Tuesday, October 1, 2019


a zombie with outstretched hands

Some things never changed.  Each day, the sun still rose and set like the immortal god it had always been.  Even in this dismal moment, the sun painted the sky with beauty like a master artisan as it slipped beneath the horizon.  Streaks of pink and red suffused the sky, a majestic backdrop for the decaying cityscape. The silhouetted skeletons of buildings overrun with vines and plants were all that remained of a world in tatters and ruin.
It had been three years since the zombie apocalypse -- the day the world changed beyond comprehension. It didn’t take long before the zombies took over the planet and killed off most of the humans.
Amongst these shadows of decay, a group of zombies shuffled down an alley like rats through a sewer, ever so hungry.  Their stench hung in the air as if death itself were made of smog. 
A look of terror contorted the face of an exhausted and bedraggled woman, as she realized that she’d taken a wrong turn and now faced a dead end, in every since of the word.  The woman screamed.
The zombies were focused on their meal, and as they ambled toward her, they moved as one writhing mass, like a pile of meal worms.  They failed to notice the figure in the shadows.
Caellum stood sleek and tall, towering at nearly seven feet, with a gallowglass-style claymore resting upon his shoulder.  Clad entirely in black, he donned an oilskin duster and matching Western hat.  Beneath that, he wore a tight fitting shirt and kilt with combat boots.  Long, straight ebony hair framed his pale, angular face.  As the group of zombies grew closer, he stepped from the shadows and stood between them and their intended meal.  He snarled, revealing his vampire fangs.  He readied the claymore.
Most of the people that had survived the apocalypse hadn’t done so on their own.  They were the protected ones.  They were the vampires’ cattle, and Caellum was out trying to round up some new livestock from those straggling humans that remained free.
Caellum screamed a battle cry as he swung the great sword, beheading the two zombies leading the pack in one attack.  He came after the next zombie with a low strike, severing off both of her legs with one immense cleaving motion.  What was left of her fell to the ground, writhing and howling in anguish and anger.  Another zombie approached from the right.  Caellum butted him backwards with the hilt of his sword, and the zombie fell to the ground.  A different zombie quickly charged him, but Caellum caught him in the collarbone with a harsh, downward strike that cut right into the heart, the momentum of which sent the zombie crashing down to the ground.
The female zombie that came at him next had a mace.  It was unusual for the street zombies to have weapons.  They were the rejects of their species because they’d suffered so much brain damage that they were savage and animalistic.  They were called feebs by the other zombies, and they were shunned, forced to live outside of the collectives.  Strategy was beyond them, and they didn’t even know the rules of engagement for killing a vampire.
However, the majority of zombies lived together in communities, and they retained their intelligence.  The zombies had tried all the classic attacks in their fight against the vamps.  Crosses could repel and wound, but they only worked when wielded by the holy, and zombies were as far from Godly as one got.  Holy water worked like acid on the vampires, but it had quickly dried up with the end of human civilization.  The zombies had tried staking vampires through the heart in the early days, but that didn’t work.  They didn’t know the vampires’ well-guarded secret.  The stake had to be made of green wood.  Once it dried out, it proved useless against them.  The zombies still hadn’t figured that one out.  Although vampires were not nearly as flammable as portrayed in the movies, fire hurt them.  Silver or fire could put vampires in their graves for days, and that was the only place vamps could regenerate and reanimate. Sunlight proved devastating.  A mere sliver ate away the flesh, and if a vampire failed to reach shelter before sunrise, it was curtains for him, so the zombies utilized that advantage whenever they could.  As far as the zombies knew, the only surefire way to kill a vampire in combat was by decapitation or by burning them completely to ashes.  
However, this feeb’s mace wasn’t even made of silver.  She swung it at Caellum without any skill, like a frustrated child trying to hit a Wiffle Ball.  He cut off her arm with one swing, and then hacked off her head with a second pass.  The zombie without legs had dragged herself back into the fray, and she now clutched at Caellum’s ankles, trying to trip him.  He brought his boot down into her skull, smashing in her face and ending her.  The one he’d knocked back with the hilt stood up again and charged at Caellum.  This time Caellum poised for a severing strike, and he sent the zombie’s head flying off to his left. The zombie with the cleaved heart made an effort to get up, but Caellum pushed the sword through his brain before he could.
Caellum pulled the sword from the zombie’s head and readied it for another attack.  He turned to face those zombies that remained.  Blood dripped down the blade.  The final zombies, having witnessed the carnage, turned and ran away.
Some pieces of zombie still writhed, as their bodies attempted to find their severed heads.  The only way to kill a zombie was to destroy the brain, so Caellum went from head to head and ran each of them through.
Caellum turned and faced the woman, who sat weeping on the ground.  He offered her his hand.  “You’re safe now,” he promised.  “Come with me.”
When she realized that he was a vampire, she screamed.  “No, please!”  She stood and tried to run past him, but no human could ever out run a vampire.  He blocked her way.  He looked into her eyes and compelled her.  “I said, come with me,” he spoke in a lulling voice.
“Yes.  Of course.  Where else could I go?” she asked.

* * * * *

The zombie apocalypse proved far different than anyone had ever imagined in books or on screen.  It was brought about not by the military or an overzealous doctor, but by technology and egotism.
 By 2050, wireless communication chips came onto the consumer market.  They were implanted directly inside one’s brain and controlled by the mind.  The chip’s insertion was readily available by certified distribution hubs.  Any wage slave could learn how to insert one; it was as easy as piercing an ear.  The insertion gun was computerized and automated. The chip was purchased first and then loaded into the unit.   The customer climbed into a chair reminiscent of those in dentist’s office and then the customer was secured into place so he or she couldn’t’ flinch.  The insertion gun scanned the customer’s eye socket and a light turned green when the position was correct.  All the employee had to do was tap yes on the computer screen once it had aligned.  A numbing agent was injected first and then blamo!  The chip was placed.
In 2060, Mindwire Teleconnections, the number one provider of brainwave communications, teamed up with the Zoilo Corporation, a video game manufacturer, to release World of Maya.  World of Maya was a virtual reality video game that transmitted directly into the brain, which could be played from anywhere, at anytime.
World of Maya became a huge hit.  About five million people were jacked in at any given time. All across the world, copious glassy-eyed people just sat there like zombies, playing the game.
Not long after the launch of World of Maya, Zoilo Ptoma, the founder and CEO of the Zoilo Corporation, was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer.    
As he lay dying in his hospital bed, Zoilo’s life flashed before his eyes: his preteenager-self hacking a computer; his twenty-something-self receiving an award, his sixty-year-old-self in occult robes, doing a ceremony.  His eyes rolled up in the back of his head, and the machine flat-lined beside him. 
Zoilo’s transparent ghost manifested outside of his dead body, dressed in his pajamas.  Zoilo had been a child prodigy, a genius, and an occultist.  He was proud of who he was, and he couldn’t let go of his identity in this incarnation.  Zoilo had no intention of remaining dead.
Before his demise, he’d written one last piece of code for World of Maya, and penned one final spell in his grimoire.  In one ultimate act of brilliance, he’d found a way to combine mechanical coding with mystical coding.   
Jacked in at the time of his death, Zoilo’s soul crossed not only into the land of the dead but also into the game.  Zoilo stood transfixed.  The world around him slowly diminished as it cross-faded into the world of World of Maya.  Moreover, as the world of World of Maya solidified, so too did Zoilo.  Thereupon, Zoilo transformed, growing younger and younger, until he became a handsome young man with wild, long curly hair, clothed in the black robes of his occult order.  His eyes, once a piercing, commanding blue, grew luminous and pale, the color of a cold sky with snowy intentions.  By his extraordinary willpower, Zoilo became a powerful lich with a dual existence, a god of his own world, World of Maya, and a powerful villain to Earth. 
From within World of Maya, Zoilo emitted lightning bolts from his body, sending out massive power surges like an act of God.  These catastrophic electrical storms ricocheted around the world of World of Maya with devastating consequences, and everyone playing World of Maya at that time instantly died from electric shock.  However, their souls didn’t leave their bodies.  Their souls were enslaved by World of Maya, and they became servants of Zoilo.  Upon his command, the dead gamers arose.
They became a new type of life, animated dolls of flesh.  And like all undead, even vampires like Caellum, these creatures had to feed on the living.  But unlike vampires, they didn’t simply drink of the blood.  These flesh dolls needed the magical essences found in glands to keep their spirits charged and their flesh renewed.  Pineal, adrenal, thyroid -- any glands would do, but only those of the human animal would suffice.
In the beginning, Zoilo was like a babe at play. He’d yet to master his will-to-power, and he lost dominion of his zombies.  The zombies couldn’t control their urges. These zombies shared a collective consciousness, and zombiism could be spread to anyone with a Mindwire Teleconnections Brainwave ChipTM, via telepathy.  They turned their loved ones into zombies, so as not to feel lonely.  Furthermore, they couldn’t control their appetites.  They gorged themselves, devouring the glands of their acquaintances first before moving on to strangers.  They were out of their minds, running rampant and amok, chasing humans down and feeding on them without reservations.  Zoilo felt frustrated and perplexed, for this was not part of his plan.
The humans fought back, but there were absolutely too many zombies.  The world’s militaries offered little resistance.  Before Maya was released to consumers, it had been developed as a war simulator called Battle Incorporated and was utilized by governments all over the globe to train soldiers for combat.  The Zoilo Corporation had licensed an early, non-consumer version of a wireless communication chip made by a competing company for Battle Incorporated, a company that would inevitably be purchased by Mindwire Teleconnections and become the base code for the Mindwire Teleconnections Brainwave ChipTM.  Zoilo had attempted to simultaneously take over players of Battle Incorporated, but a malfunction in the earlier version of the chip turned those poor souls into rampaging feebs.
Coupled with human selfishness, human society quickly fell, while zombie society developed.   
In the early days, when not on a rampage, the zombies mimicked their human lives.  Upon a beautiful sunny beach lined with palm trees, there were zombies wearing Bermuda shorts and sunglasses.  A group of them sat upon a blanket, with an open picnic basket beside them.  They munched on human glands served up on Styrofoam plates.  One zombie applied sunscreen, but as he did so, his rotten skin peeled off.  Another went to catch a tossed football, but it knocked his arm off.  He picked his arm up from the sand and merely stood there holding it, with a surprised look upon his face.  The zombies were dead, after all, and with death came decay. 
It took many glands to rejuvenate the flesh of the zombies, more than most had access to.  In the hot places like Texas and Florida, the first wave of zombies didn’t last long at all before their meat turned to mush and fell from their bones.  In the cold places up north, the zombies froze solid as they rode around on their snow mobiles.
For a while, the vampires thought that the problem would just take care of itself, that the zombies would simply die out and go away.  They actually found the whole thing amusing, in a “watch the world burn” kind of way.
However, between the rampant spread of zombiism and their uncontrolled hunger, it didn’t take long to nearly wipe out the human race.  With their survival dependent upon the blood of the human animal, the vampires soon recognized the situation as a real threat.  They fought back, taking out as many zombies as they could, but they were terribly outnumbered.
The vampires united.  No longer needing to hide their true nature, they joined forces and created strongholds.  The vampires rounded up the surviving humans and brought them to their communities.  There, the humans were as cattle, packed into stalls and sleeping on bunk beds inside modified houses, which the vamps called “stables”.  Vampires kept constant watch, protecting their herds from the dreaded zombie and breeding prized livestock from which to feed.  Thus the human ranch came into existence, as did the vampire cowboy.
Vampires no longer drained their food to the point of death, as they often did before, for the human animal was far too valuable.  Instead, the vampires put them on a bloodletting rotation, restoring the human to vitality between drinks.  The human wore a blood pressure device while being fed upon, and only some blood was taken.  The human was then bandaged and returned to his or her stall.  
However, the zombies still needed to eat, too, and they came for the vampires’ livestock on a regular basis. They became enemies, for the vampires stood between the zombies and their food.
Yet, as the vampire adapted to the new world, so too did the zombie. In a short time, Zoilo mastered his powers. He regained control over his zombie family and became their collective mind, thinking and reasoning for them.
First, he taught them preservation.  He instructed the zombies to seek shelter.  For those in the hot climates, he ordered them to seek out basements and cellars and sleep inside them during the day, hunting at night when it was cool.  Those in the cold places, he directed them to put on winter clothes.  He advised them to only come out in the day, when the sun was high.  He told them to raid stores and to utilize air-activated warmers to keep from freezing.  He instructed them to plug their holes with wax to keep out the bugs and bacteria or to wrap themselves in plastic wrap to seal in the freshness.  He advised them to use pesticides to kill their maggot infections. 
He taught them restoration.  He advised them to sew themselves back together with a needle and thread if injured.  He directed them to salvage the good parts from fallen zombies, so that they could replace damaged limbs. 
Then, he educated them on how to not simply survive, but to thrive.  He taught them the value of strength in numbers and encouraged them to group up.  Zoilo’s zombies formed small communities, and they worked together, rebuilding their own little townships and societies according to Zoilo’s designs.
Zoilo knew that the absolute best form of preservation was refrigeration, so they took over power plants and the closest communities to these power sources. They took over the grocery stores, restaurants, and food processing plants; therein they cleared out the refrigerators and slept inside them.  Zombified morticians took over the morgues and offered embalming services to their recruits.
Zombies had to eat to live, but unlike the vampire, they had to kill their food and consume the victim’s very life force.  The zombies didn’t have enough self-control to breed humans for food.  After all, a 9 month gestation period was rather lengthy, and a baby didn’t make much of a meal.  Humans in puberty provided the best nutrition for a zombie, and 13 years was a long time to wait when fending off rot.
 Still, Zoilo was a genius.  There had been great advances in medical sciences over the years, and regenerating human tissues had become common by this era.  Zoilo zombified the workers of such labs, and concentrated their efforts on growing human glands.  It was a place of nightmares, even by vampire standards.  There were rooms full of tissue donors, a horrible place where humans were kept alive on machines as they were cut up, as their tissue was harvested and cloned. 
Once Zoilo’s living meat factories were in full operation, feeding his minions became simpler.  Mess halls distributed the chow.  Each meal, myriad zombies ate glands from plates at tables, as if civilized.  Yet many of the zombies picked at their food in disgust.  Although this meat fulfilled the minimal nutritional requirements of a zombie, it didn’t sate their appetites.  Only a real human could truly ameliorate their desires, as if the victims’ screams we the satiating spice that made them so delicious!  
Moreover, the living donors didn’t live very long under such horrific conditions.  They had to be replaced often.  That, coupled with the requisite for living humans for zombie population replenishment made humans the number one commodity in this new world.
Thus, the zombies came for the vampires’ human livestock often.  Vampires and zombies constantly fought.  Maintaining their food supply became the vampires’ primary concern.  Long gone were the days of debauchery, hedonism, revelry and fun.  They were at war.

