Zombie Ranch was always a story I envisioned as unfolding as it went along. We’d start people off with a summary premise as a “hook”, and then would let the details emerge as they needed to, allowing people to speculate as they wish in the meantime.
On the other hand, I’ve come to consider that a weekly update schedule can be rough on the curious. The tone has been intentionally matter-of-fact with not a whole lot in the way of exposition; hopefully, the lack of information has been more intriguing than frustrating, but for those of you who don’t mind some spoilers I figured I would put together a few details on the setting in the meantime. Y’know, just to show we aren’t entirely making this up as we go.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD, PARDNER. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK!
Just where the Sam Hill is all this taking place?
The short answer: We’re in Texas. Beyond that…
Is it the Texas you and I know of in our modern day world? Not so much. There’s been a bit of a zombie apocalypse, and as a result many of the major cities were rendered uninhabitable by hordes of flesh-eaters and the human response to them (a.k.a. “The Zombie Wars”, “War of Pacification”, or just “The Wars”). But humanity goes on. Scattered throughout the world are the posh confines of the “Safe Zones”, where the wealthy and those willing to work for them live lives comparable to (or perhaps even better than) the pre-Plague years. The rest of the planet, including where the Z Ranch is located, is classified as a Wild Zone. Some Wild Zones are wilder than others. In the Wild Zones of Zombie Ranch, law and order aren’t non-existent, but they’re often enforced with the barrel of a gun.
So the American West is Wild again?
Now you’re getting the idea. Just instead of Indians and Banditos and Rustlers, you have to watch out for Zombies. Well, and also Banditos. And Rustlers. And maybe even Indians. Best not to call them Indians though, they tend to still be sensitive about that. And they’re armed.
You mentioned Zombie Wars?
First there was the Great Zombie Plague. A lot of folks died. A lot of them didn’t stay dead. Things got pretty bleak for awhile, but eventually people got their acts together and turned back the hordes, containing them mostly within the former cities and the wastelands between. Once that was done there was a big worldwide celebration: oo-rah, we win, have some babies to repopulate this land of ours (thus the term “Repops” for the postwar generation).
Some say victory was achieved through high technology, ingenuity, and good-ol’ fashioned guts. Others claim that the zombies seemed to start slowing down as the years went on and they ran out of things to eat. Whatever the truth, “victory” is a relative term. It’s been nearly two decades since mission accomplished, but large portions of the landscape remain dangerously uncivilized, and even the Safe Zones might not be as Utopian as they seem.
But they’re Utopian enough to have an audience for reality television?
Sure, if that’s your idea of Utopia. Safe Zones have a vested interested in keeping their populace content, and the best way to do that is keep them entertained. That said, Safe Zones also exist to insulate their inhabitants from the realities the rest of the world deals with, so it took years before the powers-that-be were comfortable enough that a program like Zombie Ranch could be greenlit.
What’s the Government like? Is there any?
Speaking for the U.S. of A., there was enough preserved during the original crisis, and rebuilt since then, that the idea of a Federal government is not entirely extinct. It’s much weaker, though. As far as more local interests, Texas is still considered Texas by the majority of its inhabitants, whether they dwell in a Safe Zone or not; what that means in terms of submitting to Federal or State authorities can still vary wildly from place to place. Safe Zones tend to have a lot of clout because they control most of the remaining sources of heavy industry, technology, medicine, and exotic goods. Some are government controlled, some are more corporate, some religious. Those in the Wild Zones envy what they see as the “Safers” easy lives, while those in the Safe Zones often hold a romantic view of the action and adventure going on beyond their borders, to the point of emulating fashions and accessories and venerating certain legends of the New West.
So the Safe Zones are the source of all these fancy electronics and floaty camera doohickeys?
