Meridian thought of her supplies as a “kit”. When she’d raided the Google Data Center a few weeks ago, she’d run across an old video log, or “vlog” as they’d called them from a woman now hundreds of years dead who’d talked about having a makeup kit. Meridian had no use for makeup nor could she get any if she did, but the video had been charming in an archaic way and entertaining enough to keep watching. The makeup kit had everything the woman needed for her face, and Meridian’s kit had everything she needed for her trip.
She had food, binoculars, knives, her sword, tactical gloves, a medical pack, sleeping bag, a carved totem of a bear, and a map. The map worried her. If she’d calculated right it was 2240 miles from New York City to Hay’s River in the Northern Territories of Canada. If she further calculated right, it would take her nearly two years to walk between them.
The Data Center had been a mess. The Enemy had left it alone as they did everything from the old world, but a cult of technology worshiping people had set up camp around the building and wouldn’t let her into their sacred site. There’d been a disagreement and as always, the Enemy capitalized on it. The data had been useful, however. Worth every death, Meridian thought. She felt immediately guilty afterwards, yet the thought wouldn’t easily go.
Meridian supposed killing the cult as zombies was better than killing them as people, but she still felt responsible.
“What do you think, Hannah?” she asked the still night.
Thankfully there was no answer.
The stars were out. The Hunter moved across the sky after the Ram, followed by his dog. Hannah had known about the stars. Meridian knew about the history.
Shouldering her kit, she followed a road up toward Ithaca, New York. She expected a lake or river soon. The old digital maps had shown a river between her and the city. Time had taught her that where the old maps showed a little water to expect a lot of it.
The American Empire, or perhaps the entire world had done something to the Earth, and that something had ruined everything. She didn’t know if they had made the Enemy, but she did know they had flooded the planet.
This road was dry, and far from being a swamp the land to either side of the road was temperate forests. It was more land than she’d ever seen. Her clan had been charged with keeping Manhattan clear of the Enemy, and Manhattan was mostly water. They strung their houses between the old Imperial American buildings, fishing the avenues and swimming in the boulevards.
Her family had protected the others for hundreds of years. Now, that duty would fall to her half-brother Ian and cousin Hazel. They’d be capable enough. The work, always dangerous, came easy to those of her blood.
The voice was sudden and sharp inside her head. Not her own voice, but the voice of the Enemy. It sometimes came as a collective throng, other times as a singular woman’s voice. It could speak as her sister too, and it always said terrible things in that voice.
“Quiet, now,” Meridian said. “You have no power over them.”
Silence again, and Meridian kept up her steady pace along the old Ithaca road.
She nearly missed that the road had ended. Since it would be foolish to sleep at night, she walked all night until true dawn came. A few of the Enemy’s creatures braved the predawn light, so she always made camp in the morning. Today, however, she pushed a little farther, not liking how close the trees were to the road, and as she started to get tired she nearly stumbled off the end of it into a black, and slow moving river.
“If the water’s black, you know it’s deep,” she said repeating a phrase she had found in an old book.
There didn’t appear to be anyway across the river. Meridian thought for a second. Her kit didn’t have anything to help with getting across rivers and the traditional boat of her people had been too heavy to carry anyway.
There’s a ferry two miles east.
Meridian flinched. That had been her sister’s voice. In life, her sister’s voice had been identical to her own, but since her death it had taken on the fake sweetness all the vampires and liches and draugrs had.
Nevertheless, she turned east and followed the river. The water looked deep, if it were only water, and she had her doubts about this because the light shining off the top looked too bright to be water. It didn’t penetrate, it just reflected. A cursed river, maybe, or one stuffed with oil.
Two miles, she did find a ferry. A farmhouse with a little dock. There was no boat. Eyeing the house distrustfully, she approached a gave a firm rap on the door. No answer. She tried the handle. Locked.
Shrugging, she kicked the door in. Its wood splintered and fell. The door didn’t fall in so much as fall apart with the brass doorknob banging heavily on the shards.
Drawing her sword, she entered and looked around. Old style house, molding plaster, burned out light fixtures. A sense of the undead up in the bedrooms.
Meridian walked up the stairs. The upstairs bedroom windows were boarded up, and the owners lay dead in their beds. A man, a woman, a little boy. She could hear murmuring in her head from them. They were receiving updates from their master, whoever that was. They were all connected in some way. The Empire had something called the Internet; a million connected computers all downloading and uploading and sharing information. The Enemy did that too, and she could hear it. A useful side effect of being bitten all those years ago.
“Bad place to sleep, comrades,” she said.
She cut off their heads, stabbed them in their hearts, and took their bodies outside to dismember them. The parts burned in the sunlight like coal on a grill until only chalky bones remained.
She probably should burn down the house too. It’d only become a haven for more if she left it up.
Out of practicality, she went back inside to see if there was anything useful to salvage. Nothing. Most had rotted away or been raided already. She did pause in the kitchen. The was a key rack on the wall; a cutesy little stand with each slot labeled: garage, basement, shed.