* * * * *

Caellum led the woman to a modified military transport vehicle.  There, he met up with the rest of his crew, Nod and Zoetica.
Nod was Caellum’s right hand vamp.  They’d been traveling together off and on for five hundred years.  Nod exuded toughness.  Middle Eastern with dark, shoulder length hair, he liked to wear all black.  He wore a snug fitting tank top that showed off his muscles, spiked leather gauntlets, and a matching belt over tight jeans.  He finished off his attire with cowboy boots and a coordinating hat.  Though skilled with many weapons, he preferred using his longbow.
Zoetica was ghastly beauty, lost like the night to daybreak.  She’d died young and pristine, and the ravages of vampirism had only enhanced her hellish charm.  She wore her long platinum hair shaved underneath. She donned all white, mostly leather, and dressed herself like a gunslinger.  She proved deadly with a revolver and was equally skilled with most melee weapons.
Caellum surveyed the nights’ hall. The number of free humans was minimal now, and they’d only managed to round up three this time.  He was surprised to see one human bound, gagged, and still struggling.  “What’s with the ropes?” he asked.
“Apparently this one is resistant to our thrall,” Nod explained.
“Maybe he’s just a really fresh zombie,” Zoetica suggested.  “I’m not sure Nod can tell the difference.”
“Fuck you, Jugula.  It was one time!  From a distance!” Nod defended.
“Again with the tit jokes, Nod?  I’ve got big boobies!  Let it go already!” Zoetica huffed.
Caellum looked the young fellow up and down.  Kelly Finn was a sprout of a man, petite but sleek and strong.  He had pale skin, freckles, and a mess of short, curly red hair.   Caellum sniffed the lad.  “Nah, he’s human all right.” 
 Nod said, “He put up a hell of a fight.  I took that crossbow off him, which he used to nearly put me in my grave.  Mother fucker had silver bolts.  Oh, and a silver ring, which he tried to punch me with.”  Nod gestured with his head.  “The silver is secure in that case there.”
“Are you sure we want him?” Caellum asked.  “Sounds like more trouble than he’s worth.”
“Let’s just drain him now,” Zoetica proposed.  “I’m hungry.”
 “I was thinking maybe we can convert him.  Make him one of us.  Our numbers are low after that last battle,” Nod recommended.  “And new blood is getting scare.”
“True,” Caellum agreed.  “Besides, he’s probably been eating will power enhancers like Polygala snakeroot.  It’ll wear off in twenty four hours.  Then we can thrall him.  And if he doesn’t settle in with the humans, we’ll make him one of us.”
Kelly Finn immediately stopped struggling.  One thing was for sure, becoming a vampire was not something Kelly desired.
Humans were so rare now that conversion to vampire was not done lightly.  Typically, only those humans sick or injured beyond hope were transformed into vampires, and even then, only if they’d make a good warrior or fill some other need in the vampire community.  There was no sense in creating more mouths to feed that couldn’t contribute.  Anyone dying and deemed worthless was simply drained.
Turning a human into a vampire was an easy process, but it did require a few drops of vampire blood and a touch of magick.  Intent was required by the vampire, along with an incantation to the Moon offering the slain as sacrifice by his or her birth name.  Those killed by vampires became ghosts, roaming the earth beneath the light of the moon.  Desire for vampiric transformation was required by the ghost, or the spell ended there.  Those ghosts that fed off the blood of humans gained the ability to reanimate his or her body, becoming vampire.  Those that did not remained spirits that would in time fade away.
“Let’s get going,” Zoetica urged.  “We’re burning moonlight.”
The vampires loaded the humans up and began the trip back home.  They had a good three hour drive to make before sunrise. 
Caellum and his crew had taken over a village called Cane Valley, a beautiful location right out of a travel brochure urging stressed out city dwellers to get away from it all.  There were steep mountains on three sides, and only one way in by vehicle.  The colony featured middle class, cabin-style homes clustered together near a general store and community center, along with some outlying farm houses scattered amongst the fields. Caellum had picked that place primarily because of its hydroelectric plant, which was nestled at the far end of the valley against a mountain wall, taking advantage of a swift river that cascaded down the mountain and twisted through the center of the vale. 
The vampires had gotten used to a certain lifestyle.  They didn’t like living in dank graveyards and sewers.  They enjoyed modern amenities, including electricity.  Plus, humans still had their needs: shelter, food, water, and clothes.  It was a lot easier to keep them alive with a reliable power supply. 
The group arrived back at Cane Valley a few hours before dawn.  The vampire community was winding down and getting ready for their unholy rest.  A series of caves existed in the mountainside and most of the vampires slept there, though Caellum, Nod, Zoetica and a few other leaders had private rooms in the finest house’s basement.  The vampires’ graves were the only place that vampires could regenerate and reanimate if injured to an unconscious state, so each vampire kept an artifact from his or her grave, be it a piece of headstone, grave dirt, burial clothes, or a sliver of coffin.  Only the wealthiest of vampires had their entire resting place to come home to.  If the relic were lost, the vampire would have to acquire a replacement, and in times like these, with no airplanes and dangerous roads, it would be difficult if not impossible.  Caellum kept a portion of his grave dirt in an ornate bottle in his chambers, as well as another measure inside a poison ring that he always wore so that he could regenerate anywhere.
Caellum, Nod, and Zoetica turned the humans over to the equerry and stable hands.  The newbies; Kelly, Amanda, and Charlie, would be bathed, given a medical exam, fed, and then taken to their bunks and allowed to rest for twenty-four hours before receiving their work assignments and joining bloodletting rotation.
Those humans not on active bloodletting duty that day were expected to get up at sunrise and work, tending the flocks and fields, fishing, cooking, cleaning, working in the power plant, or repairing the buildings and equipment.  Humans couldn’t see well enough to labor at night, and most no longer required being kept under thrall.  They’d come to accept their slavery in return for the protection the vampires offered.  Life with the bloodsuckers was a far better alternative to death with the zombies.  Many humans were even given guns to defend themselves, weapons that worked on zombies, but not on vampires.
Some humans were trusted servants.  They longed to become vampires themselves and hoped that their loyalty would one day net them a conversion.  In the old world, they’d pretended to be vampires.  They’d purchased cyborg fang implants, with the supposed power to harness the life force of blood and ensure longevity and extended youth.  It was all just clever marketing, and drinking blood was too taboo to ever become a mainstream fad, but the cyborg fangs had sold better than expected, nonetheless.  Their life choice had paid off in this world.  Nicknamed “ticks” by the vampires, they acted as guards, serving as slave masters and keeping anyone who got unruly in line. 
Moreover, a few vampires remained awake to make sure things ran okay and to rouse the others if attacked.  Since vampires were vulnerable during the day, they utilized every available precaution to keep the vampire community safe. 
In the mystical sense, humans and their world were composed of energy provided by the sun.  Vampires, on the other hand, were rendered by the energy of the moon.  Vampires did not have mirror images because they were already reflections, for they were made of moonlight, construed of reflected sunlight.  The sun didn’t kill a vampire, it simply negated his existence, and he would fade away into nothing, like a moonbeam in the light of day.  And that was the end of him, for there was nothing left after that.  Vampires didn’t have souls because they were undead.  They were nothing but soul, and a soul has no soul.  A vampire struck by direct sunlight couldn’t exist.  A single beam of sunlight upon the skin created a void in the vampire that took ages to regenerate.
The sun was one enemy that vampires couldn’t defeat, though progress had been made.  They’d salvaged a handful of mobile suits of tank-like armor called bionic mail from a military base, and this allowed the vampires to move about in the daytime.  It was impossible to decapitate a vamp in bionic mail, or to burn one to ashes.  This made the vampires almost invincible while wearing the gear.  Unfortunately, the bionic mail armored suits were prototypes, and they had their flaws.  They ran off solar power, and the battery packs had a tendency to fail.  Additionally, they were clunky and slow, and although they gave humans super strength, vampires were actually stronger without them.
As an additional precaution against daytime raids, the vampires had carved out tunnels connecting many of the buildings and caves, so that they could get to their sheltered battle stations and launch ranged attacks without going outside.  It proved effective thus far, and the last attack had ended in the vampires’ victory, though there had been casualties, both human and vampire.
Kelly, Amanda, and Charlie were led into a building for processing.  First, they were split up by sex taken to the shower houses.  In the locker room, Charlie stripped down.  Kelly didn’t want to undress in front of a stranger, so instead chose to disrobe inside the shower stall.  Shortly, the hot water steamed up the room. 
“Man, that hot water feels good!”  Charlie called out.  “I could get used to this!”
“Is that all it takes?” Kelly asked.
“For what?” Charlie asked as he sudsed up. 
“To buy your freedom?  Some hot water?  Your price is cheap,” Kelly judged.    
Charlie justified, “Yeah, well, I don’t know about you, but I was barely making it.”
“I was doing just fine.  It was certainly better than this,” Kelly contended.  He lathered up his hair, slowly kneading the shampoo into his scalp.  The hot water did feel good, but Kelly wouldn’t admit it.
“This ain’t so bad.  They’re going to feed us, you know.”
“They’re going to feed all right.  On us,” Kelly warned him. A worried look twisted across his face as he rinsed off the lather.
“You two stop your talking,” the vampire guard ordered.  “Wash up, and put on the robes we provided.”
“We can talk and shampoo at the same time, you know,” Kelly quipped.  “We’re not idiots.”
“I said be quiet,” the guard growled.
They finished their showers in silence.  Kelly slipped on the robe, stepped out of the shower and asked, “When can we put our clothes back on?”
“You will be provided with clean clothes after your medical exam,” the guard advised them.
They were lead to a waiting room, where Amanda sat nervously picking at her fingernails.  Under thrall, no one guarded her, but Kelly’s guard had been instructed to stay close.  A nurse entered the room and handed them each a clipboard full of forms to fill out.
“How’d you get caught?” Kelly asked Charlie.
“I smelled cooking hamburgers and went to check it out,” Charlie explained.
“Really?  You fell for that?” Kelly mocked.
“Yeah.  I hadn’t eaten for days.  How’d they get you?”
“I got desperate, and they got lucky,” Kelly said.  He crinkled his brow and shook his head, clearly pissed at himself.
 “Didn’t I tell you two to shut the fuck up!” the guard growled.  “Fill out your forms.”
They sat in silence, completing their paperwork while the guard glared at them.
A human doctor entered the room.  He pointed at Kelly.  “You’re first,” he decreed.  “Follow me.”
Kelly trailed the doctor down the hallway to an exam room. 
The doctor shut the door behind them.  He took the clipboard from Kelly and looked over the provided forms.  “Disrobe and get up on the exam table.”
“I’d rather not,” Kelly protested with an obstinate look in his eyes.
The doctor mugged annoyance.  “Do I need to get one of the vampires to thrall you?  Come on, now.  Be a good lad.”
Kelly said, “That shit don’t work on me.  I can’t be mesmerized.”
The doctor put his hands on his hips and harrumphed as if he had no time for this.  “Well you can be overpowered and strapped down.  Is that what you want?”
“No.” Kelly submitted.
“Then do as I say.  Do you think anyone wants it to be like this?  We do what we have to in order to survive, and you have to get naked and get on that exam table!”
Kelly turned away from the doctor and slipped off the robe, then climbed onto the table.
The doctor checked the clipboard and then looked back at Kelly.  “You have a vagina,” he said.
“No shit,” Kelly replied.
“You checked male on the paperwork.  Let me fix that.”  He scratched through the word male on the paperwork and underlined female three times.
“I am male,” Kelly insisted.
“I see.  You’re one of those,” the doctor replied, and then he wrote something down.
