James liked to think of himself as a level-headed individual.
But that didn't mean very much, because everybody did. It wasn't like you'd find anyone wishing that they were a jittery, shadow-shooting bag of neuroses, when they'd much rather see themselves as a steadfast pillar of the community.
He held his hand out at arm's length, and he was vaguely empowered by the fact that he wasn't trembling. Even though they were baying for his blood, gurgling in the night air, shambling inexorably towards their position, he wouldn't falter...
Unfortunately, his demonstration of resolve brought his outstretched digits in contact with the putrefying corpse lodged underneath the makeshift barricade, and he recoiled with lightning disgust, as if his life depended on evading the reeking body.
It maybe does, James thought darkly, rubbing his hand on the only patch of carpet that wasn't soaked with blood and vile bodily fluids.
Granted, they'd touched and moved and kicked and mutilated plenty of the fallen undead, but no one was quite sure how it passed on. It was not something they were well acquainted with, and they wanted to keep things that way.
The zombie- and it was a word that, even now, James hated to use- had been particularly hardy. Even after Crazy-Eyes had emptied half a clip into its face, the monstrosity had soldiered on, finally collapsing after a stray round pierced its jugular- the resultant spray of semi-coagulated blood had ruined the carpet, which had been a source of intense irritation to Edwin.
Edwin was the janitor- or rather, had been the janitor- of the facility. James had thought the man wouldn't last, but ever since the short, hairy caretaker had taken one of them down armed with only a splintered table leg- well, James had adjusted his view somewhat. It had certainly made him consider just how sturdily made the furniture had been.
Currently Edwin was helping Crazy-Eyes adjust the barricade, a task they appeared to indulge in every hour or so. It wasn't that Crazy-Eyes was their leader or anything- both he and the survivors would've strongly denied that- it was just that he had... talents. Everyone had heard what he'd done, what he'd overcame to survive the initial onslaught, when it first tore their lives apart. And everyone, when they'd arrived at the Hall, had taken one look at his blood stained suit and one look at his expression and a thousand looks at his eyes... and they had followed him.
They didn't even know his name, or what he'd been before it, but they didn't need to. Crazy dressed like a civil servant, talked like a diplomat and moved like a military assassin- and despite his maintained air of dark mystique he had helped them all tolerate what would've driven lesser men to insanity, death or, quite probably, both.
Indeed, their calls were a pained, guttural gamut of background noise that seemed soft but nevertheless carried through the thickest walls- mental and otherwise. Sometimes, they all needed time to deal with the near-endless moans of the damned.
"Need a hand?" James offered, shamefully edging away from the survivors' latest kill, pretending that he hadn't been crouching behind the wall of tables to force the fear out of his body.
Edwin grinned nervously, exposing teeth that were in dire need of brushing- if he hadn't readily provided the team with his name, there was every chance that he'd have been given the alias "Awful-Teeth": his molars could have rivalled one of the undead any day of the week. "Nah," the former janitor said eventually, "no need. It's all sturdy now."
Crazy gave a cabinet a forcible whack as if to affirm this. "Yes, it'll hold. It always does."
Beyond the barricade, beyond the City Hall, a thousand corpses festered in the courtyard, their decay a testament to the survivors' endurance.
But some of those corpses were moving, and Crazy-Eyes, with his trademark calm, knew that the next groaning, lurching, flesh-eating wave, against all logic, would've learnt how to better his last strategy.
But that was all well and good. He had few men, but they were willing- he had little ammunition, but it was reliable- he had plenty of tricks up his sleeve, enough to befuddle all the denizens of hell.
"What's your surname then?"
"You heard me."
Crazy-Eyes sighed. No one heard him do it- it wouldn't pay for the survivors' infallible leader to appear frustrated- but sometimes, on the few occasions that fear and repetition overwhelmed his charges, he'd rather have faced the undead hordes then break up one of their fiery arguments.
Something screamed in the distance, and he reconsidered that thought. But, then again, supernatural abominations could be shot, and as tempted as he sometimes was Crazy-Eyes would never stoop to harming his friends.
