Zook Country, Chapter 1

 

Chapter One
 

 

I carry a CZ-75 semi-automatic. Bought it when I was a grunt stationed in West Germany, back in the eighties. It was supposed to be this great investment, the perfect combat pistol, unavailable for retail sale in the US. Import law said I had to keep it for six months once I was back, but then I could sell it for ten times what I paid.

I knelt just in front of the burning zook, a 9mm hollow-point silver jacketed round lodged in her breastbone; catalyst for the burn. She still wore the remains of a little red dress. Gary stood, looking around and slinging his fancy Colby slammer, like it was going to do him any good against zooks. A stand of Douglas fir and cottonwood stood thirty feet behind me, huckleberry and salal bushes growing among the trees. I crouched in grass still damp from fog that had burned off a couple hours before.

I didn’t get around to selling the CZ for a few years, then the iron curtain came down and my great investment was just another pistol you could buy in any respectable gun-shop. Well, just another pistol that hardly ever jams, carries fifteen rounds in the magazine, and is good for a three inch shot group at 25 yards in combat. For fifteen years, I thought I’d only ever use it for target practice. Sometime in the last five years, I’ve realized – if I had sold it at ten times what I paid, I’d have been ripped off.

I don’t much like hunting zook. They were people once; they look like people except for the dirt and the way they move. Looking down at the little body, I kind of had sympathy. The little female in the red dress used to be pretty, used to be a part of the future. But a disease had interrupted and taken her life. Metamorphic plague is a million times worse than rabies just for its physical effects.

I dropped the magazine into my palm. Three rounds remaining. I slid in another magazine, then pulled a box of silver jackets out of my vest pocket and started to reload my partial. Out here it pays to keep a full clip in your pocket, spare rounds on your person, and a partner with his wits about him.

I was never so sure about Gary. I mean, we’d teamed for three years and he still carted around that slammer. It had served us well now and again, but it won’t kill zooks and that’s an unforgivable flaw in any weapons system I’m likely to carry.

“Gary, we gotta talk about that slammer,” I said. “It’s a piece of shit. I mean, how many times has that thing jammed on you in a firefight?” Mingled with silverfire smoke, I could smell Green River, which flowed two hundred yards away, too quiet to hear this late in the season. Green River State Park, half an hour drive south of Seattle; kids used to hang here, skip rocks, scare each other with tales of the Green River murders.

“Dunno, Jake,” Gary glanced down at the display on the side of his big toy, tapped a button. “Says here, twice; June of last year, then again last month. Both times it’s cleared itself and I’ve had interrupts of point-zero-zero-three seconds on my constant rate fire for each event. I think it’ll do.” Gary’s slammer is a big gauss gun with a two inch diameter barrel, a carry handle about where the breech would be, and what looks like a one liter, nickel-plated, plastic cola bottle mounted forward of the trigger mechanism. He bought it on the day we founded Seraglio. The slammer fires tiny beads of iron alloys, or flechettes, at high velocities and high rates of fire, for short bursts. The lethal range on people measures in thousands of yards. It has a rifle butt and pistol handle arrangement similar to an M16, but most folks fire it from their sides, hanging from a shoulder sling and using an electronic sighting system mounted in their shooter’s glasses. Gary does that, but I’ve seen him lose the glasses more than once without sacrificing accuracy. Unfortunately, the flechettes pass right through zooks, who get back up and keep coming.

My partner thinks he knows what he’s doing with that thing and he just won’t listen. I was about to ask him what he’d do if I wasn’t there to finish off some zook while he shot at it with that toy, when I saw he’d lost interest in the argument. Gary was looking past me into the woods, eyes narrowing and bringing the slammer round to fire. I spun on one knee away from the dead zook, brought my CZ up in a two hand grip. He was right. There was a flicker in the branches as something slid silently through, casting subliminal images against our peripheral vision. It was an old argument, anyway.

Live zooks don’t show up too good in direct view. Normally, they won’t come near burning zooks either, which was why Gary and I – hell, most hunters – tended to gather round the bodies and watch them burn awhile after we’d made a kill.