“Gender dysphoria is a real medical condition!  You’re a doctor.   You should know that.    Medical studies show that transgenders present brain structures similar to the sex they identify with and furthermore studies suggest that it’s genetic.  It’s not a choice!  It’s a medical condition!”
The doctor rolled his eyes.  “Well hold on then, Betty!  Let me get you some paperwork filled out, and you can get yourself one of those handicap placards and park real close!”
Kelly had faced such discrimination most of his life. Despite all the progress made for transgender rights in the 20s, most of it had been undone by one single president with fascist tendencies.  Mankind liked sticking things into neat little categories, all the while feeling superior to the different.  The majority of people didn’t fathom what it felt like to be trapped in the wrong body.  They didn’t comprehend the sheer volume of self-loathing felt by Kelly.  He hated his body, felt utterly betrayed by it, like his skin was a lie.  Few understood the intense desperation he felt to be seen and accepted by society in the same way that he saw himself.  
Kelly had grown up in a rural farming community.  He liked bike riding, hunting, fishing, climbing trees and skinning knees, all things stereotypically boy.  His parents didn’t mind, but none-the-less, every Sunday, they insisted he wear a dress to church.  This would inevitably lead to screaming and tears, wherein Kelly’s loyalty to God was called into question and threats of eternal hellfire and damnation were promised as rewards for disobedience.  It wasn’t fair.  Kelly believed in God.  Kelly believed God had made him exactly as he was.  God didn’t make mistakes.  His faith was his own, and his family wasn’t going to ruin it for him.  So, as he got older, Kelly stopped protesting.  It was easier to just pretend and keep the peace, to go along with it and let the robot drive around in lady’s clothes for a few hours a week until he could get back into his own skin again, so he’d put on that hideous dress and parade around clothed in a lie.
Every Sunday, church was followed by lunch at Grandmother’s house, where the family matriarch silently judged her own self-worth based on the sanctity and success of her children and grandchildren.  Anything less than perfect sublimation to the Bible and conformity to the church peers was frowned upon.
Kelly’s best friends were his cousin Martin and two brothers who were Martin’s neighbors.  Kelly often spent the night at Martin’s house, but he had to sleep in the room of Martin’s older sister Megan.  Kelly liked Megan okay, but Megan was such a girly girl, always talking about make-up, clothes, and boys.  He wished he could just sleep in Martin’s room. 
Megan was totally in love with Devon James, the actor who played Byron Ravenwolf, a hunky teenage vampire on Megan’s favorite television show.  She had pictures of him taped to her wall, much to Grandmother’s dismay.  Grandmother told her the boy looked like a drug addict filled with demons, and she didn’t know why Megan’s mother let her keep those awful pictures up.  As much as Megan wanted to hump Devon James, Kelly wanted to be Byron Ravenwolf, and the more Grandmother hated the actor, the more appealing he became to Megan and Kelly.
One night, when Megan was sixteen and Kelly was fourteen, Kelly awoke to find Megan climbing out the window.  “Hey, where are you going?” Kelly had asked.
“Just going for a walk,” Megan had lied.  “It’s hot.  I need some air.”
“Well, I’ll come with,” Kelly said.  He’d worn shorts and a t-shirt to bed, so all he had to do was slip on his sandals.
They cut across the corn field, flashlight bobbing before them, scanning for copperheads, and they came out on an unmarked road.  The night was country dark, the kind of black where everything is shadows and the stars look magical.  “Why are you in such a hurry?” Kelly asked.
“I’m meeting somebody,” Megan explained.  “And I’m late.  Dad stayed up way past his bed time, watching some stupid movie.”
“Who are you meeting?”  An owl hooted overhead, irritated at their presence, and it startled Kelly.
“Just a guy.  I met him outside the movie theater last weekend.  He’s fucking hot.  He’s waiting for me at the swim hole.”  Megan licked her lips, anticipating the forthcoming make out session.
They cut across John Smith’s tobacco field and headed toward the roaring river.  Once they arrived, and Megan started sucking face with the boy, it became obvious to Kelly that he was a third wheel.   He decided to walk back to Megan’s house and go to bed.
On the way back, as he trudged through the corn field, Kelly heard an odd rustling that didn’t sound like the wind or an animal.  It seemed large. Furthermore, it moved with determination and appeared to be following him.  He felt certain someone lurked behind him.   Occasionally Kelly stopped, about-faced, and listened.  “Who’s there?” he called out, but he discovered no one and heard nothing at that moment, leaving him to question his own senses and disregard it as paranoia.  He turned and started walking again, and the stalking rustling sounds returned.
Fear ran him down like a deer on the highway.  Lub dub.  Lub dub.  He felt the beating of his heart.  The night was so silent.  Too silent, he thought.  Where are the animals, the frogs, the crickets?  Lub dub.  His heart beat seemed unbearably loud.  He knew that this thudding betrayed his terror.  Lub dub.  Lub dub.   He trod faster then.  He could feel someone, or something, there with him.  Lub dub.  Lub dub.  Lub dub.  His heartbeat quickened all the more.  The rustling grew closer.  Kelly needed to turn and look, or at least run away, but he stood frozen with trepidation.  He felt he shouldn’t look.  He wouldn’t look.  He didn’t want to see, but he knew that he must.  With every ounce of will, he tried to spin about and take a gander, but he remained unable.  He could not will himself to move. 
And then he felt it behind him.  Touching him.  Embracing him.  Like an icy spider web or a dead man’s kiss upon his neck, he felt the vampire’s bite.  It burned as the teeth sank into his flesh.  Kelly craned his head, struggling against the attack, and he saw the monster from the corner of his eyes.  He screamed and nearly fainted.  The monster continued to feed, and Kelly felt his life slipping away from him.  He flung his hand up and pushed against the monster’s head.  His silver ring made contact with the vampire’s flesh.  The creature released his bite and recoiled.  Kelly’s legs took flight and he fled, shrieking and terrified.
Kelly ran all the way home, but luckily, the vampire, sated with his meal, did not pursue him.
Kelly climbed back into Megan’s room.  Trembling with fear, he shut and locked the window.  He prayed that vampire’s really did need an invitation to come inside.  He needed to warn Megan, to save her from being attacked while walking home through the field, but he dare not go back into the night.  He debated waking Megan’s parents.  They’d never believe him about the vampire, but they would certainly drive over to the swim hole and pick Megan up if he ratted her out.  At least then she’d be safe, but she’d be furious at him for getting her in trouble.    Kelly felt light headed from blood loss and couldn’t think straight.  He began to doubt himself and wonder if maybe he’d just hallucinated the entire thing.  His heart still pounded a million miles a minute, and he couldn’t get his breath.  Blackness enveloped him as if he were walking deeper and deeper into a tunnel, and then he passed out.  
The next morning, Kelly woke up in the chair in Megan’s room where he had lost consciousness.  Megan lay in bed sleeping, and when she awoke, she was pissed that he’d locked her out, forcing her to sneak in through the front door and past her parents’ room.  Kelly convinced himself it had been a nightmare.  Even when he went to the bathroom and saw the two fang marks on his neck, he persuaded himself that he’d just snagged his skin on some briers.  He forced himself to forget about it, to never speak of it.
However, then the apocalypse happened three years ago.  The bloodsuckers came out of hiding, and the memory came flooding back.  Those puncture wounds had left scars, and as he scrutinized them in the mirror, he realized that it had really happened.  Kelly knew the truth.  No matter how much the vamps blathered on about wanting to protect the humans, they were nothing more than predators.  There was no way in hell he’d ever stay on this goddamned ranch.  He would find a way to escape!
Even though Kelly had suppressed the memory of the vampire attack, something had changed inside him that night, though.  For one, he didn’t want to be Byron Ravenwolf anymore.  Furthermore, he realized that life was too short to live a lie.  He stopped pretending to be a girl for church.  He flat out refused to wear a dress.  He still went to church, but the preacher started doing sermons on the sins of disobedient women dressing like men.  Kelly told his parents that sermon didn’t apply to him, because he was a boy.  They called him crazy.  The more Kelly insisted on being true to himself, the more his parents rejected him.  Not long after that, he ran away from home.  He’d lived on the streets for several years before he finally got a job and a room to call his own.  He’d finally gotten health insurance and could afford the hormone therapy his doctor had recommended.  He’d never been happier than when his beard came in.  The reflection in the mirror finally matched the image he had of himself on the inside. 
He’d been on hormone therapy for years, saving up for surgery.  He’d never get his surgery now; his metamorphosis would forever be incomplete.  He was doomed to live inside a cocoon, never to sprout wings and fly. At least he had small breasts that were easy to bind.  However, without his masculinizing hormone therapy, he’d start to feminize.  The thought of menstruating again, all of his masculinity draining out of that damned hole in a puddle of betrayal, his beard becoming thin and weak, his body defeminizing and no longer being able to pass! 
That was why he’d been desperate enough to meet up with the black market pharmacist, the promise of testosterone patches.  The rumor mill said he set up shop in the old pharmacy on Jones Avenue every first Wednesday night of the month.  Of course it had been a trap.  Offer up drugs to the desperate humans, and they’ll take sloppy chances.  And now here he was. 
The doctor took Kelly’s blood pressure and listened to Kelly’s heart.  He took a little hammer and beat on Kelly’s knee.  After that, he grabbed a speculum from a drawer and demanded, “Spread ‘em wide and let’s see what you got.  Feet up in the stirrups.”
Kelly flushed red with embarrassment but obeyed none-the-less.  Kelly gasped as the cold metal penetrated his inner being.  The pain felt excruciating. Years of hormone treatment had caused vaginal atrophy, and the invasion made him bleed.  This was the price the vampires demanded in exchange for food and shelter.  Not only becoming a walking blood bank, but being forced into a false identity, and being raped by a piece of cold metal.  Indeed, the cost was too high.  “You’re a terrible doctor,” Kelly stammered.  A tear ran down his face.
 “Yeah, well, around here, I’m more of vet,” the doctor rationalized.  “I don’t see any VD, so that’s good,” he said as he removed the speculum.  “Go ahead and put your robe back on and return to the waiting room.
Kelly waited while the other’s each received their exams.  He wished he could shower again.  He wanted so desperately to wash off the violation he’d just endured and feel clean again.  Instead, he stared vacantly at a forty-four-year-old copy of Better Homes and Gardens, no doubt rescued from one of the houses’ attics.  With the fall of civilization and technology, the printed word had made a comeback.  Even print is undead, thought Kelly.
Once the others had received their exams, each of the newbies was given clothes.  Kelly received women’s clothes, but at least he got jeans and a shirt instead of a dress.   Then they were taken to the humans’ mess hall and fed sandwiches and iced tea.  Kelly’s tummy rolled and rumbled, and he had no appetite.  He picked at his sandwich and ended up giving the rest of it to Charlie.  Then he was shuffled off to the female stables with Amanda.
Meanwhile, Caellum, Nod, and Zoetica went to the vampire’s mess hall to get a bite.  The place was clearing out, but a few vampires remained.
Grandma Gertrude sat by the fire, rocking in her chair.  She sipped blood from a cup with a straw.  She’d been metamorphosed to vampirism as an old lady by her loving grandson.  She didn’t have a tooth in her head when she was converted, so she never grew fangs.    She’d been around for centuries and was loved and respected by all.  Born into a family of witches, she knew how to cast spells, and her wisdom was revered.
Stanley sat beside her on the floor, playing with a toy.  He had blood stains crusted around his lips like a kid that had eaten a cherry Popsicle.  He was seventeen when turned, but he was mentally retarded.  Grandma Gertrude had rescued him from a mob in the 1970s, and she’d been looking after him ever since.
Some fresh food was brought in for Caellum, Nod, and Zoetica.  Only the tastiest humans were presented to the Overlord of Cane Valley and his ranahans.  The tender young things offered up their necks willingly, honored to be feasted on by nobility.