Only the basement key remained.
She took it, and started checking doors. Most fell to pieces. The basement door however remained solid. Placing the key firmly in the lock, she turned it and the door popped open. First observation: The door was new. As were the steps leading down.
One of the things in her kit was a bioluminescent lamp. It had been one of the things she’d grabbed from the data center. Reading the instructions carefully, she took out the sealed sugar pack from its base, and slide it into a slot made on the side. The pack dissolved inside and the lamp began to glow a radiant blue color.
Holding it aloft, she descended.
“Hello?” she asked the gloom.
Somewhere in the darkness there was a muffled reply. Meridian followed the sound. The floor was dirt except for a steel landing along the back wall, and welded onto the landing was a cage.
In the cage was a girl. They’d been chewing on her, possibly for months. Her form was ragged, chunks of her were missing. The undead had cauterized her wounds. She was missing an arm, parts of her belly, and most of the muscles in her legs. She crawled about, mummering.
Despite the bites, Meridian could not sense any of the mental chatter from the girl. She wasn’t undead. She should have been but wasn’t.
“By ‘Len’s Blood,” Meridian said. “Are you able to understand me?”
The girl looked up. She didn’t seem to understand what she was seeing.
“Let’s get you out of there.”
Meridian had to break the lock. There probably was another key, like the basement key, but breaking it would be faster than searching. A screwdriver and a hammer she found in the dust popped it easily enough. The girl didn’t seem to realize she was free, so Meridian dragged her out of the basement kicking and screaming.
The morning sun’s light did little to calm her either. She clapped her hands over her eyes and babbled incoherently.
What to do with her? Meridian looked the girl up and down. She should have been dead. She could barely walk, only a twisted crawl moved her around. The noises she made were more like a tiny kitten than a person. Her bones almost poked through her skin and she stank.
“What’s your name?” Meridian said, trying to get something intelligent out of her. Most people remembered their names. Names were important to people.
The ragged girl didn’t respond. Instead she threw herself on the ground and began to writhe in the dirt.
“I can’t just leave you,” Meridian said. “I could kill you. Mercy killing. But you’d have to ask me to do it.”
She didn’t expect a response and didn’t get any. Once the girl’s eyes had adjusted, it was like she couldn’t even see Meridian. If girl was even the right word. She was so malnourished, she could be older than Meridian. Maybe fifteen? Younger? Older? Post puberty, there was one deflated breast. The other’d been gnawed off.
“Food?” Meridian asked, at a loss what to do. She sat down and went into her kit, bringing out a tupperware tub of applesauce.
This roused the girl like nothing had before. She started to sniff and then crawled over to the tub on her elbows and knees, moving a bit like a bat. The girl stuck her nose and mouth into the sauce and started lapping it up.
“I’m going to defeat them,” Meridian said. “For this, and everything else they’ve done. I found a way to do it in an old computer. It might take years and I’ll have to overwinter to survive.”
The girl grunted into the applesauce.
“I can’t take you with me, but I can’t leave you. What am I to do?”
Leave her. We’ll come for her.
Meridian’s back stiffened. That was the collective voice. That was every undead within six miles speaking.
The ragged girl’s head came up at the sound. She looked around tentatively, like a gopher poking its head out of a hole.
“You can hear it too?” Meridian asked. “It’s the bites, isn’t it? When you’ve been bitten...”
The girl let out a sob, and shook all over. Tears streamed down her face. Meridian did the only thing she could think of to do. She crawled over to the girl and gave her a hug.
“NONONO!” the girl shoved her over before throwing herself away. She trembled and cried in a heap.
“I can’t leave you,” Meridian said, whispering mostly to herself rather than the girl. “I have to find a boat.”
“Boat?” the girl said. “Shed.”
“Huh, really,” Meridian said. “Where’s the shed?”
But the girl didn’t say anything else. Shrugging, Meridian stood up, and walking a bit aways found the remains of a chainlink fence. She followed it around until she found a large shed about an acre away in the forest.
The door had fallen down, but there was a boat inside. A steel boat, luckily, and one untarnished by rust. Had it been wood, it would have been termite food decades ago.
The boat was heavy and it took Meridian most of the morning hauling it from the woods to the house.
The ragged girl hadn’t gone anywhere. She’d eaten all the applesauce and had fallen asleep, probably from exhaustion. How much longer did she have? Somebody in this condition had to be close to death, and when she died she’d come back. Probably as a zombie. The malevolent force behind the Enemy only brought back important people as vampires or greater undead.
Important people like my sister, Meridian thought.
Still, Meridian did have a responsibility to make sure the girl survived if she could. Unless there was a mercy killing request. Meridian would hate to do it, but she would do it. She’d done them before, usually from people bitten and about to turn.
She let the boat go near the dock, where it would be easy to push into the water. For an oar, she grabbed one of the fence’s old poles and lashed some of the more sturdy wood to it.