Of course the keening wail could never disturb this particular argument, which centred on a point of severe contention.
"Don't see why my surname matters," Edwin replied cautiously.
"Feath," said Feath, "it's Feath, you hairy bastard, not Feeth. Feath, as in Feather. Based on my surname? Okay?"
"Right... but... everyone calls you Feeth..."
"And I tell everyone not to! God damn."
"Well, sorry," Edwin hazarded, and he meant it- Feath was usually a very conscientious, controlled individual- if one discounted his homicidal (or necrocidal) rages- and thus it was disturbing to see the heavy-set, bearded man so riled up. "It's nothing personal..."
"I know, and that's what makes it worse! You all do it-"
Another scream, this one closer to home- and this time they didn't ignore it. You might get used to their cries, but this wasn't one of them- it wasn't a shriek of fury, but a shout of terror.
"That sounded human," Edwin breathed, "as in, living human..."
Crazy, almost grateful for the interruption, hastily led the pair away from the east wing and down towards the main lobby- the cavernous, staircase-bordered entrance hall that was home to the colossal core barricade.
James- as this hour's designated sentry- sat astride a chair, pointing a shaking finger over the makeshift battlements.
"I saw... I saw a thing," he told them querulously. "Never seen anything like it..."
Feath lowered his aging shotgun. "Okay, that's a good start," he began calmly, "but how about you actually describe this 'thing'?"
"It was... scary," James shivered.
"They all are," Edwin pointed out.
"No, I mean scary scary. Like, just, I was afraid even though I didn't see it properly."
Crazy was about to politely indicate that it was probably scary purely because James hadn't caught a proper glimpse, but this time a far more familiar howl split the air.
"Sounds like fasties," Feath muttered, "here we go."
There were other howls- several more. Eager, nearby, and getting closer...
"Sounds like a lot," Crazy-Eyes mused. He titled his head towards the west wing's stairway. "Farrow! We've got company!"
Farrow appeared- impossibly fast- charging down towards them so quickly that he was practically sliding down the banister with one hand. In his other fist he firmly held a pistol- a semi-automatic, one of many from his expansive collection.
"Yeah, thought I heard something," Farrow skidded to a halt alongside the firing line, "but I didn't think they were going to converge again so soon."
"Neither did I," Crazy admitted. "Damn it, I shouldn't have let Steve and Green go off like that."
"They got back twenty minutes ago," Edwin hazarded, "didn't anyone tell you?"
"Yeah," Feath added, "they were both fine. Steve went straight to the hospice mind, something about a splinter-"
They screamed again, putting all thoughts of wooden shards from the survivors' minds.
"Here they come," Crazy raised his voice, "remember, they prefer the high routes. Forget the door, watch the windows."
Obediently, four pairs of eyes turned towards the disturbingly large number of shattered windows that faced them. Once the City Hall- both the town's meeting place and the residency of the Mayor- had been an architectural marvel, but its present occupants couldn't help thinking how poorly designed the glass-heavy roof had been. It was as if the builders hadn't given any thought to an invasion of agile zombies.
The howls reached a peak, as if even the zombie's unbreathing lungs had been exhausted, and there was an urgent, frantic scrabbling noise, shadows flitting beyond the double doors- they betrayed the hostile presence that was abandoning the entrance for less conventional means.
But this was not the first time that the adroit variety of monsters simply dubbed the "fasties" had attempted this move. And thus, when four gaunt forms emerged from the dark, framed against the night's sky, they were hit by a hail of gunfire.
But the creatures, if not intelligent, were durable and persistent- unperturbed, the perforated corpses continued on their way, near-skeletal fingers clawing at the air in anticipation of flesh.
The leading creature- once a tall, perhaps handsome man, now a festering arrangement of sores and lesions- bounded across the lobby and leapt, teeth bared, towards Feath's throat.
His shotgun split the air and most of the beast's head- it fell backwards, finally lifeless, as its slimy, cankerous brains smeared the floor.