* * * * *

A few days later, Kelly found himself on bloodletting rotation.  They brought Kelly, Amanda, and Charlie into the mess hall and presented them to Caellum, Nod, and Zoetica, always offering first taste of the newbies to the Overlord and his ranahans.
Caellum told them, “We have fed you, clothed you, sheltered you, and protected you.  Now it is time to earn you’re keep.  It’s not so bad.  You’ll see,” he promised, and winked at them. He spoke the thrall, saying, “The bite is exquisite.  To be feasted upon by my kind is truly a glorious honor.  You will love every moment of it.” Pointing at Kelly, he instructed, “Bring me that one first.” He’d forgotten that Kelly couldn’t be thralled, for he’d assumed that the man had been eating will power enhancers that wore off after twenty-four hours.
They brought Kelly to Caellum.  Kelly wanted to struggle, to fight, to run, but he was terribly outnumbered.   There was nothing he could do but submit and wait for the perfect opportunity to escape.
Caellum approached him from the front.  He took him in his arms like a lover.  He ran one hand up Kelly’s nape.  Kelly trembled in his arms.  Caellum ran his other hand over the light scars that remained there from Kelly’s previous vampire attack.  “You’ve been tasted before,” he whispered.  “I promise you, no matter how glorious your previous encounter, this one will be better.”  Caellum looked deep into Kelly’s eyes.  “Your fear is beautiful, but groundless.  Relax and enjoy this opportunity to please your master,” Caellum cooed, attempting to enthrall Kelly.  Caellum took a fistful of hair and gently turned Kelly’s head back, further exposing Kelly’s neck.  He licked his lips with anticipation, and then he bit.
For Kelly, the pain felt gruesome. Old wounds opened up and dripped with fear like blood.  It wasn’t exquisite, exciting, or orgasmic like in the movies.  Perhaps it was so for those who could be thralled, but for Kelly, there was nothing but agony and fear.  He felt victimized, helpless, powerless, and ashamed.  He empathized with the fly in the spider’s web, the bird in the cat’s paws, the rat in the snake’s gullet, and the cow in the slaughter house.
After Caellum finished tasting Kelly, he pulled back and gazed into the fellow’s eyes, expecting to see the expression of peaceful gratitude that he normally witnessed.  However, the tormented emotion in Kelly’s eyes disturbed him, for it reminded him that he was indeed a monster.  Kelly’s blood left an aftertaste like the sapor of a rape victim’s bath water.
Kelly held that violated look for a moment longer before getting control of his mind and reeling himself back in from the depths of horror where it had hurdled to.  He found his bravery, his will to survive, and he overcame.
Moreover, Kelly observed that flicker of remorse in Caellum’s eyes as the vampire acknowledged the beast within himself.  Kelly had recognized Caellum’s fleeting moment of self-loathing.  The human stared directly into Caellum’s eyes.  “I see you,” he said, calling the bloodsucker out.
Caellum couldn’t stand the thought of watching the others feed on Kelly, of seeing that look again.  “That one taste horrible,” Caellum spat.  “Take him away.” 