With that done, it was noon. She had a snack herself, and fed the girl again, this time with a bit of water too.
“It’s time to go,” she told the girl. There was no glimmer of understanding.
She had to drag the girl to the boat, but once inside the girl calmed down as if she were quite used to it.
“You used to live here,” Meridian said. “Was this your home?”
The girl said nothing, but leaned against the side of the boat and looked across the water as if in contemplation. Then her nose wrinkled and she said, “Black.”
“It was blue,” the girl said.
Eager for more information and to try to get the girl to keep talking, Meridian said, “When did it become black?”
The girl mewed to herself, and started biting her nails absently.
Meridian sighed. She was developing a theory as to who the girl was. The ferry had to have had a ferryman. Perhaps she had been his daughter. Perhaps the family upstairs had been her family. What terror would it be for your own family to lock you in the basement and come to you in the dark every night to chew something off?
“You poor thing,” Meridian said. “I suppose we should launch.”
She pushed the boat toward the water and immediately ran into a problem. It was tar. A whole slick of it across the water. The boat slid to a stop. The girl in the boat cried, and Meridian, still on the shore, was surprised almost to shock.
They had to get across. So, she pushed it out toward the dock with her oar and then boarded from the dock. From there it was a slog to oar it out. The tar was sticky and each push from her pole had to be pulled out with all her strength. Soon, she was in the middle of the river, but exhausted.
“It was a… trap,” Meridian said. “They told me where to find a ford, just to get me stuck in the river.”
“River,” the girl said. “Please.”
Meridian could hear them inside her head. An unusual amount of activity. It was noon day, so the voices should be subdued. Even zombies, who could walk in the light, were slower and stupider during the day. That she could hear them so loud meant either a lot were nearby or they were focusing their attention in this area.
Putting new efforts into rowing, Meridian managed to get the boat close to the other shore. The sun had begun to wane by this point, and she’d just about torn her arms off trying to make the last effort.
“I can’t jump that,” Meridian said, out of breath.
“Dead man,” the girl said.
There was a figure in the trees. A shambling corpse, almost mummified by the elements. It moved toward them shakily, one of its legs had a compound fracture. It was forcing itself to walk anyway.
Meridian clumsily drew her sword. The boat offered little room. The zombie threw itself into the river and became stuck. It didn’t have the strength to pull itself forward and slowly sunk out of view.
Cursing, Meridian pushed the boat a little further. Figuring it had to be close enough, she stood up, unsteadily. The boat rocked.
“You’ll have to let me carry you,” Meridian said. “Please.”
“Please?” the girl asked.
Meridian made toward the girl, and the girl backed up kicking her way toward the prow. Meridian sat down in a hurry as the boat rocked back and forth.
“Come on!” Meridian said. “If we don’t get out of here, we’re lunch.”
The girl shook her head and sobbed.
“Damn it,” Meridian said. She grabbed the oar and peeling it off the boat’s curved side (the tar had fastened it fairly tight) pushed closer to the shore. The boat hit the side, but didn’t bounce. It stayed firm.
“Now, we leave,” Meridian said, grabbing the girl and forcing her onto the bank.
They attacked almost as soon as Meridian’s boots touched the ground.
It was a grueling, slogging battle. She was so tired, each sword strike came down slowly, and each petrified zombie moved like molasses. She swung and swung, until she fell to her knees, and still she swung, first cutting off their legs and then their heads as they fell.
She was surrounded by body parts, and almost delirious when they finally stopped coming.
The ragged girl stared at her in awe and said, “You’re the skjaldmær.”
“I don’t know what that means,” Meridian said, before collapsing face down, driving her sword deep into the ground.
The undead whispered in her dreams and she could see their capital, the heart of their power in some barren place. She’d matched it to maps in the data center. It was the Great Slave Lake, it was were they’d come through originally. If she reached there, she could kill their master.
She awoke, sitting up and reaching for her sword. The ragged girl stared at her from by a tree. It was night, but the moon filtered in. Meridian was not one to be frightened and she had more presence about her than most nineteen year olds, so the thin face illuminated by silver light didn’t startle her.
“Are they gone?” she asked.
“Away, away,” the girl said.
Meridian slowly got to her feet. Grabbing her sword, and checking for zombie ichor (none, these zombies had all been dry), she said, “I can carry you, but I don’t know if I can protect you.”
“Skjaldmær can do anything,” the girl said.
“My name is Meridian. What’s yours?”
“No name. They ate it.”
Meridian shuttered at that.
“Then I’ll have to make up a new one,” she said. “Now, we have to go. They’ll be coming back.”
“Not tonight,” the girl said.
“Not tonight, but soon,” Meridian said. “They can read my mind, but I think they have a harder time if I keep moving.”
“Moving,” the girl said, glancing across the black water to what might have been her home.
Moving, said her sister’s voice.
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A late reQuest 2018 node.