Desensitization: it's an ugly word unless you actually need it. Most people think it dulls you to tragedy, makes your morals looser and your soul that much more hell bound. But it's also what makes a surgeon able to operate, a soldier able to fight, and a garbage man able to pick up litter every day.
Norse didn't know what he was closer to these days: a soldier or a garbage man. All he ever did was clean-up duty, picking up the refuse of one cocked-up incident after another. But the fact that he could stand in the middle of a scene of carnage, facing off against the fall of a minor part of civilization, and feel only a calm numbness meant that desensitization had a firm lock on his heart regardless of what label he wore.
Maybe it was the fact that he'd seen this kind of thing at least thirty times over. There really were only so many ways that the scenario could play out. Here in Grover's Pass, where oaks and pines intermingled with artificial structures in a pleasant symbiosis of man and nature, Scenario Number Seven had occurred - sudden chaos mixed with a heavy helping of human stupidity.
Most of the small rustic shops were now redecorated with smashed glass and sprawled corpses. Several auto wrecks lined the street, cars and pickups mated together in gruesome pairings and threesomes. Growing blossoms of fire danced on various rooftops and tree trunks, fueled by unattended electrical devices and ruptured gas lines. Drying splashes of bloods, random bits of tissue and body parts, and the occasional pile of victims where systematic snacking had taken place - this was all very typical of his line of work.
Norse's camouflage fatigues clashed with the ruin-laced terrain, but blending in wasn't his objective. The rest of his task force was fanning out on the rooftops, in alleys and nooks and other hiding spots along the street. Camouflage didn't matter much anyway, as the targets relied more on their olfactory senses than their eyes. It amazed Norse how they could be so discriminating, considering that he had to smear vapor rub under his nose every two hours just to survive the overwhelming reek that emanated from the disaster site.
In the intersection down and to his right, a half-eaten corpse and a blinking traffic light kept each other company. Sitting on the roof of an antique store and scanning the horizon, Norse's numbness was fading away very quickly. It didn't help that the fires raging around Grover's Pass were spreading far quicker than he had projected, with all those crowding trees acting like stepping stones between homes and businesses. If they turned their backs for too long, the fires might nail them from behind.
Norse applied another dose of artificial body odor to his armpits from an aerosol can, standing up from his crouch to let his body scent filter out into the air and give his targets a nice, juicy trail to follow. He'd wiped off his specialized antiperspirant and odor masking spray an hour back, hoping that the heat of the day and his overworking sweat glands would produce an aroma too tempting for the targets to ignore. When that didn't work, he brought out the heavy stuff. It was like those idiotic body sprays in those equally idiotic commercials many years back, only this spray actually worked as advertised.
"Sir, I've got contacts."
The effeminate voice in his ear was from Scolding. Norse could see the human tank, perched three stories up on a slanted wood shingle roof, looking east. The mercenary had some King Kong in him for sure, though he might also have a little Fay Wray as well.
"How many?" Norse asked, scanning the eastern approaches. Thanks to the acrid smoke from several house fires he'd probably see the targets just in time to be assaulted by them.
"Twelve, sir. A mile out and closing. They're in no rush, but they're coming your way."
"I really doubt that," said a second voice, a far more feminine one than Scolding. Casey was watching the same approach as Norse, poking her head out of a pink-walled bedroom that belonged to a little girl resident of Grover's Lane. The little girl hadn't been accounted for; chances were good she never would be.
"A mile's too far to get your scent, Norse," continued Casey. "They're just doing one of their sweeps. They've been deprived of a food source for three days now - if they had your scent, they'd be running. I think we need to move in, or else we'll miss our window."
"No one's breaking position," cautioned Austerman. "We've got perfect kill zones here."
Austerman and his two helpers, Hector and Sopa, had shifted their positions to a studio apartment over a Chinese restaurant, his SAW poking out of the eastern-facing window none too subtly. He had a perfect view of Curtis Lane, the main street of the town that ran east to west. Anything moving down the street would have to pass him, making his machine gun emplacement a lethal location. The last batch of targets had gone east from the town, searching for more vittles, he assumed they'd most likely be returning from the east like the predictable foraging animals they were. They were just so damn slow about it.