* * * * *

Just as the sun peeked above the horizon, the alarm resounded throughout the Cane Valley complex.  The vampires were under attack.  The local branch of Zoilo’s army besieged the entrance to Cane Valley.
The weaker humans, mostly pregnant women, were shuffled from their beds to the fortified bunkers.  The strong ones readied for one-on-one combat under the command of the ticks.  The vampires assumed their posts in their designated battle stations.  Caellum, Nod, Zoetica, and three others suited up in their bionic mail.  The bionic mail had several built in ranged and melee weapons, but Caellum preferred using his own claymore.  These battles were always fought with a hodgepodge of advanced military weapons and classic medieval ones, as if some future race completely misunderstood the machinations of a Renaissance Fair.
A woman named Ursa commanded the zombie troops.  She, too, had a bionic mail suit, as did four other lieutenants in her zombie swarm.  Ursa’s reputation preceded her.  She was stubborn and persistent, like a dinosaur that refused to acknowledge extinction.  Before she’d gotten zombified, Ursa had been a martial arts instructor.  She was damn good, and she had a case full of trophies and medals to prove it.  Lethal with her silver sword, she was renowned for making heads roll.
Ursa had a plan.  First, the zombies had to get past the fence, both through the gate in the front and over it on the sides.  Next, they needed to find any hillside snipers’ nests and collapse them with rocket launchers.  Ursa’s main goal was to take as many humans as she could.  If the humans were harmed, then the endeavor proved pointless, so her army had to be careful.  Her secondary goal was to kill as many vampires as possible.   Her third goal was to inflict utmost damage to the military and defense structures.  With any luck, her crew would take out the ammunitions storage buildings.  If they could do enough damage to the fortifications, once the humans were stolen, they’d come back for a second onslaught and take over the power plant. 
She had a troop of around two hundred directly outside the main gate, ready to blow it up with bunker defeat munitions that they had raided from a military base.  There were fifty more warriors attempting to scale the side walls that fortified the mountainside.  If things went to plan, they’d all penetrate the perimeter in unison.
The gate gave way quickly, and several armored personnel carriers filled with zombies drove within.  More zombies on foot swarmed in behind them.  Those coming in from the side managed to scale the walls, and the timing worked out perfectly. 
Caellum assessed the situation.  The vampires were outnumbered, as usual, but zombies were weak, so that didn’t actually matter.  There were five zombies in bionic mail, and Caellum wanted those bionic mail suits, so he instructed the others to go for a capture on those instead of a kill. 
The heavy fighting took place right inside the gate.  Vampires had amazing eyesight at night, but during the day they were impaired.  They had to wear dark sunglasses just to see as well as a human, so the sharp shooters were missing as much as they hit.
Zombies were a collective hive, and a zombie could keep on fighting even as the brain oozed out of a poorly-placed hole in the head.  To destroy a zombie, one had to sever the connection to the hive by destroying the wireless communication chip inside the brain.  The tiny implant was inserted through a hole drilled in the thin bone of the eye socket, where it was placed on the surface of the right frontal lobe.  To kill a zombie, one had to basically lobotomize it.
Even then, the bodies could be salvaged and the parts reused for repairing other zombies.  A decapitated zombie could indeed reattach its head somehow, though it did take some time.  The vampires still hadn’t figured out the magick behind that trick!  Total annihilation was the only sure fire way to eradicate a zombie infestation.
The battlefield thundered into total chaos.  Battle cries accompanied by a percussion of gunfire echoed throughout the valley in a symphony of war.  Screams of anguish and death, soaring missiles, and explosions crescendoed.  Smoke and debris filled the air.
Caellum cut his way across the combat zone, beheading zombie after zombie.  His fellow warriors mopped up for him by driving their own swords through the fallen ones’ heads, destroying their chips.
Zombies in bionic mail pulled vampires out of their bunkers and caves and into the sunlight.  Ticks with revolvers shot zombies in the head, whilst the zombies shot back.  Some engaged in hand to hand combat.  Overcome with hunger urges, zombies tried to rip out the ticks thyroid glands with their teeth.  The ticks knew better than to feed on zombies.  All they had to offer was formaldehyde and rot.
Zombies chucked grenades at the ticks and into buildings, while the ticks threw grenades at the zombies.  Detonations rocked the theater, and flaming body parts and building materials commingled upon the bloody ground.
Zombies rushed into the caves with their flame throwers.  The vampires spat sticky, spider web-like ectoplasm from their mouths, blinding and entangling the zombies.  The vampires then attacked with their swords and lobotomized the disabled ghouls.
Kelly had been shuffled off with the weaklings to cower in fear in a fortified basement.  Four ticks with revolvers and swords accompanied them for protection.  The war raged on all around them, and it was terrifying.  Amanda cowered in a corner, but Kelly remained vigilant and aware. 
Eventually, the zombies found them.  The ticks managed to hold off the first wave, but the second wave overpowered the ticks, and they lay dead on the floor.  Three zombies with silver swords and shotguns had survived the fight, and they commanded the humans, “Do not resist us, or you will be shot.  A dead human is a delicious human!  Do not tempt us!”  Amanda had a break down and wept uncontrollably.
The zombies were supposed to secure the area and guard the cache of humans, who would be rounded up and trucked back to the meat factory as soon as the opportunity arose.  They sent out a telepathic message, letting Ursa know where the humans were and requesting a transport truck for pick up. 
Kelly wasn’t about to let that happen.  Being a living blood bank for vampires was bad enough.  No way was he becoming a zombie turd!  He dove for one of the tick’s swords and rolled away with the weapon in hand.  He stood up and shouted, “I don’t think so, rot brain!”
He slashed out at the nearest zombie with an uppercut across her belly, disemboweling her.  The zombie looked down in shock and disgust at her spilling guts, and she tried to hold them inside.  Kelly came back at her with a leg sweep and knocked her to the ground, then finished the zombie off with a jab through the eye.
 He looked at the two remaining zombies and taunted, “I’ve gotten pretty good at haruspicy recently.  I think I just read your future in there.  You wanna know what it said?”  He paused and chuckled maliciously.  “You’re next!”
As Kelly lunged at the second zombie, the third ghoul took a shot at him but missed.  Like a football player, Kelly tackled the zombie and knocked him back into the wall and then kneed him in the groin as hard as he could. Simultaneously, he used the hilt of his sword to break the zombie’s arm and force him to drop his weapon.  Then Kelly stepped back and beheaded the zombie before the dazed creature had a chance retaliate. 
The body kept flailing and fighting.  It grabbed Kelly in a bear hug.  Kelly threw his legs out from under himself and let gravity take him.  Suddenly, the full weight of Kelly was in the zombie’s arms, throwing him off balance.  Then Kelly flailed and kicked off the floor, and they fell over together.  Kelly scampered away and rushed for the zombie’s head, stabbing it three times in quick succession to make sure he’d hit the chip.
Meanwhile, two other humans had risen up and defeated the third zombie, and the humans were safe for now.
The war continued to escalate outside.  A zombie with a rocket launcher focused on Zoetica.  The vampires had dexterity on their side, and Zoetica dove away in the nick of time, landing next to Nod in a trench.  Another zombie with a large caliber weapon bore down on them.  These bullets, made with a penetrator case of tungsten carbide with an explosive tip, had the ability to pierce through the bionic mail.  The cores had been modified to contain a silver alloy, the true payload for these rounds.  The bionic mail clad vampires would be grievously wounded by a direct hit from this weapon, and any sunlight streaming through the resulting hole would eat away at the vampire until there was nothing left if the vampire failed to reach shelter in time.  
However, luck was on the vampires’ side.  A nearby sniper hit the attacking zombie in the middle of his forehead, staggering him.  Zoetica rose up from her hiding hole and finally managed to put a round through the zombie’s eye, taking him down permanently.
Zoetica and Nod spotted one of the zombies wearing a bionic mail suit nearby, and they decided to capture him.  The zombie, following orders, focused solely on dragging vampires out into the sunlight.  Zoetica and Nod grabbed a canvas tarp from a nearby barn.  They each took an end and rushed toward the zombie on either side of him.  They draped the tarp over him, blinding him, and then wrapped it around him, binding him.  He struggled against the canvas, ripping through it with his hands, but he remained enmeshed enough to throw him off balance.  Zoetica and Nod pushed him backwards into the barn.  Nod held him tightly against a support pole whilst Zoetica grabbed a chain and wrapped him up and then locked it with a padlock.  Even that wouldn’t hold a bionic mail suit for long.  Nod extended a razor-sharp skewer from his bionic mail suit’s forearm and ripped away the canvas, exposing the zombie’s head.  He pushed a button on the zombie’s suit, and the helmet opened up.  The zombie looked confused and terrified as Nod thrust his blade through the zombie’s frontal lobe, ending him.
Meantime, Caellum pursued Ursa.  She saw him coming and fired a missile at him.  He dodged it and leapt toward her, clearing the space between them before she had time to reload.  He rammed into her, sending her missile launcher hurtling away.  He pinned her to the ground and tried to hit the release button on her helmet, while she struggled against him and tried to do the same.  She bucked her hips hard, and he fell off of her.  Caellum grabbed for his sword, which had landed on the ground nearby during the struggle, but Ursa got to it first, eager for the thrill of killing him with his own blade.  She swung it at him, aiming for the suit’s power supply, and got in a good hit.  His machine lost its hydraulics and the built in weapons malfunctioned as well.  The weight of the suit became his to bear, and every movement from that point on was like moving underwater.  He’d lost his weapons, lost his suit, and Ursa was on the offensive.  All he could do was dodge her fierce swings.  Finally, he picked up her rocket launcher and used it like a blunt weapon, parrying her attacks and defending himself.
Caellum complimented her, “You fight well for a zombie!”  The bionic mail filtered his voice, and he sounded like an angry tin can.
“Thank you!  You fight like a twat!” she replied as she tried to smash through the helmet’s faceplate with the sword. 
Grandma Gertrude stood inside a watchtower located high upon the hillside and accessed through a cave, overseeing the battle below.  She wore the long robes of her family’s coven.  She’d been practicing a new and most difficult conjuration that would block out the sun with dense black clouds.  If she could pull it off, the vampires could come out of the caves and end this thing quickly.
She concentrated as she spoke the words.  Every syllable had to be spoken perfectly; her intention couldn’t waver in the slightest.  Any distraction would cause her to fail.  She added the spell components to the fire, and they fumed.  The smoke rose up to heaven, and as it did so it congealed and grew, creating thick clouds until finally the sun was completely obscured.  She warned the vampires that she couldn’t hold the spell for long.  They had about fifteen minutes to do their worst before they had to get to shelter or pay the price.
It became the turning point of the fight.  The zombies were quickly overpowered in one on one combat with the vampires.  Seeing the tide turn around her, Ursa ordered them to retreat.  The battle was over.
* * * * *

