About The Zona
It started with the Storms.
The world got too hot too fast. The weather wrecked Hell on man’s shiny, pretty civilization. With the heat and wet came bugs, with bugs came new diseases, and man’s numbers and sanity dwindled.
The survivors reformed governments like petty shadows of the world’s old empires. They sought answers and justifications, they sought redemption for what they perceived as man’s holy smiting.
Welcome to the Arizona Reformed Theocracy, otherwise called The Zona.
Here the Church rules with power absolute. The laws are simple, all sin is punished swiftly. Preachers enforce the Church’s words like old West lawmen.
But what happens when a Preacher refuses to kill? What happens when men of honor take a stand against their rulers?
VIII. The Tucson Colony, a home for lepers and madmen
Burned-out house frames and obliterated trailer parks marked Tucson’s border, its charred abandonment reminded Lead of Kingman. Past the destruction, camp fires glowed and broke the evening black, attesting to life in the town.
“We need to leave the highway now,” Terence whispered.“Middle Tucson is a haven for lepers, resilient virals, and madmen. The Church dumped them here.”
Beyond the rows of buildings, Lead looked to the bonfires and lit buildings. An inhuman whooping rode the night winds.
Terence pulled Lead’s six-shooter from his knapsack.
“In case there’s trouble, you’ll want this.”
He handed the pistol back to Lead, handle first.
“You’re out of bullets.”
The gun felt comfortable in Lead’s hand, like the return of an appendage. He gripped the handle and felt its weight. He had relied on this tool for so long that it had become part him.
The ex-Preachers followed the edge of Tucson south, avoiding the noise and movement of the inhabitants. They lurked silently in the darkness. Lead clutched his gun and looked to the villagers circled in fire light.
“We need to talk to them,” Terence whispered. “Without fresh water we won’t make it to New Pueblo.”
“What about plague?” Lead said. He had not forgotten his hard lesson about savage villages.
“No choice. We can’t live on cactus water. We need this.”
Lead followed Terence to the outskirts of a bonfire fueled by house lumber and furniture. His mind returned to the fire of the Jimson eaters near Havasu.
Around the bonfire stood men and women, their faces and bodies cracked and twisted by mutation, radiation, and disease. They resembled the living dead: eating, speaking, and laughing in the flickering light. Faces stood without eyes, arms without hands, legs without feet. What skin showed was pocked and marred by sickness or scar. The villagers fell silent at Lead and Terence’s approach. Lead held up his gun, visible in the firelight.
“We mean you no trouble,” Lead said. “We’re here on the Lord’s business.” He rested his gun against his right thigh.
The nearby men stood up. Those who had hands clutched planks of firewood. One of them hefted a shovel. Terence stepped forward in haste.
“My friend misspoke. We are not here on the Lord’s business. We are men on our way south, looking to leave behind the Church. Let us pass without delay or violence.”
The man with the shovel approached Terence. He was dressed in dirty blue jeans and a red flannel shirt. Half of his face had lost shape and resembled melted wax illuminated by the campfire. Thin arms held the shovel over his left shoulder.
“Look at these lovelies,” the man said in a strange, slurry accent.“All dusty from the winds. Coming up from the sands like desert djinns. Who are you, rags?”
The man’s mouth twisted into a half-smile, the disfigured side of his face remained solid and immobile.
“I’m Terence Wood,” Terence said. “Terence the Dead, if you recognize the name. This is Lead, he travels with me.”
The twisted man’s face grew serious.
“We’ve heard of the Dead, but we hold none here. The ones passed through went south to New Pueblo or the grave.” His half smile returned. “What brings you to our gorgeous, God-given paradise; our Eden of monsters and half-men?”
“We’ve come to trade or barter,” Terence said. “We’ll be heading south from here soon as we can.”
“Good for you, old man. We’re glad to trade. The Church won’t let a man who enters leave this camp. Says we’re unclean and they’re unclean, but that’s all bullshit. I say if God takes your life, in here is no more likely then out there.”