Crazy's two revolvers sent a duo of high-calibre rounds into the next zombie's chest, and the reanimated woman spiralled backwards, almost torn in half, exposing a fragmented spine and shattered ribs. Although it was almost certainly finished, James's .38 hammered into the twitching body, sealing its fate.
Edwin claimed another with Farrow's aid as together their handguns shredded the cranium of the third creature- it carried on running for three full steps before the twice-dead cadaver lost its momentum and collapsed.
And the fourth- the one whose earlier wounds caused it to lag behind- stopped, turned, and ran.
It ran away.
They'd never seen that before.
Usually they'd have immediately set to removing their kills from the premises- as any trace of meat, no matter how far gone, invariably attracted unwanted attention- but the team merely stood and stared, guns smoking in their hands, mouths agape.
"It... it retreated," Farrow shook his head. "That's not what they do."
"What does it mean?" James asked.
"It means they're smarter then we thought," Crazy-Eyes shrugged, as if it meant nothing. "For once one must've realised it was outmatched."
But, again, the same old suspicion barged, unwanted, into the forefront of his mind- they were starting to plan.
Something, something with an understanding of tactics, with an understanding of war, was directing the dead.
Overall Crazy had, perhaps, twenty men under arms. Very few of them had a background in policing or the military, but- despite the scarcity of ammunition- there were weapons enough to go around, and necessity had forced them to develop the required firing skills with impressive speed.
But their true forte lay elsewhere, as they were masters of the improvised weapon: never mind a certain janitor's worrying proficiency with a table leg, if you hadn't seen a raging Harry take a hedge trimmer to a zombie... well, you were lucky. It wasn't a pretty sight.
The fact was that Crazy-Eyes, rather shamefully, wasn't quite sure how many men the sprawling City Hall now housed. The building was huge, made to cater for hundreds of staff, and his team had an irritating habit of pulling panic-stricken refugees off the street and forgetting to introduce them. Although it was almost self-sufficient as far as supplies and facilities went, the massive structure- what with its many (now boarded) entrances and multitude of windows- proved difficult for his men to defend at times.
Men- that was another issue. For whatever reason not a single female survivor had stumbled into the Hall, and the guys were- as the more eloquent team members tried to put it- 'socially deprived'. Admittedly, any gathering that counted the likes of James among their ranks was likely to be 'socially deprived' with or without a supernatural post-apocalyptic situation.
The Hall had a huge furnace that served as both a disposal unit and a heating system, and currently Crazy-Eyes was overseeing yet another vital facet of the survivors' routine. Strangely, the gaunt "fasties" had almost no weight to them, so it had been easy enough for Feath and Farrow to load up the long-dead gardener's wheelbarrow with the gaunt freaks. The resultant smoke smelt awful, but at least the bodies would keep them all warm for a night or so.
"There's been more of these ones lately," Feath murmured, as he and Farrow flung a corpse into the flames, "and more of the big ones, too."
"Yeah, but the hulks are slow. Tough," Farrow conceded, "but slow. They might take nearly everything we can throw at them, but they never get a chance to do much damage."
Crazy nodded. The hulks- also affectionately known as "tanks" and occasionally "fatties"- were the largest, strongest version of zombie they'd ever encountered. Lurching, ungracious, the behemoths could nevertheless send cars tumbling with a casual swipe of their muscular arms. "It's been days since we saw a hulk," he recounted aloud, "and its best that way. I suspect they could cut out doors altogether and smash straight through the walls if they put their mind to it."
Not that they have minds, he added privately, but I suspect something out there knows how to use them well...
All three bodies sizzling away merrily, the two men wiped their hands theatrically and followed Crazy-Eyes to the recroom.
It housed a pool table, a few chairs and desks, a dartboard, and the existing remnants of the library's fiction section. It also had a handful of computers- although, most gallingly, the internet was inaccessible due to widespread phone outages- and a television which couldn't pick up a signal.
