The man at the front of the room played with a smooth, flat stone, rubbing it between the thumb and fingers of his right hand in soothing motions. He leaned against the large desk and cleared his throat. The six, tired people in the room focused on him. "In case you don't know already, my name is Jed," he said in a slight southern accent. Jed waved his hand in a semi-circle, encompassing everything around them. "This place is called Selah Ranch."
Jed's bright blue eyes twinkled as he looked around at the newcomers and smiled pleasantly. One of the three men, the one sitting in the back of the room near the polished bookshelves, tugged a long brown coat tighter around himself, though the room retained some of the warmth from the early August day.
The small stone slid between Jed's long fingers, disappearing behind them and reappearing, though Jed didn't seem to be consciously playing with it. "I know a little about some of you." He looked at the three women and the tall black man sitting with them. "I heard about your encounter with zombies on Highway 160."
"We were fortunate Claire and Shelly appeared when they did," said the tall man, his voice deep and vibrant. "Those young ladies certainly know how to fight. I'd like to make sure that it was okay for them to bring us here, Jed. You seem to be the leader."
Jed smiled, his long light brown hair moving with the breeze from the open window behind him. "Ted, right?" The man nodded his head. "We're more a family than anything else, so I don't know that I'd call myself the leader. You all are welcome to stay, but we'll get to that in a minute. Right now, could we start with introductions?" He pointed at the man in the coat. "Maybe where you're from? Take as long as you want. Dinner won't be ready for another half hour or so."
The man's blond hair fell into his eyes and he swept it back with his right hand. "My name is Charlie. Charlie Watts." Like the others, Charlie was thin, but had a thick neck and a snub nose covered with dirt and freckles. "I was working in a little Georgia town when the Z-virus swept through. People started getting sick, then some of them started going nuts... None of us knew what to do. I didn't even own a gun or anything." Charlie went silent, looking at the others with angry eyes. "We left - me and my girl. Drove until we were out of gas, but things weren't better anywhere we went. Been moving ever since." Charlie's jaw tightened and he pointed at a smaller man in black. "Wasn't looking to come here. Ran into Sam a few days out and he suggested this place."
"Everyone has similar stories, Charlie. You aren't alone," Jed said. Charlie looked down at the floor and didn't look up.
Sam's black hair stood up in front. He was shorter than the other men, with a wiry build. His black jeans and khaki shirt had less dirt than any of the other refugees. The three-day old stubble on his chin combined with his Roman nose reminded Jed of Tom Cruise. Sam's pale brown eyes seemed to change color as he spoke.
Sam grinned widely. "Name's Sam Tellepin. Not much to say. Born, raised and lived my whole life in Vegas." He laughed. "Well, not my whole life. It isn't over yet." Everyone smiled except Charlie. "Anyway, Vegas got hit hard and fast. The virus devastated the entire city in just a few weeks." He shrugged. "I thought the water carried the disease, so I only drank booze. In Vegas it's more common than water anyway. More Zs kept popping up. I thought it might be the lights. Vegas never went completely dark, you know. Anyway, I decided to head north and travel." He spread his hands. "I mean, why not, right? The tourists are gone, but there are still things to see. Saw a lot, too. Some guys in Fort Collins sent me here. They said to say hi, by the way. Some old guy named Holden and a guy named Hemanth said you might need my skills. I'm pretty good with mechanical stuff." He waved around the room. "And that's my story." He laughed. "Oh. Except to warn you that Charlie snores like a train."
Jed smiled. "For not much to say, Sam, you said quite a bit." Most of the room chuckled and tension eased. "I talk to Hemanth once a week on our radio but I haven't gotten through lately."
Sam smiled. "Hey, I could take a look at the radio."
Charlie spoke without looking up. "I do not snore. You're just saying that to annoy me. You're pretty chipper for a guy without a home and living in the apocalypse, Sam." Jed didn't say anything, but leaned against the big oak desk again, the small stone slipping around his fingers. Jed knew people chose the back seats as power seats, where they could force interruptions when they wanted.