"Yes, Austerman, we know you think you've found the perfect kill zone," replied Casey. "But it'll be useless if the show goes on without us."
"Okay," said Austerman. "Then let's get their attention. I say Norse goes out in his underwear, waves the targets down, and then runs my way."
"That only worked once," said Scolding, "and I'm pretty sure Norse was drunk."
Apparently, they had forgotten Norse could still hear them, or else their professionalism had slipped down one rung too many. Norse sighed as the others bickered over the radio, his fingers rubbing his shaved dome and relishing the prickle of tiny hairs. Sometimes he missed the regimented discipline of the U.S. Military; he'd made the mistake of being too informal with his merc subordinates and he was reaping the results. Shoring up discipline now would be harder than killing a dozen men by himself with only a penknife.
Mercenaries, a.k.a. private contractors, had been around since the dawn of warfare. People tended to forget that country or class or ideology did not limit the profession of soldiering. In fact, sometimes it was better to get a private firm to do the dirty work because it left a layer of deniability that one couldn't achieve with regular armed forces. Much like desensitization, deniability was something that sounded bad until you needed it. Norse and his crew were just one of many contractor operations that Western Civilization employed for dealing with situations that required lots of deniability. Lately, business had been booming due to the Animator Virus... and especially due to the previous ill-advised attempt to stop it.
Though he had no intention of degrading himself again with another act of public nudity, he had to admit that it did rile up the targets. They acted like simple animals, responding to any motion around them with horrifying eagerness. It would be easy to lure them into Austerman's sights with any number of stimuli. But that would blow their cover, which they needed. The targets had to come on their own, or the whole operation would be blown.
Luck was still with him, though - the targets shambled and limped into sight along Harvey Grass Lane, which merged into Curtis Lane. Less than a mile off, which was still too far for everyone except Scolding.
Targets - he could've just called them zombies, but it was too much of a cliché. The twelve specimens heading for him followed the same tired stereotype - their skin sagging, their coloring a hideous rainbow of damage and decay. Their vacant, cloudy eyes might not even work, for all he knew. They rarely made sounds, but when they did it was always a moan or a groan. Limbs that didn't work hung limply or were dragged along. Most of them had serious bites or gouges from head to toe - usually a target was feasted on before it turned, though the targets were never ravenous enough to pick a victim clean.
The decomposing group passed an overturned ambulance, ignoring the few corpses scattered around it. For whatever reason, they liked their prey living or freshly dead. It's why they didn't go after each other.
Reason didn't have much to do with it, really. The Animator Virus wasn't out to remake the world in its own image. It was just out to reproduce, and it liked to do so as much as possible. Infect your host, kill off all the brain cells except for the ones that keep the body running on autopilot, and then send the host out to spread the disease.
The zombies were a problem, but they were a controllable problem. They were slow, dumb, and easy to kill if you aimed for the head. They were surprisingly territorial, ranging ten miles at best from where they turned. Hollywood and pop culture always made zombie apocalypses out to be cataclysmic events, but it was remarkably easy to stop a zombie outbreak if you knew what to look for. The change from human to zombie is not subtle.
If only the zombies were the real problem.
"Sir, I have more movement," Scolding said on the radio. The tenseness in Scolding's voice demonstrated his seriousness, as well as quelled any retorts from the other soldiers.
"How far?" asked Norse, bringing his assault rifle up to the ready.
"Less than five hundred feet. They're in a dead sprint, sir. I might be able to pop one..."
"Negative, let them approach," ordered Norse. He had no doubt that Scolding could snipe one of the new targets, but that would spook the rest. The primary targets were going for the bait, and he had to get them all or else the situation would escalate quickly. That meant letting them get uncomfortably close.