Odds were, the one in the woods was a male, probably this one’s mate. Zooks don’t mate after they’re turned, but they’ll maintain an association they had in life if they get turned as a pair. It was real likely these two were infected together; maybe even man and wife before the change. Now she was just a dead zook crone and her bull wanted revenge.

When we brought down the bull, he’d probably be in a fancy suit or nothing at all. Zooks don’t care about clothes. They don’t cast them off, but their natural behavior generally destroys clothing even before it wears out the body. You really don’t want a zook to wear out its body, ’cause zooks may be hard to deal with, but polterghasts take a whole different science to kill. One neither of us is really up for.

That bull zook wasn’t thinking about the smell of silverfire or the probability that it would end up being a little fire of its own. The firs rustled – hard. A body left the cover of the boughs from thirty feet away, flying at us in an arc. The big male had used his arms and legs to push directly out of the trees at us, a ballistic that would have carried him straight to me. Gary’s slammer caught the beastie at the top of the arc and he started to fall, writhing.

My CZ spoke, a triple tap as the beast dropped, skidded to a stop just five feet in front of me, chest down, head at an unnatural angle under his shoulder. Even with the slammer rounds tearing into his body and breaking the momentum, the beast’s leap had cleared twenty-five feet from a dead stop in the trees. Impressive, even for a bull. One of my rounds had passed through, so was a loss, but the other two were lodged. While I searched the body, two small ovals of flame rose from his back.

He wore the remains of a rental tux. I saw it was from Zeno’s rentals. “Got an ID on this one, and the suit’s from central Seattle. You don’t suppose they migrated that far?”

“Naw, I’d guess they were going to a party out here when they got turned. Zooks don’t go far, once the brain starts to fade.”

Gary knew what he was saying, but it worried me. If zooks did pick up the habit of migrating long distances, they’d make an appalling situation worse.

It seems like whenever you find something bad, there’s something worse. Compared to polterghasts, usually called ghasten, zooks seem kind of tame. They don’t like direct sunlight; they’re stupid; they don’t seem to have much fine-motor control, so they don’t use complex weapons. Oh, once in a while they’ll throw a rock hard enough to kill you, but most of ’em never think of it, so it’s one of those tricks you have to remember to watch for. Ghasten are the final stage of modern plague – maybe the deadliest. They can herd zooks, attack people directly with an energy discharge like guided static electricity, and they tear open the fabric of the universe when enough of them gather together. I haven’t a clue how long it took the government to acknowledge the connection between metamorphic plague and the rifts. The admission came while I was in jail, probably towards the end. By then, the whole country pretty much knew.

I sometimes wonder if any of my family lasted long enough to become ghasten. Gary must ask that same question in the dark of the night, but we never talk about it. This plague leaves a host of things to ask the dark, but after more than five years fighting it, those of us that still live have learned to, mostly, block the losses out, waiting for a day when we can start to make sense of our shattered pasts.

Gary and I sat looking at the new body for a bit, smelling roast long-pig. “I’m hungry,” he said.

“I could use a bite.” We got up and started to move away from the bodies. When the plague started, people used to come and claim their kin. There were even some lawsuits for wrongful death when a zook hunter took down somebody’s papa or baby girl. That’s all done now. In ten years, the US has lost almost a third of her population, although it took five of those to get an official acknowledgment that there was a problem. I guess that goes for the rest of the world, but it’s hard to keep track.

Gary has good eyes and usually takes point. It’s weird, him having that big gauss gun and me carrying a little pistol, but it works for us. We moved as quietly as we could toward the Humvee. Gary doesn’t drive a Hummer. It’s a rebuilt military HMMWV, and not real spectacularly rebuilt. Good survivalist transport, back when survivalists were a sub-community. Nowadays anybody who ventures out of doors or takes a job as a hall monitor goes armed and armored. Anybody walking in the great outdoors, and there aren’t all that many of us, learns to look for sign of rabid animals on two legs. They chew branches and throw themselves on the ground to thrash, and they smell like unwashed people with a chemical imbalance.

