MEMENTO MORI: book two of the cadabra Rasa Series - Excerpt
by David S.E. Zapanta
AS A YOUTH IN THE IDYLLIC EAST NEW HOLLYWOOD SUBURBS, Felix Ortega never got into scrapes with the neighborhood kids. As a general rule he avoided altercations at all costs, even at the risk of seeming cowardly. He may have only been in high school at the time, but Felix already knew he had no desire to be a go-to guy; he was quite satisfied with mediocrity. Mediocrity was not only safe, Felix thought, but dependable in its own vanilla way. At least this was what his parents instilled in him. His mother, especially, was opposed to violence in any form.
This attitude extended to her brother, Felix’s favorite uncle. Felix couldn’t have been more different from his Uncle Manny, a decorated veteran of the Battle for Burly Gate. Felix’s mother saw to it that he didn’t get to see much of her brother. But at bigger gatherings, like the annual Veterans Day barbecue, it was almost inevitable that Uncle Manny would be present, his military buddies in tow.
Maybe it was because they didn’t see each other too often that Felix found his uncle’s war stories so fascinating. Without fail, whenever he heard his uncle speak of his glory days fighting the undead menace in the Zombie Defense Corps, Felix flirted with the unlikely idea of enlisting with the ZDC straight out of high school.
He’d heard all of his uncle’s stories before, of course. Despite losing an arm in the fabled skirmish, or, perhaps because of it, Uncle Manny loved to talk about Burly Gate. His uncle was barely out of high school himself, back when he and what was left of his battalion had fought back the undead hordes atop the wall. How different his uncle must have been back then, without the mustache or the long, dark curtain of hair falling into his face.
“You gotta remember,” his uncle said, “Burly is about 300 feet high, right? So we weren’t just fighting back the zombies, we were fighting high winds and vertigo, too. At the top, the wall isn’t much wider than a two-lane highway. If you stood still long enough, you'd swear Burly was swaying under your feet. And the winds were strong enough to alter a bullet’s trajectory.”
Young Felix knew this already, of course. It was well-worn territory. But there was something different about his uncle’s telling this time. Whatever it was, Felix easily imagined himself alongside his uncle atop the perilous perimeter of the wall. Back then, twenty-five years ago, there was no razor-wire fence or heavily armed outposts atop the wall. And HAMRs wouldn’t come along for another fifteen years. The Living States government assumed Burly Gate was an effective barrier against the Havens Militia. As the world learned, it wasn’t enough.
“We’d received good intel earlier that week,” said his uncle. “We knew those Resurrectionist bastards were planning something. My unit was deployed to Zone 31, just near Boca Muerta. We were sandbagged in, with M60s set up about every fifty yards. And we’d rigged the west side of the wall with enough charges to stop a herd of rhinos.”
Keep in mind, Felix thought to himself, we couldn’t dig foxholes, we couldn’t lay mines—Burly is made of granite. He smiled as his uncle narrated Felix’s thoughts almost word for word.
“We could hear ‘em before we could see ‘em,” his uncle said. He leaned forward and clamped a clammy hand on Felix’s thin arm. “It was the middle of the night, and raining. So at first we weren’t sure we were hearing things right. Your mind plays tricks with you when you’re tired. But sure enough, sentries reported hearing moans. Some of the braver guys peeked over the edge, with flares. Couldn’t see anything. But they heard it too, the moans coming up outta the darkness. Chalked it up to the airborne mold making people loopy.”
The next part always sent shivers down Felix’s spine. It’s also why, even at seventeen, he still slept with the lights on. His uncle did, too, if anything Felix’s mother said about her brother was to be believed.
“Some of us, me especially, we knew our ears weren’t playing tricks on us. And then, all of a sudden, it just...stopped raining.” He snapped his fingers, a faraway look on his face. "Just like that. Got real quiet, y'know? Like, you're dead kind of quiet. But the next sound, our whole company heard.” Uncle Manny tightened his grip on Felix’s arm. “It was a wet sound. Damp. Like pulling a boot out of thick mud. We heard it, over and over again, coming from the west side of the wall, the dead side. And it kept getting louder. And as it got louder, the sound, it changed. Started to sound like someone was pitching rotten tomatoes against a wall. A lot of tomatoes.”
