too long, at which point they’ll be wiped out. They didn’t have enough bullets to fight off a fraction of that amount. They realized the mess they stumbled into. They’d hoped to force their way through a small contingent of the undead, reaching the Collective where they planned to reinforce them. They had no idea of the numbers involved, and while shooting a human female was bad enough, the fact this many zombies and humans could exist peacefully was astounding. Yet the tension over their mistake threatened to unravel whatever magic held the fragile peace together.
Anderson grabbed the stretcher, as he and the driver jumped down by Leza and Cynthia. Three zombies snarled, but Cynthia sang that they were here to save Leza’s life. The two men couldn’t understand the words, but noted it calmed the zombies, likely saving their lives. David placed his rifle down, motioning his men to do the same, and joined his men in rendering aid to a woman he’s never seen before. Jefferson slung David’s gun as far as he could, as a sign David would live or die solely on whether he could save this one woman.
As the men reached for her, Cynthia struggled to stem her blood loss while binding her wounds. “Careful,” she warned, her hands covered in Leza’s blood, “she’s highly contagious!”
The two men hesitated, the zombies nearest them growling in unison. Frustrated, Phillip and Taylor shoved them aside, settling her on the prepared stretcher and lifting it—while Cynthia kept treating her.
“Zhe bally hurr,” Cynthia sang. “Lou Noise nee to zav her.” She wasn’t as concerned with her tone or notes as much as conveying her message in terms the undead would understand.