It was here in this large, tastefully decorated room that they tried to live, striving to forget their situation until the shifts changed, or someone shouted for aid. The pool table was one of the few pieces of furniture not atop the barricade, and, fearing Crazy would change his mind, the survivors played pool frequently to emphasise its usefulness. Besides, fuel for the electric generator was in short supply, and they rarely got the chance to play Killathon 5000 on the PCs or watch the Mayor's extensive pornography selection in widescreen.
With the current lack of digitised violence or choreographed sex, Green had challenged Edwin to a game. Edwin was a notoriously poor pool player, but Green had the habit of betting his rations on a match's outcome, and thus people flocked to face him, even if they invariably lost.
Green smiled winningly at the new arrivals. "Want a go? Same conditions as always-"
"He's just tired of giving me an arse-kicking," Edwin sniffed. "The jammy git."
"Sure," Farrow grinned back, accepting the janitor's cue. Farrow wore a crucifix, and had thus been nicknamed "The Priest" for a brief time period: but the clichéd reverend stereotype had fizzled out when his fellows had discovered his tastes. Whatever religious beliefs he harboured, he clearly didn't believe in denying himself gambling or a Girl's Gone Wild DVD.
Feath immediately sat himself between Simon and Harry and interrupted their card game- which was probably Snap, considering how many decks they'd lost between them. Crazy, glad to see his charges relaxing, had no time for such niceties himself- he marched off to the hospice, their makeshift medical bay.
He found Red there, bandaging his forearm. Red was an abbreviation of Red Beard, because apparently Feath had considered the man's ginger whiskers his most prominent feature on first meeting him. Red was either too private or too unimaginative to suggest an alternative, but Crazy-Eyes was hardly going to pressure anyone into revealing their real name.
They shared a nod, and Crazy indicated the blood-speckled bandage. "Anything bad?"
"Just fell over, that's all," Red shrugged. "Doing better than Steve; he's been out of it since they got back."
Crazy went over to Steve's bed, where the man was breathing gently, apparently exhausted after his and Green's reconnaissance mission a few hours back.
"We think he might be sick," Red eyed their meagre medical supplies, "but not with it, thank god. He'd already be one of them otherwise."
"He's had a few back-to-back guard duties and he never eats much, so I reckon he's earned a rest," Crazy whispered, and Red nodded. Anyone who could sleep during a fastie attack deserved a quick nap.
"So what do you think about the truck?" Red asked casually.
Crazy sighed one of his inner sighs- he'd known that that was coming. Green just couldn't keep his mouth shut sometimes- immensely talented, but inclined to spread the message. They'd found that the "dead" pickup in the parking lot had mysteriously vanished- it was widely presumed that some other survivors had managed to get it started and made good their escape, and this had provoked a mixed response.
"I don't think it matters," Crazy said stiffly. "Even if we missed an opportunity ourselves, I don't see how we could fit twenty of us into the thing. We should just be glad that, out there, someone else might be liv-"
There was a distant shout.
"James?" Crazy's eyes darkened. "I thought I asked you lot to relieve him?"
"We must have thought someone else would do it..."
"Shamblies!" split the air as everyone took up the cry.
Crazy ran to the barricade with Red in tow, vowing that heads would roll for this- in both a literal and metaphorical sense. How could anyone let James stay on for two shifts?
Dawn had came and gone, but daylight was never a total dissuader- they were just a little less active.
Shamblies, the "standard" zombies, the typical escapees from a thousand horror movies. Except here there were no chainsaw-wielding saviours, or, for that matter, rapist trees. But there was always Harry and his hedge trimmer and the absent Mayor's distressing houseplants.
Crazy-Eyes was sure they'd pull it off. They had to.
But, again, he thought how convenient it was that mindless, roaming hordes would attack so soon after another wandering group had clashed with the survivors.
In some ways, shamblies were laughable. In others, they were a bit... screamable.
They were the most common zombies and probably the least dangerous- they were sluggish and uncoordinated, and thus the survivors always had time enough to man the defences, as any given shambly couldn't move above a walking pace.