Felix’s mother stuck her head into the room. “Everything okay in here?” she asked her son. Felix nodded, mortified that his mother might say something to offend Uncle Manny. She had a way of setting him off with nothing more than a raised eyebrow. She’d heard her brother’s stories plenty of times, too, of course. Everyone had. But only Felix indulged his uncle.
“We’re almost done here,” Uncle Manny said hoarsely.
“Food’s ready whenever you are,” said Felix’s mother, and shut the door.
Uncle Manny stared at the closed door for a moment. He suddenly seemed smaller to Felix, as if his mother’s very presence had somehow diminished him. “I guess we should head down,” he said quietly. “Your mother hath spoken.”
Felix had never been angrier with his mother. She’d made it clear numerous times that her brother was a bad influence. The last thing that was expected of Felix was enlistment in the ZDC. And up until now, he thought that was a sound plan.
Uncle Manny’s hand trembled as he pushed himself to his feet. He wasn’t old, Felix knew. Just scarred in ways that only other Burly veterans could see.
“Come on,” urged Felix. “I want to know what happens next.”
“We won, the end,” said Uncle Manny with a sad, patient smile.
“I want the long version.”
Uncle Manny laughed ruefully as he looked Felix in the eye. Felix held his breath, hopeful for the story to continue. Hopeful, that in some alternate universe, his uncle did not lose his arm this time. Hopeful, that in this telling, the dead stayed deep in the cold ground, untouched by magic, untouched by the sun, out of sight, out of mind—forever.
As Felix hoped for these things, willed them desperately to be so with the unrelenting fervor of a teenager, the bitterness faded from his uncle's lined face. And in this way did Felix know happiness, in a private world of their devising. His uncle's dark, deep-set eyes twinkled, though death was upon his lips.
“Well, it’s gonna sound crazy, but, they were using themselves to climb up the side of the wall. Just kept piling themselves one on top of another on top of another. There were thousands of them, millions of them, stretching all the way down into the darkness. Just a big mountain of moaning zombies, and it was growing bigger and taller by the hour. We knew they’d breach the top of the wall by morning.”
“And we were ready for them,” said someone from the doorway. Felix looked up with a start. It was his uncle’s friend from the war. They’d served in the same company.
“You scared the heck out of me, Mr. Gleeson.”
Uncle Manny scratched absently at what remained of his right arm. His good arm, he called it. “Save us a couple of burgers, will you, George?”
“Can’t make any promises,” he said.
Mr. Gleeson and his uncle couldn’t have been more different when it came to the war. His uncle’s friend almost never talked about the Battle for Burly Gate. Uncle Manny once confided that Mr. Gleeson was a P.O.W., that he’d fought his way, alone, out of the Havens. Felix couldn’t even begin to imagine what kind of terrors he must have faced.
“Your uncle’s a good man,” Mr. Gleeson said, limping into the room. “Don’t let people like your mom tell you otherwise. The country needs more men like him.” Felix’s uncle dismissed the compliment with an angry wave. “Men like him,” Gleeson said, gesturing to Felix’s uncle with the neck of a beer bottle, “they can’t sleep at night so people like your mom can sleep at night.”
Until then, Mr. Gleeson had barely spoken two words to him; Felix was both thrilled and terrified. “I—I know,” he said.
“That was my choice to make,” Uncle Manny said gruffly. “We’re lucky to be alive, you and me.”
“Your uncle says great things about you,” said Mr. Gleeson, and patted Felix on the shoulder. “Says you have a lot of potential.”
“You should tell that to my mom,” said Felix, who was happy for the praise. No, not happy; he was hungry for it.