Sure enough, Sam had to turn to face Charlie. "Well, I don't know if 'chipper' is the right word, Charlie, but the world is what the world is and I can't change it. I mean," Sam shrugged, "except for the Zs everywhere and society collapsed and everything, life goes on, doesn't it?"
Charlie made a low sound in his throat, so Sam grinned at him. "You're a funny guy, Charlie. I like that about you." Sam turned toward the small group of women and extravagantly mouthed the words "He snores" and rolled his eyes. The young redheaded girl giggled.
"It is what it is, Sam, that's true. It's been a tough decade for everyone." Jed smiled at the three women, sitting together on his right side. Each of the women wore dirty, tattered jeans or pants and worn shirts that had seen better days half a decade ago. The youngest, who looked like she was in her early twenties, wore a threadbare hoodie that was once green, but was now faded to a dirty grey.
The two older women looked remarkably similar, with long noses and deeply tanned skin. Both had dark brown hair streaked with grey. Their faces were lined and creased, though they looked in their early forties. One had a puckered scar, recently healed, running from her left temple to her chin. She looked at Jed. "I'm Nancy Jessup." Jed couldn't place the accent. There was a slight smile still on her face, though it faded quickly. The depth of her dark brown eyes captured Jed. Nancy took the hand of the woman next to her. "This is Linda Jessup. Linda and I are from south of here, originally from the Baton Rouge area." Nancy stretched the name of the city out as she said it, the final "n" disappearing in the softness of her voice. "Me and Linda have been friends since we were little girls in grade school, living on the bayou. Got married the same day, had kids the same year. Our husbands were cousins." She grinned at everyone and Jed saw her pat Linda's hand. "To each other, not to us." Linda looked at her friend and touched her arm. Nancy continued. "The boys hunted and fished together since they were ten." Her eyes twinkled at her personal memories. "Yes, it's true. We ate a lot of squirrel and catfish. We were safe in the swamp areas for a long, long time, but got pushed out about a year ago. Willie, my husband, and my two little ones were fishing and got turned by Zs. Willie scratched me after, but nothing happened to me." She pointed at the scar near her eye.
Silence fell over the room. Nancy took a deep breath and her brown eyes cleared. "We have no idea why Zs would decide to move into the swamp, but they did. Those cold ones, too, not just the rotting ones. Me, Linda, Linda's little boy Beau and her husband Antoine couldn't stay there anymore, so we headed up the Mississippi. Traveling by boat is pretty easy and mostly safe." She smiled at the young redhead. "We found Fae sitting in a boat, fishing. We pulled up alongside of her and she started crying and laughing. Been together since. She's like a daughter to both of us."
Fae smiled. "I was so happy to see people, real, live, nice, smiling, talking people." Her long hair was bright red, though it was dirty and tangled now. Jed could see her thin wrists at the end of the sleeves of her hoodie, and her cheeks were hollow. "I'm just Fae, if that's all right with everyone." Everyone nodded.
Nancy picked up her tale again. "Eventually we couldn't find gas for the boat, so we left the river." She reached out and took Linda's hand, holding it tightly. "Linda's boy died. We think a rat bit him. He didn't turn, though; just died, kind of coughing and choking. Antoine got the same sickness. He was gone two days later." Linda looked at the floor, her shoulders trembling under her threadbare shirt. Fae put her arm around the older woman. Jed watched large tears splatter on the wooden floor, pain squeezing his heart.
Nancy took a deep breath. "It was pretty easy to find cars, but everyone knows that. Some of them didn't run, of course, but we did okay. Ran across some people that said there were some safe cities in the west, so we got on the freeway and drove. Found a nice Lexus in a garage and drove it this way, but the car quit on us in the middle of the highway and we couldn't find another running one. That was down the road from here. That's when Ted showed up and we started walking. Then those zombies attacked and your people saved us."