But they never stopped. A fastie might maintain vaguely human vulnerabilities- they were fantastically tough by normal standards, but a few bullets had the desired effect- but shamblies paid no heed to losing limbs or even their lower bodies- they crawled on, oblivious to everything, and it wasn't until someone had bashed their brains out that they'd take a hint and keep still.
The Hall's main entrance had a token barricade across it, merely to give the defenders a few easy shots before it was breached and the undead lurched towards the core barricade. In the morning light they could see one of the stumbling hordes- perhaps thirty of them, slowly shuffling towards their position, vacant expressions on every face (although several faces and even chunks of head were missing on certain individual zombies).
The horde approached, caked with blood and grime, and even though the team had a clear view they held their fire- there was always the chance that the creatures would pass them by, ignorant of their presence. The survivors were careful, and blacked out their windows and muffled their appliances as best they could- sacrificing visibility to the living and possibly even rescuers in order to best evade the dead.
But today they weren't lucky- the trailing mass of decaying muscle spied them, and began moving towards the barricade.
Crazy dropped his hand. "Now!"
Every weapon discharged simultaneously, a thunderous retort that caused the leading five shamblies to vanish in a haze of dirty blood. And still they came- they held no concept of fear: the concept of morale, of pain, was truly alien to them. They were either too stupid or too stiff to haul themselves through the windows- which were all of two feet from the ground- and thus they pushed through towards the double doors, creating a densely packed chokepoint that ensured even the least accurate defender would find his mark.
The numerous different varieties of weapon that bristled along the barricade meant the defenders were not suited for volley-based firing, and so Crazy voiced no disapproval when they began firing at will, choosing and dispatching targets as best they could.
Simon- who was in enviable possession of a working Winchester- sent a shell straight through the forehead of a shambly, and grinned happily. "Give me these rot-sacks any day- they never try dodging!"
Red, wincing slightly from the pain in his forearm, sent buckshot ripping into two others. They fell, and their uncaring comrades lurched over them, forever groaning and gurgling. "It'd be nice if they just gave us a rest for once," Red sneered.
Every foot of the barricade was manned- Crazy had been very clear on that, not wanting a repeat of the earlier incident that saw four men facing four fasties. There was a horrifying habit prevalent in the Hall, whereby certain people would ignore the rallying calls if they felt the existing defensive presence would find the threat manageable. What was worse is when they half-heard an alert, and then didn't bother checking; they assumed that paranoia had finally kicked in and that they were hearing things. The place was massive, and even with well-placed obstructions and boarded openings men were spread everywhere, trying to ensure their home remained secure, and sometimes even the noisiest assault might go unnoticed by some.
Small arms fire had little effect on the shamblies, but those with lower-calibre pistols still tried to keep up a steady stream of bullets. Mostly the things just twitched and kept on coming, but occasionally Edwin or Farrow or someone similarly armed would score a headshot, finally putting a zombie to its last death with a 9mm brain enema.
Rather unexpectedly, a gibbering fastie launched itself through the rooftop, but for all its sudden ferocity it took too long in reaching the barricade- it was shotgun-blasted from either side and sprayed backwards in a shower of body parts.
"We don't usually get mixed assaults," Simon nudged Edwin as the last few zombie stragglers persisted in trying to overturn the doorway barricade. "What's going on?"
Edwin patiently reloaded his Beretta while shrugging, which was quite a useful talent. "Coincidence. It was just attracted by all the noise."
There was a splintering sound that pierced eardrums and a distant howl, a sound that remained distinctive over the low moans of the shamblies and the gunfire of the survivors.
"The east wing!" Crazy shouted, pointing to the left, "they're coming through the east wing!" He stepped off the barricade, issuing commands. "Farrow, Simon, come with me- the rest of you finish these bastards off."
The trio ran up the stairs, towards the increasingly cacophonous incident deeper in the Hall's east wing.