They came in like cheetahs chasing down gazelles. Everything the zombies were, they weren't. Lanky, gaunt bodies with grayish-pale skin. Extended arms and legs at least twice the length of your standard human dimension. Simian heads with darting green eyes and mouths chock full of predatory teeth. Lacking clothes and lacking gender, only the slight differences in their builds allowed you to tell them apart. They didn't seem capable of such physical feats as sprinting with blurring speed or jumping twenty feet forward onto a hapless zombie.
The zombies barely registered their approach, barely reacted when the zombie in the rear was tackled and pinned. The newcomers roared with hunger and ferocity as they marked their prey. The rear zombie feebly tried to rise even as its attacker bit into the dead flesh on the small of its back, chewing with hideous glee. It was biting to feed, smacking down the zombie with a casual slap each time the undead corpse attempt to resist.
Another creature extended its jaw and went right for the neck of another zombie, cleaving it nearly in half with one bite. It rocked back its head, savoring the necrotic flesh and tiny jets of blood leaking out that hadn't fully coagulated. The wounded zombie tried to push back, but the creature held the zombie's arm at bay and continued to tear chunks at its leisure.
In less than ten seconds, eight of the zombies were down - one per creature present. The remaining four were now turning to attack, as was their nature, but the lead attacker easily shrugged them off with their freakishly long arms. Only when the choice parts of their current meal were consumed did they give the remaining zombies their full attention, the creature pairing off and tag-teaming the leftovers.
Not very clean eaters at all, the ground was quickly covered in bodily fluids and discarded flesh. Every zombie was soon down, either feasted or being fed on. They were as close as they were going to get to Norse's position. Once they were satisfied, they'd run for their hidden refuges under the earth, becoming impossible to root out.
Desensitization was all well and good, but Norse still felt his stomach threaten to deposit his field rations over the side of the roof. Some things you just couldn't get used to - watching human corpses getting chewed on was one of them. Taking a deep breath to calm his nervous gut, he quietly gave the squad instructions on which individual creatures to target. They'd have one good moment of surprise, and then things could go very badly very quickly.
Big zombie fight, a ghoul's sole delight, went the ditty in his head as he gave the order to open fire.
Up until seven years prior, Animator outbreaks had been small affairs, confined to the tribes and villages of third-world nations. A few dozen or even a few hundred people would disappear here and there, but that was it. The virus had the good sense to attack the more chaotic parts of the world and keep out of humanity's range of perception until it showed up on the island of Corte, off the Italian coast. The victim count was in the thousands, with tens of thousands more endangered. The reality of zombie infestation had finally caught the world's terrified attention.
Traditional logic would tell you that some kind of massive bombing campaign would be in order. Brutal, pragmatic, cruel, but ultimately necessary. One island decimated to save millions in Europe. But thanks to a private American genetics firm, another solution was hatched. They'd been covertly working on it since the Animator Virus first arrived two decades ago, and they were betting that a desperate Italian government would go for an alternative to wholesale fiery death.
They were right.
Almost every animal infected with the Animator virus died a permanent and painful death - only humans had the privilege of undeath. But it turned out that there was a species of gorilla immune to the virus in all its forms. With some clever genetic tinkering, a slice of human DNA here and there for intelligence, and a few dabs of material from other predatory animals, the firm created the world's first zombie killer. There was a fancier name for the beasts in the scientific journals, but everyone else called them ghouls: the eaters of the dead.
Their instinctive food source was necrotic flesh, which made them more scavenger than predator initially. But they were quick learners, realizing a walking zombie was easier to consume than digging through a wooden casket to get at a moldy corpse. They were designed to take on entire groups of zombies, endowed with a frenzied attachment to feeding and an ultra-fast metabolism requiring regular nourishment. You'd only need one ghoul for every twenty zombies to come out ahead.
They had no interest in living flesh, so they had no reason to attack humans. They had immunity to the Animator Virus, so they could shrug off zombie bites without ill effect. They had no means of reproduction, so the ones that didn't die in battle with zombies would eventually die of accident or old age (old age being three to five years - rapid metabolisms tends to burn out organisms quickly).