Terence nodded and held out his right hand. The leper let go of his shovel and shook Terence’s hand firmly.
“Be comfortable,” the man said, gesturing to his place near the fire. “Please, accept the hospitality I can give. I’m still human.” His face tightened in pain. “But please sit near my fire. Get comfortable. I’ll return with our representative and you can talk price and barter.”
The ex-Preachers sat on the ground and warmed themselves in the fire’s glow. Villagers stared at Lead and Terence with curious eyes. The men and women were horrifyingly misshapen, but something else separated them from the parishioners Lead was used to. He suddenly realized that they were not afraid. These men and women, bandaged, warped, and dying, creatures living in perpetual death, had nothing to fear from the Church or the gun.
Lead tucked his pistol into his jacket pocket.
“Thank you for your hospitality,” Terence announced to the villagers. “Thank you for the warmth of your fire and the comfort of this seat.”
Lead clutched the remnants of his trench coat closer to his body. The villagers continued watching the newcomers in silence. The half-faced man returned with an old leper, their leader.
The ghoulish man was tall and lanky with a shock of white hair, revealing his age in ways his rough horned hands couldn’t. He wore a black suit peppered with dust and sand. His black silk tie contrasted with a clean white dress shirt. The silk tie gleamed in the campfire light. He looked at Terence and Lead, his face a roadmap of burns and scars. A black silk cloth, the tie’s kin, was tied as a blindfold over his eyes.
“I welcome you newcomers. My name is Reverend Richard Bell. Everyone here calls me Reverend Greek. You may as well. My associate tells me you’re here to barter.”
He held his right hand up in a welcoming gesture.
“I hope you find our accommodations to your liking, humble as they may be.”
Terence spoke. “We thank you for the hospitality. I did not imagine Tucson so civil and well ordered.”
“Aye, civil we are,” Reverend Greek said. “We make the best of our abandonment and imprisonment.”
“You’re prisoners of the Church, then?” Terence asked.
“The Church gives us supplies enough for survival. The Pueblo folk want nothing to do with our diseased, and we’re surrounded by miles of desert. We’re nature’s prisoners, not that I complain too terribly. We have food and water, and we busy ourselves with the care of the dying and infirm. A life of purpose and the means to continue it is more than I deserve.”
The man with half a face led Reverend Greek to an empty throne near the fire.
“What does that mean, Greek?” Lead asked.
The Reverend smiled. Absent eyes, his smile was unnerving.
“It’s a type of people. They lived on an island on the other side of the world. Tan skin, big noses, kind of hairy, best warriors and philosophers for a big part of history. I’m Greek, or at least my ancestors were.”
The Reverend turned his face to the fire.
“What news do you bring of the world outside?”
“Don’t you have a radioman?” Lead asked.
“No,” the Reverend said. “A radioman is too valuable for the Church to risk on lepers and virals. We receive news from guardsmen sometimes, but most won’t come within speaking distance.”
“My news isn’t fresh,” Lead said. “The skirmishes with the Southern Utah militias ended a couple of months ago. Guards wiped out a few large camps. There was talk in the Flagstaff Parish of pushing the Zona border north into Utah proper.”
“Hopefully just talk,” the Reverend replied. “The Church would do well not to cross the border into Utah. The Mormons were one of the few groups ready for the end of the world, that being part of their belief structure and all. Soon as the Storms hit they circled up and closed off everything from Provo to Salt Lake. I’ll bet you a silver note they even got plumbing and electricity up there.”
The Reverend rubbed his hands together and turned his face to the night.
“South Utah militias weren’t nothing but non-Mormons. Found themselves excluded pretty quick. I’m surprised they only got put down a couple months ago.” The Reverend chuckled to himself. “I know all about Utah. I was in Las Vegas when Utah military regulars gave me this face.”
The Reverend took his blindfold off and turned his face back to Terence and Lead. His eyes were pupil-less and milky –white.