“What’s the damage?” Caellum asked.  Blood splattered and filthy, he looked dejected like a wild dog that just lost his scraps.
“It’s pretty bad,” Nod admitted with a solemn look upon his face.  “We lost nine vampires...”
“That many?  Who?”  Caellum interjected.
“Michael, Grace, Terrance...”
“Terrance?  Oh no, no, no!  Not Terrance,” A frown twisted across Caellum’s face, and he fought back tears.  He’d been friends with Terrance for centuries.
Nod continued, “...Nicole, Sara, Jason, William, Sophia, and Damien as well as fifteen ticks and nineteen humans.  Randal, Mason and Laura will be in their graves for a minimum of three days, and there are several ticks and humans in medical.”
Caellum crinkled his forehead with concern and sighed, “We’re going to have to turn some to replenish our numbers.  Any of the ticks or humans critical?”
“Just two.”  Nod held up his fingers for emphasis, ironically making the peace sign.
“Strong enough to be fighters?” Caellum inquired.
“Go ahead and turn them.  I’ll determine who else to turn later,” Caellum decide.
Nod thought of Kelly.  “What about that newbie.  The one who resisted thrall?  I heard he took down a couple of zombies in the fight.  Should we turn him?”
Caellum remembered the accusing look in Kelly’s eyes when he’d fed upon the lad.  He said, “Let me talk to him.  I’ll let you know.”
Later, after showering and having a meal, Caellum went looking for the red haired newbie.  The human mess hall was unusually quiet as the humans mourned their dead.  The woman Caellum had recently fed on was led into the room.  She took a seat at a corner table and started weeping.  Caellum felt sorry for her.  He knew that she’d been thralled when he’d fed on her, and that she’d enjoyed the experience.  He figured that she’d probably lost someone in the battle.  None-the-less, her blood churned unsettled in his tummy.  Life had been much easier before he had to look his lunch in the eyes after feeding on them.  Now, he was plagued with empathy and compassion, so much damned humanity ebbing in upon him!
He found Kelly eating alone.  The man picked up his burger and took a bite.  A little bit of ketchup oozed out and stained the corner of his lip.
Caellum sat down across from Kelly, trying to think of a way to convince Kelly to join their team.  “That looks tasty.  See.  Now aren’t you glad you are under our protection?”
Kelly gulped down his bite and scoffed, “Oh yeah.  Thanks.  And what a great job you do keeping me out of danger!  Now, instead of ducking from feebs, I’m smack dab in the middle of a war zone.  I had to fend off a zombie attack in the bunker myself.  I feel so much safer now.”
“You’d rather be on your own?  Facing zombies down by yourself?” Caellum asked, disbelief evinced upon his visage.
Kelly licked away the ketchup from his lip and replied, “Absolutely.  I never once had to dodge a grenade in Silver City.”
“Surely you must appreciate the fresh food,” Caellum persuaded.
Kelly admitted, “Yeah, it does beat out-of-date canned beans, but so what.  I’m a slave now.  I’ve lost my freedom to a bunch of stupid vampires who can’t even defeat Zoilo.” 
“We’ve never fought Zoilo,” Caellum defended.
“My point exactly, tough guy.  Why haven’t you?  Why haven’t you taken him out?” Kelly challenged, with a judgmental expression upon his face.
Caellum looked dumbfounded. “And how would we do that?”
Kelly shrugged.  “I don’t know.  Maybe blow up World of Maya.”
Caellum rolled his eyes at the absurdity of such a suggestion.  “How do you blow up a video game that’s in people’s brains?”
Kelly knew much about the World of Maya.  He had been a tech enthusiast before the zombie apocalypse.    He’d befriended an ex-military techie named Joe, who’d worked on Battle Incorporated in its infancy.  Joe had procured several of those early wireless communication chips, as well as an early model insertion gun, a handheld device that required skill to use.  When wireless communication chips first hit the market, they were insanely expensive, and Kelly wanted one more than anything, so Joe modified one of the military chips and hooked Kelly up.  Joe had also stolen a copy of Battle Incorporated’s code.  When Maya came out, Kelly and Joe challenged themselves to hack into Maya undetected using their own modified chips.  When Zoilo made his attack, Kelly had been inside the game, but his modded chip made him immune to the effects.  As a bonus, it also made him immune to the vampire’s thrall.  Joe’s survival skills had helped Kelly persevere through the apocalypse, and Kelly would be dead by now if not for the things Joe had taught him.
Kelly pointed out, “It doesn’t start there, man. Kill the power supply.  Blow up the servers.  Blow up the satellites.  Kill him at the source.  Duh.”
The light bulb went off in Caellum’s brain.  Technology had always baffled him.  He’d never adapted to it, and such a notion had never even occurred to him before.  He agreed, “Yeah, that would work.”  He shook his head as he dismissed the idea.  “But I don’t know how.  Where are these servers even at, and how the hell do you blow a satellite out of the sky?”
“It’s called research.  Maybe do some.  Go to a fucking library, dude,” Kelly sneered.
Caellum pursed his lip and nodded.  “You’re smart.  You’re a valuable asset.  What was your name?”
“Kelly.  Kelly Finn.”
Caellum smiled.  “I’m Caellum.  I think I’d like to turn you into one of us, Kelly Finn.  What do you think of that?”
Kelly looked him the eyes and growled, “I don’t want to be turned, Caellum.”
Caellum looked flabbergasted.  “What?  But why?  It’s an honor to be turned.  Most would jump at the chance to move back to the top of the food chain.”
“Because, Caellum, humans rule and vampires drool.  I don’t want to be a monster.  I want to be a man.”  Kelly dipped one of his fries in some ketchup and took a bite.
“I see.  So you won’t help me, then,” Caellum baited.
“Help you what?” Kelly asked, squinting at him through distrustful eyes.
“With the research, so I can defeat Zoilo,” Caellum said.
Kelly pointed at him.  “I didn’t say that.  If you’re going to take on Zoilo, I’d be willing to help.  The enemy of your enemy is your friend, after all. But I absolutely don’t want to be a vampire, and I don’t want to be fed on again.”
“You don’t have to become a vampire,” Caellum said.  “And if you earn your keep in other ways, you don’t have to be in the bloodletting rotation.”
“And, I want to be moved to a male stable...”
“You’re in a female stable?” Caellum had no idea that Kelly was trans.
“Yes.  I don’t belong there...”
“Okay.  Sure,” Caellum agreed.
“And I want some better clothes.  Men’s clothes.” Kelly added.
Caellum shrugged.  “No problem.”
“And I want testosterone patches...” Kelly demanded.
Caellum didn’t know what those were, but none-the-less replied, “I’ll see what I can do.”
“And most importantly, when we pull this off, I earn my freedom.  Those are my terms.  Do we have deal?” Kelly asked.
Caellum pretended to think it over.  Finally he concurred, “Okay.  If you help me defeat Zoilo, I agree to your terms.  You will accompany me into the city and help me with the research to defeat Zoilo tomorrow night.  But, don’t you even think of making a run for it.  If you try to escape, I will drain you.”
Kelly offered his hand out.  “Deal,” he said, as Caellum shook it.

* * * * *

The next night, Caellum, Nod, Zoetica, and Kelly set out to the city.  Nod and Zoetica were going to do a sweep for humans whilst Caellum and Kelly visited the library.  Caellum had returned Kelly’s crossbow to him in an act of trust and necessity.  The city was an extremely dangerous place, and going in unarmed was foolish.
The bibliotheca looked sad.  For decades, it had stood as a beacon of knowledge and imagination.  Now, it was a metaphor for all that humanity had lost.  There was no time for intellectual pursuits or fanciful ideas in an age where survival dominated every waking hour.  The roof had leaked and collapsed here and there, ruining the books beneath.  Overturned shelves and damaged publications littered the floor.  The place reeked of mold and decay.
Kelly felt nostalgic amongst the tomes.  He’d spent many hours of his youth in the school library, tucked away in a corner reading fantasy and horror novels, passing time after school until his mother got off work to take him home.  He shined his flashlight this way and that, trying to get a lay of the place.
“So, how do we find the books that we need?” Caellum asked.
“What?  You’ve never heard of The Dewey Decimal System?” Kelly replied.
“Afraid not.  Libraries were never my thing.”  Caellum followed Kelly to a restricted area of the library.  
As they walked, Kelly shined his flashlight about as he scanned the identification labels on the doors.  “You’re missing out, you know.  Libraries are great,” Kelly enthused. 
“Yeah, maybe.  However, most of them kept banker’s hours.  Not exactly vampire friendly.”
“And now they keep no hours.  All these books are just lying around rotting.  You should gather them up and start a library at the ranch,” Kelly suggested.
“Yeah, well, I can’t read,” Caellum stated.
“You can’t read?  Who the hell can’t read?” Kelly mocked. 
Caellum took offense at the way Kelly looked at him.  “Me.” 
Kelly’s face filled with disbelief. “That’s insane.”
Caellum’s cheeks flushed with embarrassment. “Reading wasn’t a common skill when I was human, nor for a long while after.”
“When where you turned?”
“The Devil’s hour, 24th of April, 1014,” Caellum muttered, a tinge of sadness in his voice.
“Damn, you are ancient,” said Kelly.  “What happened?”
 “That’s personal.”
Kelly stopped in front of a door marked “Server Room”.  “This is it.”  He turned the knob but it was locked.  “Oh come on.  Tell me.  I can keep a secret.” Kelly pulled a lock picking set from his backpack and set to work on the lock.
Caellum said, “Fine.  I hail from the south of Ireland, a place called Munster.  I was wounded at The Battle of Clontarf.  I was a warrior under the command of Mothla mac Domnaill mic Fáeláin, King of the Déisi Muman.  We fought with Brian Boru, High King of Ireland against an alliance of Dublin, Leinster, and some Viking bastards. Greatswords like mine weren’t around at that time, but I had an iron Viking sword. 
“The battle began at sunrise.  The foreigner, a man named Plait, called Domnall mac Eimin a queer with a bull for a wife.  Domnall mac Eimin told him to go fuck himself.  Consequently, they drew their swords and fought, killing each other. 
“Then, the battle erupted with a fierceness beyond imagination.  It was a bloodbath.  I heard the Morrigan singing of the death of Brian Boru.  An old man, he’d stayed in his tent praying when Brodir of Mann snuck in and killed him like a coward.  Brodir got his later though when Brian’s brother Ulf the Quarrelsome wound Brodir’s entrails around a tree.”  This made Caellum smile for a moment.
His smile faded and he resumed his lament, “We were victorious, but the price was high.  By the time the sun set, 10,000 men were corpses, and what remained of our enemies scattered, running for their lives with our men in pursuit. Others made for the shoreline.  The tide came in, drowning them, and taking out Brian's grandson Toirdelbach as well, the bloody bastard.” 
“I had been wounded by sword, near Dubgall's Bridge.  I lay dying in a muddy patch near the river, ready to pass into Tír Tairngire.  I watched the sun set for the final time.  The locals often spoken of witches, goblins, and fairies lurking about in the area.  I’d never believed in such bunk, until that night.
“She came to me at the witching hour.  She was beautiful, with long, raven hair down to her bottom.  I knew not her intentions when she climbed upon me.  She sniffed me, like an animal.  At that point, she placed her lips upon my neck, so gently, as if to kiss me there.  I felt her bite into me and begin to drink.  I stared heavenward as she drained me.  The stars above had never looked more brilliant.  I ebbed barely on the edge of consciousness when she stopped.  She looked at me lovingly, tenderly, as if I reminded her of someone.  She stroked my hair back gently from my face.  ‘Tell me your name,’ she said, and I did.
“Then, she bit into her own wrist until she bled, and she dribbled the crimson nectar into my mouth.  I made no effort to swallow.  I was too far gone.  But it trickled down the back of my throat, tasting of metal. 
“She chanted the words,

‘I sacrifice to the god Elatha thee
 Caellum MacCarthy shall forever be
 Child of the night, creature of fright
 Blood fed, forever dead
 Willed from the grave by the pale moonlight.’