"Well, we can cope with the leftovers," Edwin told Feath, although it was blatantly obvious he was trying to reassure himself rather than anyone else. "Only, what, ten or twelve now?" He fired another shot, which lodged in a zombie's shoulder with a strangely hollow sound.
Red grinned. "Two shotguns alone would do the trick. C'mon Feath, let's have a little more suppressive fire..."
The pair of them fired, and Edwin- while glad of the support- nevertheless flinched as both his ears endured shotgun-related unpleasantness.
Eventually even pistol fire would take a shambly down- combined with the old but effective pump-action weapons of Red and Feath, the defenders sent the last zombie slumping forward, bleeding profusely all over the doorway barrier.
"I think that's all of them," Harry called over from the opposite end of the barricade, "we should maybe go and see how Crazy's doing!"
James timidly stood up from behind the desk that marked his usual firing position. "Shouldn't we repair the door block?"
Harry shook his head. "We'll do that later," he told him, going towards the staircase, aware that the others were moving in his wake, "right now we need to go where the action is-"
The blockade split asunder, raining wooden shrapnel as the two halves of a gigantic dining table flew backwards from the doorway, slamming into the main barricade and sending debris tumbling from the improvised wall.
With a heart-rending, bull-like roar, a seven-foot colossus of necrotic muscles stomped forward purposefully-
-and then exploded, pattering the defenders with rotten, flaming guts.
The hulk- now just a smoking pair of thickset legs, and the odd wobbly purple tube- trembled slightly before keeling over.
A tall man, clad in black Kevlar and covered in ammunition belts, struck a heroic pose behind the popped undead giant and calmly reloaded the smoking under-barrel grenade launcher beneath his M16.
Their saviour spoke.
"CAN YOU AMAZING!" he thundered in fractured, heavily accented English, "I ARE HERE TO TELL TO YOU THAT US ARE GOING TO NOT DO THAT! YOU NO WANT TO DISTURB WITH WE NOW LEAVE!"
Feath carefully approached the foreigner, wondering whether he was some sort of twisted hallucination or a murderous madman, prepared to open fire at the first sign of hostility...
The solider darted forward and grabbed his hand, shaking it forcibly until his bones rattled. "Pleased to meet you are we glad! I Lieutenant am Maxi! Operative Special!"
Feath smiled weakly. "Uh, nice to meet you too. Listen, thanks for the help and all but we have to-"
"Ah, attack other on side your of house, yeah?" Maxi nodded sagely. "We glad assist offer not of enemy of aid but! Sooner we leave can, for the better..."
Edwin had also approached the towering man, wary of his volume and clumsiness with the language. Lieutenant Maxi didn't just break English- he got it in a headlock and pulled its legs off. "We?" Edwin hedged, "there's more than one of-?"
"Yeah," the lieutenant bellowed, clicking his fingers. Two other men- again tall, again covered in black body armour- appeared from nowhere. There was a brief conversation in a language that neither of the survivors recognised, and the two other operatives- disregarding the shocked looks they'd earned- sprinted off towards the direction of the unrelenting howls.
"Is that Russian?" Feath prodded Edwin.
"How the hell should I know?" he snapped, "you think I'm hairy and I have to be Russian?"
"Well," Edwin admitted, "my great-great-great-something was Russian, but I've never been out of the country-"
"I thought I heard you speak it once or twice?"
"I can swear in it and demand a taxi- or possibly a snake, I can't remember- but that's it..."
"We see disturbed was your wing of east and we thought suspect you help needed," Maxi explained loudly, following after his two men, "we time no have yes, introductions later! We now fight the rotten!"
Harry rolled his eyes. "Well, at least they're eager. That last part almost made sense."
"COMRADES, GLORY ONWARD VICTORY AS FURY HATH NO LIKE HELL! YAARRRRR!"
"Spoke too soon."
Much to Maxi's disappointment, what had sounded like a fully-fledged war turned out to be a brief skirmish with a lone fastie. Still, his small squad needed something to do, so they took to hacking it up with combat knives, preparing it for a readier disposal.