People figured there would be unintended consequences; they'd all seen Jurassic Park and every other mad scientist movie out there. There weren't any implants or failsafe switches within the ghouls. Still, they were considered a far weaker threat than the zombie hordes, and at worse the starving ghouls would raid cemeteries for their meals after they dispatched the zombies. It was a risk worth taking, especially when compared to the alternatives.
Amazingly, it worked. Corte was neutralized, all zombies destroyed by an army of seven hundred ghouls. Half the ghouls perished in the process and the rest were captured or disposed off with conventional firearms. Unlike zombies, ghouls were quite alive and quite killable. As far as the public knew, the ghouls all underwent euthanasia and genetic engineering saved the day.
As one might figure, that wasn't the truth.
Two hundred and eighteen surviving ghouls were being shipped off Corte to the American mainland for after-action research and "liquidation" when the freighter carrying them veered off course and ran aground off the coast of Maine. Recovery teams found the crew dead... and chewed on. A few ghoul corpses were recovered, victims of gunfire from the doomed crewmembers, but the rest had swum off. Eyewitness accounts from inhabitants along the shoreline (who were later fed bullshit stories about escaping illegal gorillas from a wrecked African ship) confirmed the ghouls made it to land.
Seven years later, those ghouls were now spread out across the continent. They were perfectly happy to hide in the decrepit recesses of civilization, emerging only to feed. They may be ravenous things, but they knew better than to draw attention to themselves. Known to work in small groups, they often raided cemeteries and morgues, hauling away dozens of corpses for later consumption.
Their numbers were dropping, thanks to people like Norse, but the ones that remained were the worst of the bunch. Their supposedly limited lifespan was longer than advertised, and when they emerged to feed disaster followed in their wake.
The freighter incident taught the ghouls that living humans can become dead humans rather easily. It's not preferred - they're not ripe enough for the palates of your typical ghoul - but they'll do it if they can't get corpses any other way.
Then there was the second problem, and it was much, much worse than the first.
Two of the ghouls were rudely interrupted from their meal as their bodies jerked in tandem to the bullets riddling their bodies. A third one looked up at its dying companions, only to flop over again as the side of its head exploded. A fourth one managed to duck its head down right before a bullet punched its lights out, though its feeding partner undoubtedly didn't appreciate the gesture since the bullet found its chest instead.
Surprise netted them four easy kills, but that was it. The other four were immediately on their feet and running, screeching furious and frantic calls as they fled from their feast. Three of them headed back down the road, angling for a nearby copse of tree and dancing zigzags as they went. The squad had a field day trying to tag them, the nimble creatures almost making it to cover before Austerman's lethal cloud of bullets found two of them and Scolding's expert sniping quelled the third.
None of the others realized the fourth wasn't following suit. None but Norse, who hadn't completely fallen for the ghoul's attempt at playing possum amongst its fallen brethren. It had let the other ghouls run off, hoping they'd draw fire. No, this ghoul had spotted Scolding, the big man's rifle reports echoing like firecrackers, and its wicked teeth were bared in a silent snarl of rage.
Then it spotted Norse looking down at it, and in that split second Norse and the creature understood each other. Leaders recognized leaders. Leaders recognized threats.
Norse's rifle clattered as he pulled the trigger, but the bullets trailed after the darting ghoul instead of nailing it. Loping on all fours for added power, it sped under Norse's position and barreled in on Scolding's perch. The big guy's attention was still focused on the escaping ghouls in the distance - he couldn't see the ghoul coming at him from below.
"No you don't!" Norse screamed as his rifle poured out more lead at the ghoul. But his bullets bit the asphalt behind the creature, his rifle running dry a second later. The ghoul easily reached the base of the shop and vaulted itself up two stories in one mighty leap, grabbing the ledge of a window with its ghastly arms and climbing up.
"Scolding, eyes on!" Norse yelled into his ear radio as he grabbed another clip from his belt and reloaded. "Climber at low 4 o'clock!"