“She dragged me beneath the bridge, to protect me from the coming sun.  She covered me in mud and rocks and left me there to die.  Dubgall's Bridge.  My grave.”  Caellum seemed lost to the memory.
“Damn, you’ve been alive for so long.  Why wouldn’t you learn to read?” Kelly asked.  
“I tried to teach myself.  It just never made any sense.  I got tired of the inevitable headaches.  Who cares, anyway?  I get by fine without reading.” Caellum insisted.
“I could teach you, if you want.  My little sister was Dyslexic.” 
“What did you call me?” Caellum snarled.
“Dyslexic.  It’s a reading disorder.  Nothing to be ashamed of,” Kelly soothed.  He continued to fiddle with the lock.
“Just let it go, Finn.  Move aside.”  Kelly did as he was told.  Caellum rammed into the door, busting it open.  “Get the information we need,” Caellum barked.
Kelly and Caellum entered the server room.  Kelly pulled a large battery unit from his backpack.  He plugged the library’s mainframe computer in and turned it on.  “Let’s hope their book database isn’t corrupted,” he said.  The computer whirred to life.  Kelly launched the integrated library system and quickly pulled up the data he needed.  He took a pad and pen from his notebook and jotted down the information. 
Suddenly, a rustling noise echoed through the building.  “Shhh.” Caellum instructed.  They listened.  They sat listening for a few minutes before deciding it was likely an animal.  Kelly packed up the battery, and they headed to the stacks.
They found Zoilo’s autobiography as well as books on satellite communications, game servers, and even a book detailing the success of World of Maya.  And while he was at it, Kelly stuffed a book on The Battle of Clontarf into his backpack as well a couple of fiction novels that caught his eye.  Kelly struggled to carry the heavy satchel.
“Let me carry that,” Caellum insisted.  “It’s slowly you down.”
Always independent, Kelly started to object, but the damn thing was just too heavy.  “Yeah, sure,” he agreed, handing the satchel over to the vamp.
They left the library without incident and were headed to the rendezvous point when they came upon a half dozen feebs blocking their way.  One would think the giant sword wielding vampire would have been enough to scatter them, but desperate times made audacious enemies. 
The feebs rushed them.  Kelly raised his crossbow and fired, getting in the first kill.  Not to be outdone, Caellum decapitated two more with one swing.  One of the feebs moved fast, and he rushed Kelly.  Caellum turned to help Kelly, but Kelly sidestepped the feeb’s attack, grabbed the zombie, and used the monster’s own momentum to hurl it to the ground.  Then he fired a bolt right into the thing’s mind, destroying its communication chip. 
With a howl, another feeb jumped onto Caellum’s back.  She bit right into his ear.  Caellum growled with anger and pain.  He propelled himself backward and body slammed her into a concrete wall, then flung his head backward into her head, slamming her skull into the building yet again as he did so.  She slid off of him to the ground.  He drove his sword through her cranium, finishing her off. 
Meanwhile Kelly got a kill shot off on the remaining feeb.  Caellum mopped up by stabbing the decapitated heads through their brains.
Caellum and Kelly resumed walking, and the moment they rounded the corner, they stopped dead in their tracks.  A swarm of feebs cut them off from the rendezvous point.  The mob noticed them and rushed forward.
“Run!” Caellum yelled.
They fled back the way they had come.
“This way!” Kelly screamed.  He cut down an alley.  He leapt up onto an HVAC unit, then jumped again, springing off the wall, and he landed on a dumpster.  From there, he jumped to a fire escape and scaled up to the rooftop. Caellum followed suit.  They ran across the rooftops, leaping from building to building until they were well past the swarm.  Soon after, Kelly found another fire escape, and they made their way down.  They didn’t stop running until they reached the others.  Kelly panted, out of breath, whilst Caellum seemed unaffected.
“You guys alright? Nod asked.
“Yeah.  Let’s get going,” Caellum ordered.  “There’s a swarm a block away.”
They got into the vehicle, Zoetica in the driver’s seat, Caellum riding shot gun, and Nod and Kelly climbed into the back.  Four captured humans were already inside.  The vehicle lurched forward as they sped off.
Kelly looked at the captured people with pity.  Enthralled, they gaped back at him with goofy contentment on their visages.  How far humanity had fallen, from exploiting the Earth and her resources, to becoming the oppressed.  Perhaps it was karma.  Maybe mankind deserved this.
The group arrived back at Cane Valley a few hours before dawn.  The vampires turned the humans over to the equerry and stable hands, and then went to the mess hall to eat.  Kelly turned in his crossbow and returned to his bunk in one of the male stables, taking the books with him.  By the light of his flashlight, he started to read.

* * * * *

The next night at dusk, Caellum, Nod, Zoetica, and Kelly met up at command central.  Kelly elucidated what he’d discovered in the books.  He told them, “Mindwire Teleconnections has its own fleet of satellites, monitored by a control center, ensuring that the satellites remain in their geostationary positions, and that they are operating correctly.   There are three groups of satellites, covering the entire globe.  Each group contains several satellites, collocated at the same orbital position with synchronized flight, offering backup and reserve systems.”
“What does that mean for us?” asked Caellum.
Kelly said, “If we want to cripple Zoilo, we will have to take them all offline.  If we can get inside the control center, it won’t be that difficult.  If we can turn on the satellites thrusters, we can drive them by remote control out of position, and gravity will pull them to the earth, destroying them.”
“That doesn’t sound too hard,” Zoetica said.
Kelly added, “But that’s not enough.  Destroying the satellites will destroy the broadcast signal, but not the broadcast itself.  For that, we need to simultaneously destroy the game megaserver that hosts World of Maya.  Otherwise, Zoilo will just reroute the program to a different set of satellites.”
“Can’t we just kill the power?  Knock out the power lines?” Caellum queried.
“He certainly has backup power, probably solar and a generator, on site.  He wouldn’t risk going offline,” said Kelly.   
“And this will kill Zoilo and the zombies?” asked Nod.
Kelly clarified, “Not totally.  I’m sure he has a backup server as well, but with all the satellites and the main server down, all the zombies should shut down and start to decay.  And with no zombies to help him, maybe he’ll be unable to get the system back up before they all rot.”
“We can instruct our people to destroy the zombies while they are offline, ensuring they never come back,” Nod said.
“Where is this control center and server?” Caellum asked.
Kelly replied, “They are two different places.  The satellites were outsourced.  The control center is a company called MOR Global Communications.  Right outside of Baltimore.  About six hours from here, pre-apocalypse.”
“So a three day trek?” Nod surmised.
“And the server?”  Caellum inquired.
Kelly explained, “The North American server is in Philadelphia.  The European server is in Germany, and there is one is Japan.  We need to take them all out, or the zombies will simply reroute.  Do we have any allies in those countries?  Is there any way to coordinate an attack?”
“Grandma Gertrude.  She’s a telepath.  She can reach out, find some vampire allies in Germany and Japan,” Nod suggested.
Zoetica said, “So we set a date and time.  We contact allies in Germany and Japan, and we hope everyone pulls it off at the same time.”
“Even two out of three would be a blow.  One server couldn’t handle everyone.  He’d lose half his army, for sure,” Kelly contended.
“Zoilo will certainly have the places well-guarded,” Caellum pointed out.
“We can’t take all our best warriors and leave Cane Valley unprotected,” Zoetica countered.
“You’re right.  This is a stealth mission.  We need to sneak in,” Caellum concurred.  He addressed Kelly.  “So do you think you can do it?  If we get you there to the control center, can you hack it or whatever you do to crash the satellites?”
“I can do it,” Kelly insisted.
Caellum affirmed, “Okay then.  In 30 days, at the stroke of 9pm EST, Zoetica and Kelly will hit MOR Global Communications, and Nod and I will hit the megaserver.”
“That’s no good.  It’s fine for Germany, but Japan will be daylight at that time, won’t it?”  Zoetica pointed out.  “Do the Japanese vamps have bionic mail?”
Kelly shrugged.  “Probably.  If not, then we’ll have to let the ticks hit Japan.” 
“Ergo it’s settled.   Let’s go talk to Gertie.” Caellum instructed. 
The foursome looked one to the other, and they each had a sparkle in their eyes that hadn’t been there before, clinging to the notion that this nightmare world could one day be changed for the better.  It was the look of hope, though it had been absent for so long, no one recognized it.