The east wing was Dalamari's usual haunt, and although he'd welcomed the arrival of Crazy with reinforcements, he was somewhat nonplussed by the tall special operatives who were currently slicing his latest kill into bite-size chunks.
But he wasn't the sort to ever look confused, so with a dazzling smile he politely asked who he was meeting.
Maxi pressed the knife into his hand with an approving grin. "Ah, no shy work about, hah? You hack continue up fast freak cutter and I talk boss to you, yeah?"
The lieutenant left a covertly flabbergasted Dalamari with his bloodied knife, and stuck a hand at Crazy-Eyes, who shook it cautiously.
"Military presence we are of Resistance People's. You boss, yeah? Glad to see nice job you do!"
"Uh, thanks," Crazy had given up trying to understand the newcomer after his second sentence, but he seemed friendly enough: despite his blatant (and self-confessed) military bearing, he was eager to please.
Half of the Hall's entire population was staring at them now- partly because they had no idea who Maxi actually was, but partly because the towering solider was still pumping the life out of Crazy's hand. Eventually the resistance's leader managed to politely disentangle himself, clearing his throat noisily.
"Would someone like to me what's going on?" he snarled.
Feath and Edwin told him, using a lot of swearwords and hand gestures. After their expletive-packed gesticulations, Crazy's eyebrows raised.
"A hulk? I'm grateful- sounds like it could've done a lot of damage if it got to go any further."
"Oh, fall they all apart if grenade them back," Maxi grinned again. "Say not it of, all we same friends in boat!"
"Indeed. But just who do you represent?"
"People's Resistance, we say like! We from not here."
"You don't say? But who, exactly, are the People's-"
Another scream. James again.
"God damn, what's happening now?"
"Actually, that was me," Edwin said sheepishly, "I just saw a damn fastie clamber up the drainpipe."
Crazy's teeth ground audibly. "Great- take our new friends upstairs. You go with him Dalamari- and grab James if you find him. I don't want him having one of his little accidents. You know what he's like when he gets mad."
The two nodded and ran off, and Maxi and his entourage followed with wordless obedience. Crazy realised that the officer had done as he'd asked without question- that was a good sign...
"Okay," he exhaled, "someone tidy up this fastie and board the window back up. Everyone else- what the hell are you all standing around for? We need to repair the core barricade before it gets dark! MOVE IT!"
Everyone hurried off, leaving Crazy in the dingy wing with his thoughts.
More survivors, and soldiers at that. Maybe they did have hope.
Maybe they had a chance, even if He was behind it all.
"Ivo?" Edwin peered around the woodworm-riddled pillar. "It's just us..."
Ivo nodded. "I see you've got company. They the ones responsible for taking down the hulk? That was a clean job."
Edwin picked a still-warm fragment of zombie off his jacket and flicked it away. "It was fast, but it sure as hell wasn't clean."
Ivo smiled briefly, and then turned back to his vigil.
Crazy usually enforced a loose shift-based rota system, to ensure that the five main areas of the Hall- the two wings, the lobby, the offices and this attic- were guarded at all times.
The attic, however, was an exception- it was Ivo's haunt. Ivo was a subdued, serious individual, and although Edwin wouldn't say he actively shied from social interaction he definitely wasn't the most talkative of the survivors. He was, put bluntly, a loner, and he'd claimed the attic as both his quarters and his guard post: no protests were raised, as nothing had ever escaped his notice.
Dalamari was mindful of this, and so he asked the most pressing question; "have you seen a fastie climb up this way-?"
Ivo turned back to them. "No. I heard it climb the guttering, but it hasn't come up this far."
Edwin blinked. "Oh, right..."
"But I've no doubt it'll appear sometime, so have the soldiers guard the other side of the attics. We need to cover the whole place."
Edwin nodded, and craned his neck upward to address Maxi. "He's asking if-"
"Oh I, yeah, heard! We'll secure position." With that uncharacteristically coherent statement, Maxi took his troops to the far side of the vast attic.