“No matter what she may think of the war, you need to respect your mom,” said Mr. Gleeson. “She brought you into the world as nature intended. No magic, no voodoo. Just pure, raw humanity.” Mr. Gleeson leaned in so close that Felix smelled the sour beer on his breath. “We live once, Felix, and we die once. End of story. There are no second chances in this world. Real patriots don’t fear the fire.”
Uncle Manny shrugged. “I’m hungry. I’m going out back. If I deserve anything for my troubles, it’s a full belly.”
Mr. Gleeson laughed as the two men headed downstairs together. Felix lingered in the room, his mind racing. How would he have reacted that day, atop the windy crest of Burly Gate? Would he have been brave, brave enough to fight back the zombie hordes, as men like his uncle and Mr. Gleeson had? Would Felix have made his parents proud?
He knew there was only one way to find out. He enlisted on his eighteenth birthday, much to his parents’ chagrin. But in his young heart, it felt like the right thing to do. Defending the country came first.
Ten years later, however, and much of that youthful idealism had given way to mind-numbing bureaucracy. High school was long behind him, but unlike his uncle, Felix hadn't seen any action at all. That was the problem with peacetime; even heroes got stuck behind desks. And now, with zombie equal rights practically a reality, it was doubtful that today’s ZDC would ever prove its mettle in combat. For Immolation Inventory Specialist Felix Ortega, his chances of putting his modest combat skills to the test were less than zero. Warehouse management was the last thing he wanted to do, but it was exactly how the Corps believed he would best serve his country. He was sure his uncle would describe what he did as patriotism, but to Felix, it was death by drudgery. He imagined it was a lot like being undead. And he absolutely hated every second of it.
But being a glorified admin wasn’t the worst of it (not that he was complaining). Of all the godforsaken places in the world he could have served, it didn’t get much worse than the Josiah’s Bluff crematorium. Not only was the dense, smoky air virtually unbreathable, he had broken out in a nasty rash that was getting worse every day. It was obvious the government-issued haz-masks and tox-suits weren’t good enough. But Felix was sworn to protect the Living States of America, and the crematorium was a high-risk target for reanimated insurgents—especially the northern Havens-based Charnel Point Resistance, or C.P.R.
The wall walkers, or double-dubs, as the border guards were known, had it easy, in Felix’s opinion. They were far from the mercury-laced smoke and ash, secure in their lofty HAMR towers. To them, twelve miles to the east, Felix was just a speck in the distance.
Felix turned to Specialist Sherman as a giant refrigerated eighteen-wheeler lumbered toward the crematorium from the east. The truck slowly backed up to the loading dock.
“Please, cremate me now,” said Felix through his haz-mask.
Sherman chuckled. “Come on, it’s not so bad. Lots of pretty girls to look at. Remember that batch of dead cheerleaders last fall?”
The driver, a private contractor named Chico, wheezed as he hopped down out of the cab. “You are one sick fucko,” he said to Sherman.
“Believe me, I keep them all close to my heart,” he said and tapped the camera in his breast pocket. “Near and dear.”
Chico coughed into the crook of his arm as he handed the manifest to Felix. “Forty-four pallets of Uncle Sam's most upstanding patriots.”
Sherman laughed. "Jesus, Cheek, that's all you got? Are you serious?"
"Hey, I'm just the messenger."
Felix frowned. Chico's shipment was just one of many that would arrive throughout the day. Still, only forty-four pallets was a grim reminder that Resurrectionists were slowly gaining the upper hand; corpses normally destined for cremation were instead holding down jobs and buying homes. Subsequently, as the Josiah's Bluff power plant struggled for resources, the country endured rolling brownouts.
Felix shook his head. Patriotism was not just an abstract concept; its success demanded relentless dedication. If the trucks stopped coming, the country itself would come to a standstill. At least, that's what George Gleeson used to say.
“Where’s your mask?” Felix asked Chico. “Gotta wear one at all times. Regs.”
“Just sign so I can get the fuck out of here.”