"Well, they aren't 'my' people. Over the years we've had dozens of folks come through Selah Ranch. Some stayed and became great family. Some still come and go, depending on how they feel. My buddy Jason left here about six months ago and headed east, but I expect he'll come back soon." Jed laughed. "He'll be missing my cooking by now. Five of us stay here on a regular basis." He paused. "Well, six, maybe." Jed smiled at the women. "Did you want to add anything, Fae?"
"Nossir," Fae whispered, holding Linda's hand. She looked at Jed, blushing. "I'm glad to be here, where it's safe."
Jed smiled at her and Ted stood to speak.
Ted was six foot, two inches tall, but thin to the point where you could see his cheekbones like sharp lines on either side of his face. His skin was a deep black color and his wiry hair was bright white and short, with a bald spot in the back. When he spoke his voice was deep, echoing from somewhere inside his lanky frame. "My name is Ted Phillips. Yes," he said. "I encountered the ladies as I walked along Highway 160. Or, more accurately, what was once Highway 160. Much of the road is in ruins now, from what I've seen, returning to the earth." Ted's frayed clothes were neat, the slacks and long-sleeved shirt brushed free of obvious dirt. Mismatched buttons sewn on with care were visible in the two buttonholes near the bottom of his shirt. "I grew up in the Chicago area, married, had a family, taught school…" he looked at the small group, but his face did not smile."I taught Classics at the University. My preferred subjects were Latin and Greek." He paused, his deep voice added, "None of which prepared anyone for this particular end-times scenario." Now he looked at Jed. "About four months ago I got bored of my continued studies, perhaps a bit lonely, or perhaps I realized the futility of my endeavors. I decided to travel the roads on foot. That's slow going, but I don't mind. I plan to continue heading west until I get to California and the great Pacific, then I might continue walking."
Ted was matter-of-fact and Jed nodded. "I understand. Well, Ted, you're welcome here as long as you wish to stay. That goes for everyone. We'll set you up in rooms in the bunkhouse. You're free to stay as part of the family, or move on as you see fit. We have few rules, but we do think they are important. Without rules we die. My Dad said that, and it's sort of the overriding creed.
"I apologize for the coming lecture, but there are some things we need to know, so we're on the same page.
"If I were to sum the rules up, I guess I'd say don't leave unintentional footprints. Not on people. Not on possessions. If you hurt someone, apologize. If you break something, fix it. If you make a snack, clean up the kitchen so nobody knows you were there. Leaving a mess for someone else is bad manners." Jed smiled and waved toward the small stacks of books sitting on the thick tables around the room. "As you can see, we're a little lax on that rule when it comes to books.
"Don't violate anyone's privacy. Whatever you do, so far as it depends on you, remain at peace with each other. I can help resolve issues, as can my wife Maddie or August. You'll meet the two of them shortly." He grinned at them. "You might want to talk to me first. You'll see why when you meet them. Do your part for the community. That's about it for rules. If you don't like them or you don't want to follow them, you are always free to leave. If you get tired of the isolation and want to move on, you can. We are a small group, and we know it. If you're looking for a larger group, we can help relocate you."
Jed stretched his long legs. The stone slid smoothly over his fingers with unconscious ease.
"You've fought zombies by now, and most people have fought both of the major kinds. There are the cold ones, like Nancy mentioned. We call them persistent zombies because they don't rot like normal zombies. The regular Zs are easier to kill than the Persistents since they are already falling apart. The key thing is not to panic when you encounter zombies. Most folks panic, which leads to errors in judgment. They get bit or scratched and then we have more zombies. Other people panic and the entire process spirals downward. Back in the day we called that an escalation archetype in systems.
"The regular Zs aren't dead. Oh, they're on the irrevocable path to being totally dead, but they roam around mostly dead. As The Princess Bride said 'there's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead.'"
Jed paused for a moment, looking around expectantly. No one laughed.
"Nobody got that? My Dad made me watch The Princess Bride a lot when I was younger. He could almost quote the entire movie. I remember once he said to me 'You know, I think you could go days of normal conversation and only use lines from The Princess Bride.' Thankfully he didn't do that." Jed shrugged and grinned sheepishly.
"Sorry. Got sidetracked. Sometimes I miss the old man."