We knew there would probably be an ambush as we closed on the Humvee, so we slowed down and started to search. But neither of us saw a thing until we stepped out into the abandoned parking lot and half a dozen of them set on us.

Zooks sound like pissed-off great apes on speed when they attack. The creatures roared and chittered as they bore down on us. At least, that’s how it seemed later. Zooks move so fast you only see a confused blur but, if you survive, your mind starts to make sense of the images later.

Gary put three of them on their butts and I started pumping lead at the rest. I got a pair of good rounds in each of two others, at the cost of six rounds, but number three, a naked bull, started jinking. Didn’t look like he was long for the mortal coil, but that meant he had some experience as a monster. Once they start dodging, either Gary lays down suppressive fire, or I have to wait for them to get close. I was shooting at a moving target whose entire goal was to bite, and who was moving so fast he only left impressions in my mind’s eye of where he’d been. I got him, but I had to spin and fire, and wasted six shots wild and one into Gary’s back before I got that bull.

The bull had gone round me and leapt wild toward Gary’s back as Gary concentrated on keeping his targets pinned. That leap killed it, since zooks don’t really fly, and I could take aim on its line of travel. The three Gary had tagged were up and running by the time I swapped magazines, but with the fresh smell of silverfire in the air, they were running away, not toward. Two of them, a young bull and a crone, started jinking right off. The third lit out on a beeline toward the woods, so I fired three rounds at her. Running away, she dodged one bullet and stepped into another, center of mass. Got another three hundred feet or so before she collapsed, bleeding and burning. The heat built a pressure wall in her chest, and her heart and lungs blew out through her lower abdomen as she fell.

Gary went to one knee when I hit him, but didn’t fall. He looked more grateful than angry when I helped him up. Kevlar had saved him before, and it looked like he’d be okay today. These things move fast and unpredictable, and when they get close, there’s just no telling. I’d have felt worse, but I know from experience his cannon hurts a lot worse than mine.

I supported him around to the driver’s side. “You okay to drive?”

“Safer than letting you, thanks.”

Gary’s got a real smart-ass attitude. It’s going to get him killed one day. But not on my watch – not if I can help it.

Things have stabilized, some, in the fight against metamorphic plague. I mean, not many folks take walks in the park when the jogger coming down the trail moves too fast to see, turns out to be red-eyed and mangy with sharp-pointed, inhuman teeth. Everybody but everybody, except me, lives in a secure community. Whether it’s got an automated garage or a locked foyer and guards, it’s designed to keep zooks out.

Some months ago, the Institute said that if you caught the attack in progress, you could douse victims with an astringent, and dose them with one of the new super-antivirals, and they wouldn’t turn. They’d made that claim before though, and it never worked out, so you don’t even try if you can’t get the victim to quarantine within the hour. Most hunters won’t try. The victims usually go zook in between thirty minutes and an hour, but I’ve seen a woman attacked, then killed her in simple self-defense less than five minutes later, so there aren’t any guarantees.

Overall though, the attack rate has slowed. We hunters are busy all the time, but not exhausted and overrun like a few years ago. Some folk are starting to talk unions, limited admission, mandatory safety training for everyone in the field. Zook identification theory.

My theory is, if it runs screaming at me with its mouth open, kill it. It might be a stoner on TCP. It might be a zook. It may even be a garden variety maniac. A 9mm round in the breastbone will work for any of these, although only a body that burns in contact with silver will save you from an inquest.

We drove up to the crone I shot last, just to be sure. She wasn’t going anywhere, and pretty obviously wasn’t going to stop burning until she was consumed. I put a pair of rounds into her head, just for safety, then we drove back toward Renton and home. Gary called in the escape report. The kills we could report online, later, but two known zooks loose in a local park were an immediate action event. The police would send a hunter team on retainer out to pick up the trail. Gary and I were gonna catch some flak in the community over this.