* * * * *

Twenty-three days later, Caellum, Nod, Grandma Gertrude, Zoetica, and Kelly Finn hit the road, travelling by night and squatting during the day.  They brought eight ticks with them for back up and food.  When they arrived in Baltimore, they split into two groups. 
Nod, Caellum, Grandma Gertrude, and five ticks continued on to Philadelphia.  They packed enough military grade C4 to blow the North American game server sky high.  They didn’t want to risk arriving late or making a mistake, so they arrived there early to do some reconnaissance. 
Meanwhile, Zoetica, Kelly Finn, and three ticks scoped out the control center MOR Global Communications located just outside of Baltimore.
Finally, the planned attack juncture arrived. 
Since the North American megaserver in Philadelphia was Zoilo’s power center, it was well guarded.  The building was surrounded by high security steel fencing with a spiked top, bracketless design, and with an anti-ram barrier.  Closed circuit video offered guards a view of the entire perimeter.  Solar panels lined the roof of the building, providing back up power.
Nod and Caellum knew that the sentinel zombies were jacked directly into the local Wi-Fi and would not be affected by the crashing of the satellites.  Thus they planned on blowing up the entire building.  They only had to get inside and plant the C4 and detonator.  They’d cased the location thoroughly and had a good plan to sneak inside. 
However, now that the time had arrived, the place crawled with triple the number of defenders.  The sentries at the gatehouse were wielding rocket launchers.  Something had tipped Zoilo off.  Grandma Gertrude telepathically checked in with the other vampires, but only this location had increased its guards.  Zoilo didn’t know the plan, only that danger lurked nearby this site.  She advised the other groups to hold off until they could get ready.
There was no way to use subterfuge to get inside, so they changed their plans.  They took over an abandoned tractor-trailer dealership about a mile from the server hub.  Inside the garage, they got three of the big rigs back up and running.  Then they transferred the C4 to the sleeper cab of one of the trucks.  The other two trucks were decoys to draw the fire of the rocket launchers.
With the new plan in place, Grandma Gertrude sent a message out, letting everyone know it was time.
In Maryland, the ticks waited in the escape vehicle while Zoetica and Kelly headed inside.  Zoilo had never expected an attack on MOR Global Communications.  He’d underestimated the vampires, thinking their Luddism would be enough to discourage any offensive.  MOR Global Communications was well defended, but being a private company, it wasn’t military level.  The place was surrounded by razor wire, but it wasn’t electrified.  Zoetica and Kelly bypassed the first obstacle with wire snips.  The next problem was getting into the building.  Zoetica had a plan.
Due to the hive mind of the zombies, if one saw the intruders, then everyone would know that they were under attack, so Zoetica and Kelly had to be extra stealthy.  Luckily, the place was run by a skeleton crew, since only the World of Maya satellites were still being maintained.   Zoetica and Kelly stuck to the shadows and moved slowly.  A keycard entry with a dual retinal scan stood between Zoetica and Kelly’s destination.  To kill a zombie, they’d have to destroy the communication chip, and to get to that, they’d have to destroy one of the eyeballs, so they couldn’t merely take one’s eyes and use them to get inside.  Thus they went low tech.  They climbed up on the roof, and they waited above the door.  As soon as a zombie gained access and the door opened, they slid a long, thin metal rod down between the door and the frame to keep the door from closing.  Then they dropped down to the ground and slipped inside.
Slowly, ever so surreptitiously, they made their way deeper and deeper into the complex.  Finally, they found the room full of computers that served as the control center.  Zoetica carried a revolver with subsonic ammunition and a suppressor.  She snuck up behind one of the zombie guards and shot him from behind, destroying his wireless communication chip.  The muffled bang from the gun startled the zombie minding the satellites inside the control room, but he mistook the noise for a slamming door, and he shrugged it off.
Zoetica silently opened the door and slipped inside while Kelly waited.  Zoetica slipped around the cubicles like a cat on the hunt.  She pounced, shooting the zombie guard from behind, and the poor bastard never knew what hit him.
Kelly then entered the room.  Zoetica rolled the zombie corpse, still slumped in his computer chair, out of the way.  Kelly pulled up a new seat.  He wiped the blood from the monitor and started typing and clicking.
Concurrently in Philadelphia, Caellum, Nod, and Grandma Gertrude set their plan in motion.
Two ticks headed out first driving the decoy vehicles.
Caellum sat behind the wheel of the weaponized truck, while Nod rode shotgun.  Caellum fired up the engine.  Suddenly, the driver’s side door was yanked open, and Caellum was dragged from the seat and flung to the ground.
He looked up and saw Ursa looming over him, dressed in her bionic mail.  “What the hell are you doing here?” she queried.
“I could ask you the same,” he replied.
“I followed you, asshole.  Now talk,” she ordered.
“Nope,” Caellum said.  He rolled away and kipped-up to his feet.
Nod, realizing that Ursa didn’t know what their play was, slid over to the driver’s seat and gassed it.  He drove off like a bat out of hell, straight for the server hub.
Caellum got to his feet.  Unfortunately, his sword was still in the military transport vehicle.  Luckily, Grandma Gertrude hadn’t left yet.  She climbed out of the military transport vehicle and cast a spell.  Three fireballs smashed into Ursa, sending her flying backward and giving Caellum time to grab a Truck Tire Demount Tool, a forty inch long tire iron with a curved foot on the end, resembling a mattock.
Ursa charged him.  She extended the razor-sharp skewer from the bionic mail suit’s forearm and pulled her arm back.  She stabbed at him, trying to puncture through his head with pure brute force.
He dodged, barely missing the jab.  With a grinding crash, she hit the steel wall with her skewer, denting and piercing it, causing items hanging on a pegboard to rain down around them.    Caellum readied the tire iron.  He aimed for the power supply on her bionic mail suit.  The skewer made a metallic screeching noise as Ursa pulled it free and sidestepped in the nick of time.  She lunged for Caellum again but missed.
Grandma Gertrude cast another spell.  Suddenly Ursa’s helmet was covered in black oil, and she couldn’t see.  She hit the helmet’s release button.  All at once, the foot of the tire iron smashed into her face, obliterating her communication chip.
Ursa fell to her knees, then on to her face.  She was dead, this time for good.
Meanwhile, the three big rigs rolled towards the North American megaserver.  The two decoy trucks serpentined towards the guard towers that bookended the gate to the parking lot, barely dodging the explosive warheads and finally crashing into the towers.  Not all of the zombies were smooshed by the trucks, and the ticks had to fight hand to hand.  At the same time, Nod drove the armed tractor trailer right through the gate and then smashed through the lobby of the North American megaserver building.  He reached into the sleeper cab and activated the detonator, starting the countdown.
The zombie guards in the lobby were stunned at first, allowing Nod time to climb out of the truck’s cab.  He ran away at vampire speed, as fast as he could.  As he ran out of the building and into the parking lot, a handful of guards chased after him, shooting wildly, but they couldn’t keep up.  Nod passed through the gate he’d previously smashed and into a wooded area nearby.
The building exploded in a giant fireball, sending glass and metal spiraling through the air.  The blast wave rolled out through the parking lot, overturning cars, shattering glass, and setting off car alarms.  The zombies who’d been chasing Nod were flung through the air like ragdolls.   They hit the ground and remained there, still and lifeless.
Zoilo had managed to escape to the backup server in the nick of time as the attack began.  Now, for Zoilo, World of Maya suddenly dimmed and grew profoundly small.  Marionettist no more, they’d clipped the zombies’ strings, and he was cut off from his zombie swarm.  He shuddered and felt utterly alone.  He’d been the mind of God.  Now, he was nothing.  What was once his world to dominate was now his prison.
At that moment, Grandma Gertrude, Caellum, and three ticks pulled up in the military transport truck.  Nod and one surviving tick joined them.  They pulled out their binoculars and scanned the flaming wreckage, searching for surviving zombies but observed no movement.  Grandma Gertrude checked in with the others telepathically.
In Maryland, Zoetica and Kelly watched in amazement as all of the zombies suddenly went off-line, collapsing where they stood.  Kelly said, “Holy shit.  Does this mean...”
Grandma Gertrude smiled her toothless smile.  “We’ve done it!” she proclaimed.
They’d succeeded.  Caellum couldn’t believe it.  He cheered a victory cry.  Nod and the ticks joined him in his revelry.
Kelly fell to his knees and wept.
* * * * *

Vampires and humans all over the globe piled the lifeless zombies up and burnt them in great big bonfires before Zoilo could find a way to bring them back online.  Caellum, Nod, Grandma Gertrude, and the ticks drove back down to Maryland to pick up Zoetica and Kelly.  The trip home felt light and optimistic.  With no zombies to hinder their progress, they made it back to Cane Valley in half the time.
As they neared the gates of Cane Valley, Kelly yelled, “Hey, stop here.”
Caellum hit the brakes.  “What’s wrong?” he called out.
“Nothing.” Kelly grabbed his backpack and crossbow. “This is where I get off.  I’m not going back into your little ranch.  We had a deal.”  He jumped out of the back of the military transport truck.
Caellum exited the vehicle and walked around to him.  “I know we had a deal, but you can stay if you want.  We’ll give you your own private quarters.  You’ve earned it.”
Kelly pulled a disapproving face and shook his head.  “What I’ve earned is my freedom.  I’m done here.  And I’m not about to participate in any form of human cattle or slavery,” he proclaimed.
“Things are different now.  I’m sure society will rebuild,” Caellum said.
Kelly looked incredulous.  “Yeah, under vampire command.  Your people aren’t going to go silently back into the night.  They’ve had a taste of power.  And the humans, they’ve learned to be pets.”
 “Yeah, you may be right,” Caellum agreed.  “Unless the humans find a good leader.” 
Kelly pushed his hair from his eyes.  “That’s where I come in.  I’m gonna round up some free humans and start my own community.  There are lots of mutilated people that crawled out of the zombie meat factories with nowhere to go.”
Caellum persuaded, “But hey, we can give you a ride back to Silver City tomorrow night, after you’ve had a chance to rest.  You don’t have to leave now.”
Kelly looked at Caellum with deep, hard-set eyes and insisted, “Yeah.  I do.  I’ll find my own ride back.” 
 “It’s not safe out there by yourself,” Caellum warned.
Kelly replied, “A fear of dying is not the same thing as the will to live.”  He turned and walked away.
“Kelly, wait,” Caellum called out, chasing after him.
Kelly turned about and faced him.  “Yes?”
“Your ring.  Don’t you want it back?” Caellum asked.
Kelly shrugged, “Keep it.”
Caellum stammered, “You said you’d teach me to read.” 
Kelly gazed into Caellum’s beseeching eyes.  For a moment, he forgot that Caellum wasn’t human; he thought perhaps the vampire was more of a sheep in wolf’s clothing.  Kelly bit his lower lip.  He wondered exactly what made a human a human, and whether vamps and humans were really that different anyway.  Having a vampire ally could come in handy.  “Meet me at the library Sunday at dusk,” he said.
Caellum grinned.  “I will.”  He climbed back into the military transport vehicle and sped away, racing against the rising sun.
Kelly walked around behind a large rock formation.  He found the dirt bike that he’d hidden there before they left, undisturbed beneath some brush.  He cleared it off, climbed on it, fired it up, and rode away.
Some things changed.  The sun still rose and set like the immortal god it had always been, but this dawn seemed more magnificent than any other.  The sun painted the sky with beauty like a master artisan as it slipped above the horizon.  Streaks of pink and orange suffused the sky, a majestic backdrop for the flowering trees that perfumed the spring air with fertile and aromatic scents.  Birds twittered, greeting the new day.  The hopes and dreams of the bedraggled humans were all that remained of a world in tatters and ruin, and Kelly Finn would sculpt them into bedrock. 
A smile beamed across Kelly’s face.  “This is my resurrection!” he shouted, for there was more than one way to rise from the grave.

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