He continued. "Dad and Mom saw this coming. Well, not this specifically, but some sort of widespread pandemic or catastrophe. They built Selah Ranch to be self-sufficient and secure. Our ranch buildings are fortified and fireproof. We have retreats back in the mountains if we need to leave in a hurry, but so far, we haven't needed those.
"We create bio-fuel for the vehicles we have. That seems to work okay, but we always need good mechanics. Sam, your skills are welcome here. We have working wind power and waterpower, which store energy in our battery rooms and provide electricity. We have access to the aquifer below us and it's extensively filtered, so it's clean and safe. I'm sure you've seen the river, and there's a lake nearby as well.
"We have three greenhouse structures. Two of those are geodesic domes. One dome has a hydroponics garden in it, courtesy of an uncle. We are building another dome to expand our year-round crops. Vegetables are hard, but we also use foods from nature. We'll teach you those.
"We're sort of famous for our horses, but that's due to Claire and Shelly. We keep an eye on the herds, but they run free unless we need a few of them for trade.
"We have free-range cattle close by. We don't run fences. They're too hard to maintain and we have limited manpower. With people gone the wild animals are coming back, so we don't run out of meat, though it takes a bit more effort now. We can't get a package of hamburger wrapped in plastic from the local store." It was grim humor, but got a few smiles.
"Closer to home, we have some chickens and they're free range, too. We never manage to find all the eggs, so the little beggars are everywhere now. I heard that happened in Hawaii on one of the islands, so I guess I'm not surprised." Jed smiled. "There are wild pigs in the woods, too, so occasionally we get ham and bacon. Of course, we've scavenged Spam from the towns and that stuff seems to last forever." He sighed. "I miss bacon.
"We do have a small fenced pasture for goats, but I don't like them much. They're nice for milk, but that's one chore I absolutely can't stand. We have a lot of milk products. Get used to goat cheese." He shrugged. "I'm still working on it, so don't feel bad if you don't like it at first.
"Like everyone else, we scavenge a lot of goods. Clothes aren't hard to find, though I'm sure you've noticed that usable clothing is becoming rare. The food stores in towns are getting too old to be useful. Some of the granaries in the area still have edible grain, but we're competing with other animals for it. We use a lot of corn meal for biscuits and bread. Field corn lasts a long time, and we have a lot of storage for it. We cultivate a corn crop about a mile from here. So far we've done okay with that.
"Ammo is an issue. Normal people and the government used a lot of ammunition in the early years, obliterating zombies by sheer force. Ammo is a premium item.
"We can always use an extra pair of hands to help with something. If gardens are your thing, let us know. If you know how to milk goats…" He looked around the room at the blank stares. "Well, it was worth a try.
"Like I said, we're in contact with a few other groups around the country so there is a pool of skills we can draw from. North America still has some smart people, even if there are only six million of us left. There are doctors and dentists, but if there are lawyers, we don't know about them."
That drew a few chuckles. Jed sighed, smiling. "Okay, toilet paper is a rare commodity. We still can't figure out how to replace that, but I'm sure that after almost a decade of surviving you're familiar with that problem. Dad always said that people who hoarded toilet paper would be the rich ones after the breakdown of society. He was only half-kidding."
"I can find toilet paper if that's what you want," said Sam.
"Put me on your list for some," said Nancy, a slight smile crossing her face.
"How safe is it here?" asked Charlie. Everyone in the room looked at Jed with the same question in their eyes, a deep longing for comfort.
"Well, the river runs to the west of us. That's a pretty good barrier, since Zs normally avoid water." His eyes narrowed in thought. "Though Nancy said the Zs were invading the swamplands, so we should take more precautions there. We have traps laid out that will stop a zombie, but should be obvious to regular folks. We'll show you those."
"Any attacks recently, Jed?" asked Ted. "And how about human raiders?"
Jed shook his head. "No raiders in the last few years, though we had a few raider attacks in the early years. Zs attacked Selah Ranch, but they were small groups from the local cities." He shook his head. "Those were hard times, here and everywhere. The early virus incubated for days, which helped the virus spread. By the time the infected person got sick, he or she already infected dozens of others. Most people now agree that the early virus was airborne.