“Gary?” I asked as we drove.

“Huh?”

“Ever seen six attack like that?” The side windows don’t roll down anymore because they’re two inch thick acrylic. Late September morning sun should have felt good coming through the window, but I felt itchy instead, and since I couldn’t rest my arm on the window, I put my foot on the seat, knee up, and rested my elbow on that.

“No, I’ve seen three a few times, but this was a surprise.”

“Think they have a new trick?”

“I don’t know. I think we’d best report it to Gonzaga.”

With metamorphic plague, new is usually bad, and zooks massing to attack was something Gonzaga needed to know. “Yeah,” I said, “I think so too. Look, it could be that we were attacked by two separate groups. They came from opposite sides of the parking lot.”

“If you say so.” He seemed unconvinced, worried.

“Gary?”

“Yeah?”

“You still stuck on that gauss gun?”

Gary gave me a long sideways look. “I like the stopping power.”

“Yeah, but it don’t stop them permanent.”

“Jake, I got you around, so what’s the problem?”

“What if my pistol jams, or I’m taken out. What do you do then?”

“I carry a spare and keep it loaded with silver, just like you keep saying, Jake. Why so much worry?”

“Gare, if you go down because I’m down, I’ll get back up and be one of those things. I need you around to finish it if I’m bit. Those things move faster than we can pull spares.” I didn’t know why, but this exchange always got Gary red in the face and quiet, so we drove in silence for a little. “Look Gare, Colby’s making a new railgun with a built-on rifled barrel. I’m looking at our finances, and I think we can afford to get you one. Then you’ve got your lightspeed rounds and a decent .223 round for close work. Just pull the other trigger.”

“I don’t think I want to be worrying which trigger to pull during a fight.”

“You can program it to fire timed tracer rounds at full auto. Federal’s making a silvered tracer now, just for this market.” I waited a minute, but nothing. “Look, I don’t mean to push, but you got stuck holding down three zooks today, and I shot you trying to cover your back. I don’t wanna do that again.”

Gary might have made a joke, but he didn’t. Instead he just muttered something under his breath. We drove a while, real quiet. Gary kept clearing his throat and sighing, like he had something to say. I kept rehearsing, thinking to tell him that if he couldn’t kill a zook, then the next time my CZ jammed, Seraglio was closed forever. When we reached Kent, he pulled into a Burger King and bought both of us Whoppers with cheese and bacon, onion rings and diet colas.

I don’t trust the security on those places. The typical drive-through is an oversized acrylic tube with silver mesh ribbons hanging down at both ends. The ribbons are sharp, and play hell on the paint job, but if a zook tries to run through, he’ll generally pick up enough silver in his system to ignite. When you reach the pickup window, they extend a tube with a rubber lip on it to dock with the public mailbox style receiver drawer below your car window. Sounds like it should be enough, but you still read about mistakes in the news now and again.

We drove into my old neighborhood, which used to be a suburban hell of McMansions, but now most of the old neighborhoods have been bulldozed, and secure condos are going up closer in. Standalone housing loses a lot of its popularity when disease walks on two legs and pries open windows. I guess the house on 99th Place is a mausoleum to happier days. Nobody else lives in the neighborhood anymore, now that people are flocking into the high security buildings. Three years ago, I got a grant from the city to fortify the house and patrol the area, an odd vote of confidence considering my own rocky adaptation to the new situation.

The house is pretty well defended when I’m gone. Gary and I both have electronic keys on our bodies and in our cars so we can approach. The city doesn’t call my place a house, they call it an observation post, and not only do they pay me to maintain the place, they give me a tax-free retainer for living here.

The house sits in a cul-de-sac. Gary normally pulls into the driveway, sometimes comes in for a beer. He turned around in the circle and stopped at the end of the driveway. I think if he’d owned an eject button, I’d have landed on the back of the old Toyota Celica I drive most of the time. I got out and went up to the front door without looking back. Gary drove off. So much for lunch together.