Scolding heard his warning, but stupidly looked at Norse first as if saying "Climber? What's that?" At least he was looking the right direction as the ghoul gained the roof and rushed him. Sniper rifles make poor close quarter weapons, but Scolding managed to make the best of it by swinging his rifle around and batting the ghoul in the head. The ghoul yelped and recoiled for an instant, then snarled and lunged straight in, getting inside Scolding's return swing.
The slanted roof, Scolding's unbalanced position, the strength of the ghoul - Scolding never had a chance. With a cry of denial, the big man fell over backward with the ghoul on top of him and slid down the backside of the roof, vanishing out of sight.
Norse was already heading for the stairs as he called over the radio for Scolding to answer him. Casey and Austerman ceased their shooting and inquired as to what had just happened. They'd been too focused on the other ghouls to see Scolding go down. Their frantic calls for information made Norse order them to shut up as he exited to the ground and circled to the shadowed alley where Scolding had fallen.
Rifle at the ready, Norse entered the alleyway and cautiously walked toward the combined Scolding/ghoul lump near the end. There was no movement or signs of life, though somehow Scolding had landed on top of the beast face down. The ghoul's face was exposed, locked in a rictus of pain and surprise, loose pieces of flesh dangling from between its teeth.
Suspicious, Norse almost put a round into the creature's gaping maw right then and there. Ghouls weren't as resilient as the living dead, but it was hard to fathom that a three-story fall would kill one. Then he noticed the sea-blue blood leaking out from between Scolding and the ghoul, followed by a muffled groan as Scolding began to stir.
"Dear God," said Scolding as he rolled off the bleeding ghoul, his fatigues stained with dark blotches and his right hand clasping a hunting knife covered in fetid-smelling blood. "If I lived in a landfill all my life, I wouldn't smell anything half as foul as that thing."
"You sonofabitch," Norse replied with a relieved exhale, bending down to help Scolding sit up. "Play fake-out on your own dime."
"You thought I faked this?"
"You know what I mean. Shit, you're probably the first guy to survive a wrestling match with a ghoul. There might be a book deal in this for you if we ever get to go public."
"Maybe for my children," Scolding said, his left hand pointing across to his right shoulder, his eyes distant. Norse spotted it, his heart sinking into his socks. What he had thought was the ghoul's blood decorating Scolding's chest was also mingled with Scolding's blood, a serious gash running from neck to shoulder socket.
"Blood infection," said Norse, stating the hopeless obvious.
Scolding reached for a flask tucked under his belt and began to unscrew the lid. "At least we got them all, right?"
"At least," Norse said solemnly.
It was what they all dreaded, what kept every soldier awake in his bed long after the mission had ended. It was why they didn't eat anything that came from a mission zone, why they didn't drink the water, and why they always killed a ghoul from a distance.
The Animator Virus couldn't kill a ghoul, but it could still live inside one. Every surviving ghoul from Corte was a carrier. All their bodily fluids ran thick with it. They were living personifications of the disease and sloppy eaters to boot. Even if a ghoul had no intention of hunting humans, they might contaminate a town just by passing through it.
Norse dropped his rifle to the ground and drew his pistol from its chest holster. "If you want me to..."
"Don't do that, sir." Scolding held out his hand. "The pledge is the same. If it happens to any of us, we don't make anyone else take the burden."
"You realize that's total bullshit," said Norse, handing over the gun. "We'll feel the burden no matter what."
Walking out of the alleyway, his back to Scolding, Norse knew he needed to contact the military CO at the Grover's Pass blockade and call in the biohazard teams. The politicians always chomped at the bit about getting civilization rolling again and the media diverted to other tragedies. There had to be cleanup and sterilization, lies corroborated and witnesses paid off. Grover's Pass would suffer a disaster but it wouldn't be the one it actually suffered. His part was basically done, at least until the next flare-up occurred.
But he still winced when he heard the pistol go off behind him. He still felt the world stop for a moment, if only in his mind, as another friend took his leave. He still said a prayer for the fallen and still found himself dreading the lies he'd have to tell in the letter he'd be sending to Scolding's wife and children.
Desensitization was a joke; only the dead felt nothing.