"Transforming into a zombie happens faster now, depending on the person, I guess. Some people go from healthy to walking zombie in as fast as thirty minutes. Others can still take days. We don't know why, but there are some pretty smart people studying the problem. One of the experts is Claire." Jed grinned. "We're lucky to have her. I'll tell you she is an MD because she never will.
"The first thing the virus seems to do is destroy neural impulses in the brain. The victim becomes essentially brain dead. I already know the question you have. Everyone asks the same question. You want to know what happens to the person, the personality, the soul. I haven't the vaguest notion. Dad thought the soul departed once the brain died, and the individual ceased to exist. I guess I agree. If there's still a person, a working mind in the body after the infection sets in… well, I shudder to think about that, so we'll let it go."
"My Daddy got sick, but he was still himself," said Fae, her lower lip trembling.
Silence descended in the room like a heavy blanket. Jed's face paled. "That's something we need to share with Claire, Fae. She'll want to know." He looked around the room. "Anyone else had some experience with that?" Everyone looked at each other.
Fae hiccupped and swallowed a tear. Nancy handed her a dirty, ragged piece of cloth, what once might have been a scarf. Jed's mouth tightened and his eyes reflected his sorrow. "I'm sorry Fae. I can't imagine… I'll open the window a little bit more. It's about sixty degrees out, but the cool air might help."
Jed looked around the room. "You know about the Persistents. Some people call them cold zombies because they are so pale. They don't rot like the regular zombies. They are faster than normal people, much faster than regular zombies. They don't have super speed; many athletes are as fast. They seem stronger than average, but, again, there are many strong people.
"What zombies have is stamina and numbers. They don't crave brains from the living. What they want is your blood. The more blood, the longer they survive."
"Wouldn't that make them vampires, Jed?" asked Charlie, his voice low.
Jed shook his head. "That doesn't make them vampires, Charlie. In the movies vampires were smart, and zombies weren't." He looked at Fae. "At least we didn't think so." Jed quit talking for a few seconds, the small stone twirling faster around the fingers of his right hand. He shook his head, his hair waving. "This isn't the movies or some novel, though."
Jed sighed. "Zombies might have a heightened sense of smell or instinct to find prey. Zombies seem to be able to find living creatures pretty well. They travel in packs, though single zombies are not uncommon. Packs can be deadly.
"Normal zombies aren't fast and they aren't smart, but once the blood stops flowing freely they move on to other victims, leaving an infected near-corpse behind. A little later, a new recruit joins the ranks.
"You can fend off a few zombies easily. A thick branch, an old two-by-four, a pipe - those work well. Here's the biggest problem. Though the virus isn't airborne now, it spreads on contact. One scratch and you lose. If they even slobber on you or bleed on you and you have an open cut you're at risk of infection." Jed nodded toward Sam. "And there are some indications that the virus survives in water for a while, so a zombie corpse in a water source can affect everyone that drinks from it, though animals seem immune."
Everyone was quiet for a few seconds.
Jed didn't smile, but looked at each person in turn. "It is true that some people are immune. A zombie scratched Nancy and she's fine. The Z virus doesn't affect immune people, aside from some flu-like symptoms. People like Nancy are extremely rare, one in ten thousand or less. They have no symptoms and they don't change. To give you some idea, that means there are less than fifty thousand people like her in the USA and a few hundred thousand in the entire world, though we're speculating on that. Contact with the rest of the world is intermittent at best.
"It seems that about one person in twenty thousand or so has an entirely different reaction to the virus. Synaptic impulses double or triple in speed. Instead of necrosis in the organs, these people develop a form of revitalization. The heart slows, but somehow oxygen use is improved.
"In essence, they become faster and stronger, like the persistent zombies, and they don't age. We call them 'Transformed' but most people refer to these people as vampires."
Jed paused, the small stone disappearing into his right hand. "Like me."