For the most part. If some seems ahead of our time, you only need to recall that historically, for better or worse, wars tend to drive the advance of technology. The remote drone cameras, for example, are an offshoot of the military bots that were used to scout zombie infestations. Out in the Wild Zones the technology is a mix of advanced tech scavenged and traded for, and simpler items produced by the limited industry of an American landscape largely reverted to an untamed frontier. One thing that frontier notably lacks are less flashy but vital items like antibiotics, which is one reason why the specter of bureaucracy has already begun to re-cast its shadow over the post-apocalyptic landscape.
Oh yes. In the years of the Wars it was all about survival, but when it came time to rebuild communities and livelihoods, people needed help. Help the various Safe Zones were willing to provide, for a price. In the very worst cases you had banks that survived the crisis with records intact and came calling, sometimes to very distant next-of-kin, insisting on financial dues. But for the most part it was just a case of the poor having to obligate themselves once again to those in power. Even independent-minded Texans found it’s hard to argue with someone who has all the penicillin when your child’s got pneumonia.
You’d think an apocalypse would at least have the good grace to level the lines between rich and poor, have and have-not, but it just wasn’t the case. The divisions got deeper, the walls are often literal, and the honest folk of the Wild Zones might well be dealing with a mortgage on top of all their other woes. In that sense some might grumble that a total apocalypse wouldn’t have been half so bad.
Let’s get back to that apocalypse. Once the tide was turned, why weren’t the zombies completely eradicated?
Hey now, didn’t you hear the news? We won! Why risk a bunch of valuable men and resources trying to take back ruined cities when we have these nice Safe Zones? And the folks out in the Wild Zones, why, they just built themselves new towns in the style of their pioneer forefathers. In fact we’re lucky no one did anything foolish, since now we’ve found out how useful zombies can be!
Ah ha. Are we at last about to learn why zombies are being ranched?
Well, there’s the zombie rodeos and such, but by far the biggest reason comes from their blood. This miracle substance can be processed into all manner of beneficial pharmaceutical products, but only if it’s harvested fresh. A “dead” zombie loses its potency quickly. Also affecting blood potency are factors like how old a zombie was when it was turned (child zombies give much less yield than adults), and its general state of health. Wild zombies these days are often starving and lethargic until the presence of food stirs them into action, and a starving zombie again seems to have low potency. For best results, they need to be fed and trained and made (relatively) docile. That’s where the ranch comes in.
Some ranches are newly built since the War, but the Z Ranch is a former cattle ranch that’s been repurposed for a new era. Zombies during the Plague years would eat just about anything living they could get their hands on: wild animals were generally safe, but slow, stupid domestic livestock were doomed. The Zanes watched helplessly as their herds were devoured. After War’s end they returned to find a handful of zombified cows still roaming the pens, but put most down after discovering that few things on Earth taste as vile as zombie beef. In desperation at the thought of losing their traditional livelihood, they and other ranchers were willing to try whatever they could to pay the bills. And that was how, with a little adjustment here and there, the living dead became their new “stock in trade”.
There’s regulations a sanctioned zombie ranch has to adhere to, such as the installation of tracker/failsafe bolts in all their herd, but it can undeniably be profitable enough to justify the hassles and the dangers. Especially for the folks of the Wild Zones who don’t have much else in the way of occupation and opportunity. The Z Ranch isn’t as big as some of its competitors, but its “Circle Z” brand has had a quality reputation for over a hundred years. And no, the Z doesn’t stand for Zombie as the TV might make you think, it stands for the Zane family name. Didn’t hurt during the producers’ selection process, though.
One last question, then. They put down the zombie cattle, right? So what’s with the zombie horse?
Without getting into all the fancy talk the Safe Zone eggheads deal in, let’s just be practical here. Whatever it is that makes people into zombies can also affect other mammals, but it doesn’t affect them in quite the same way. Zombie cattle didn’t have much use to them, but a zombie horse can still be broken in, trained and ridden. Only difference is they need a lot less to keep them going, will run until they fall apart, and most of all they don’t rile up a zombie herd the way a living horse will. With other kinds of fuel sometimes in short supply in the Wild Zones, a good zombie horse is the way to go for most travel. Just be sure you have a good cushion on your saddle, since their backs can sometimes get mighty bony.