“We were in Vegas,” Terence said.
“Everyone was in Vegas, or a part of it,” the Reverend replied, tying the cloth back over his eyes. “Every man comes from his past, and often enough our lives cross paths. The world we live in was forged by the Storms, but the men who live today, those men are defined by what happened in Vegas, and I am no different.”
Christ Church of Equality was based in a walled-off compound outside Rancho Cucamonga, California. Reverend Richard Bell’s flock numbered one-hundred thirty, but he only really counted fifty-three. They were the producers, the money-makers, the rest of the flock were just breeders and relations. The producers canvassed six days a week, spreading the holy word and collecting the holy dollar. They brought the funds; Reverend Bell converted the funds into food, guns, boats, cars, homes, land, necessities for his flock, and luxuries for himself.
In his heart, Reverend Bell was an atheist, a man of worldly possessions and lusts, but his words told a story quite contrary. He preached God’s love to the flock and they were happy to serve. They found order and purpose in the compound. Bell rationalized that he was providing a service, fulfilling a need to sheep-minded people who repaid him in labor and wealth. He rationalized it as being no different from any other business. Anyway, the Reverend hadn’t started the Church of Equality; he had inherited it from his father, who had proclaimed Bell the next Messiah.
Every evening, Bell preached to his flock. He followed his father’s model. He spoke of the horrors of the modern world; of murder and theft and rape and war. He also made up stories; conspiracies of the government and how powers behind powers were trying to control the flock or destroy them. The flock readily believed, for it is easy to believe the horrors of the world when they are listed in volume. It is easy to find the world frightening and without redemption and even unimportant men can believe they are center-stage to world-wide conspiracy, for every man is the central character of his own story and holds the weight of that importance.
Bell followed his horror stories with words of God’s will and love. He spoke of God’s decency to man, how Jesus preached equality and forgiveness, and how the flock will separate themselves from humanity until the world fully acknowledges equality and love for fellow men and women.
“My themes were simple. The world is bad, the government is bad, we are good; you are safe with us.”
The Reverend smiled again.
“I made so much money. The compound capacity was three-hundred, and I owned it free and clear. My dad built it with his first followers. The canvassers were told the money was to cover our expenses, with the rest going to help charitable causes furthering equality. I kept the money. The beauty of the church was that the outside world was as bad as I claimed. There was no real convincing required. Most of our members came to us from low and middle class neighborhoods of Barstow and Los Angeles. They had seen riots and violence.
“After a similar church in New Mexico got torched by the old Federal government, we invested in guns and a first rate surveillance system.
“I don’t have to tell you what happened next. Everyone knows this part. One day it started raining and it never stopped. The cities flooded, homes and hills slid off into the ocean, waves pummeled the buildings. Men and women fled the coast in droves.
“It was funny to me, ironic if you think about it. I rationalized gun and food hoarding to my flock by hinting that end times were near, never expecting that the end times were actually upon us.
“My dad once told me that people need convincing, and the end of the world is the best convincer.
“He said, ‘Son, people are only going to follow what they fear or love, and by God we can give them both.’
“So, I had guns and I had food, and I had medical supplies, not because I needed them, but because I wanted my flock to think we needed them. And then the fucking apocalypse happens!”
Reverend Greek clasped his hands together.
“I didn’t know whether to shit or go blind, as they used to say.”
Terence knew the story but didn’t interrupt the Reverend. He’d heard about in his early days with the Guard. The waterline on the coast rose and cyclones chased tsunamis through Los Angeles. The federal troops did their best in rallying the hordes of survivors. They raided supermarkets and gas stations for food and supplies. The soldiers pulled back to Orange County and set up tent hospitals and refugee villages above the waterline, but then most of the guardsmen were pulled away to repel the Mexicans near San Diego and Calexico. Everywhere chaos descended, the nation’s protectors spread thin. In the course of about twelve days, Los Angeles and the surrounding suburbs went lawless.