Felix hopped up into the back of the trailer. “You know I gotta check every one of these bodies in first.” Bodies had a way of going missing from the plant. Raids by looters and black marketeers were almost as problematic as resurgent strikes. Unregistered dyborg limbs and raw Noodle had to come from somewhere. But not on my watch, thought Felix. Sir no sir!
“You guys are all the way out in zombie bumfuck,” said Chico. “Who’s gonna know if you skip this part?” His eyes watered as he doubled over from a lung-wracking cough. “Fine, I’ll wear it,” he gasped and returned to the cab for his mask.
Felix, meanwhile, started scanning the contents of the cardboard caskets with the same sort of modified HAMRs they used at the Burly Gate checkpoints. Certain trace amounts of metal were acceptable, like dental fillings. But every now and then they found modified grenades and even small pipe bombs embedded in the cadavers, courtesy of C.P.R. Known as “enbombing,” this tactic was generally more effective against personnel than property. The crematorium itself was very heavily fortified. Felix figured it would take a bunker buster to even make a dent in the facility’s fortress-like perimeter. Truly, the plant’s weakest line of defense was the loading dock.
As always, the shipments were color-coded, with blue pallets being sent to one part of the vast complex, and red ones to another. Sometimes there were more blue pallets than red ones, but it wasn't Felix's place to ask questions. He just assumed that some bodies produced more energy than others.
Felix and Sherman were efficient. They inspected the payload’s contents—630 bodies—in less than forty minutes. But it wasn’t fast enough for Chico. He was sitting on the edge of the dock, wheezing and coughing despite the haz-mask.
“You guys are real patriots,” he said. “How much longer?”
“We’re unloading now,” said Sherman. “Eight minutes, tops.”
The inside of Chico’s mask was fogged over by condensation. “Fuck your regs,” he said. “I can’t see.”
Felix laughed as he beckoned to the ruined, ash-covered landscape. Except for a copse of stunted Joshua trees and some grey, stubborn cacti, there was no vegetation for miles around. Further out, about 20 miles to the south, the mold-covered San Lazarus mountaintops were visible through the amber haze. Felix could just make out several buzzards circling lazily on the fetid air currents. “As you can see, you’re not missing much.”
“I’d rather be there than here,” Chico said, looking up at the thick, dark plumes of smoke rising from the crematorium's smokestacks.
“Bite your tongue,” said Sherman. “Ever been to the Charnel Point slums? They’re not pretty. If you think this place sucks, try surviving there for a day.”
Chico quickly shook his head. “No thanks. Somewhere there’s a cardboard casket with my name on it.”
“Spoken like a true patriot,” Felix said grimly. A true patriot would take a flamethrower to those disgusting zombie cesspools and be done with it already. Charnel Point was nothing more than a breeding ground for resurgent activity.
The foreman called Felix and waved him over to one of the pallets. “Check this out,” he said. One of the boxes at the top of the stack was weeping clear fluid. “What is that? It can’t be embalming fluid.”
Felix dabbed at it with his fingertip. “Beats me. Let’s crack it open.” The two men peered down at the body of a stout, middle-aged man in an advanced state of decomp. Even through the mask, Felix smelled the rotting flesh. He gagged and took a step back. But the foreman leaned further into the casket.
“I think I smell gasoline.”
The heavy-set cadaver opened his milky eyes and sat up. Without the protective charm of a talisman, his fuel-soaked tissues were quickly disintegrating. But there was no other way to sneak a reanimate past the scanners. Disposable lighters did not set off any alarms, either.
A slurry of gasoline and gunpowder sluiced from the resurgent’s gaping maw as he spoke. Only then did anyone notice the 'CPR' tattooed on his thick neck. “Say hello to Saint Lazarus for me, blood banks.”
The last thing Immolation Inventory Specialist Felix Ortega saw was the foreman lunging for the lighter. In the split second before the explosion, Felix experienced a spike of emotions, from sadness to confusion to remorse. Sorry mama, he thought. It was instinct borne on a microscopic burst of neurons.
MEMENTO MORI excerpt and all related content and illustrations © 2018 David S.E. Zapanta. All rights reserved.