There was silence for a few moments, during which Edwin and Dalamari peered through the fissure in the wall at whatever Ivo was finding so absorbing.
"Do you think they can be trusted?" Ivo asked softly.
Dalamari started. "What?"
"The soldiers," Ivo clarified patiently, "do you think they can be trusted? They come from nowhere, blow up a hulk, and suddenly we're inviting them in to help although we know absolutely nothing about them."
Dalamari thought about this. "Yeah. He's got an assault rifle- he probably could've killed us all by know if he wanted to."
Ivo smiled. "Yes, I thought so too. After all, most of us use this... opportunity to start anew. But I hope you both realise that not everyone's going to be so accepting."
Edwin gnawed his lip. "Yeah, I know what you mean."
"Especially if they start getting protective over our supplies."
Edwin shrugged. "Maybe. Look, shouldn't we keep an eye out for this fastie?"
Ivo sighed. "I've already taken care of it," he pointed to a massive, iron-headed mallet leaning in the shadow of a support pillar, "one good knock to the skull and it fell."
Dalamari eyed him suspiciously. "So why did-?"
"Because I want a chat. And don't look at me like that- isolation hasn't driven me mad and I've got no intention of killing the two of you and hiding your bodies under this loose floorboard."
"You sound like you've planned for that."
Ivo didn't comment any further on potential corpse-concealment, but he did withdraw his .44 revolver. It was a sleek black custom model with an incredibly long barrel- coupled with his bristling hair, unshaven chin and high-collared overcoat, he looked like some PI from a film noir gore fest.
"You know what kind of ammo this uses?" he asked.
"Yeah," Edwin offered unsteadily, "it's point four-four..."
"Yes. And I've got less than a dozen rounds left."
Dalamari shifted uncomfortably, his usual upbeat manner absent. "Well, I don't see why-"
"And we've gone from having nearly three thousand 9mm rounds to less than four hundred."
Edwin looked shocked. "How did you know?"
Ivo sighed again. "Edwin, don't look so surprised. I was there when Crazy and Feath found the security locker, and I know for a fact that you were involved at some point. You used to keep this damn place running."
Dalamari's eyes bulged. "You mean you've all known exactly how much ammo we had from day one?"
This time Edwin squirmed on the spot. "Sort of... I used to have mid-level security clearance to the guard's quarters. Back before it happened."
Ivo waved his massive pistol dismissively. "Crazy-Eyes and all the rest of them did the right thing, not mentioning it. Better to stress the importance of conserving ammo without giving an actual amount for us to worry over. But I hope you realise what's next."
Dalamari had decided that Ivo was pretty damn talkative for a recluse, but he kept mum on that issue. "No, we don't," he said aloud, his easy-going approach all but dispelled, "do tell."
Ivo either ignored or failed to detect the sarcasm. "Crazy-Eyes is going to have us move out and look for more ammunition. And I don't mean the usual two-man supermarket dash for supplies- I mean a mass exodus. You've heard him talk about the old military base?"
The two nodded.
"Well, he's been considering a move there for a long time. He's right, of course, because we won't last much longer considering what we have here- but it'll be dangerous."
"I bet it would be," Edwin swallowed. He didn't like where this conversation was headed. "But I don't think he'll consider it now- I mean, we've got Maxi and his lads and they've got heaps of ammo-"
"All the more reason to move on out, now that we've got soldiers to cover us."
"Oh, yeah. I see what you mean."
Dalamari snorted. "Did you really just bring us up here to discuss our horribly bleak position?"
"No, I was making conversation to put you at ease," Ivo said, suddenly bright, "I just really need to pee. You five can keep on guard until I get back."
Even though the barrier's centrepiece- the magnificent dining table- had been torn in half, they managed to reassemble the door's blockade. It didn't look quite as stable as it once had, but they were all sure it would hold.
"It'll hold," Simon said for the fourth time. But, just like on the other three occasions, he still checked for gaps and rearranged the odd chair.
"One of these days we're going to have to seal it off permanently," Harry muttered. "It'd be easier, even if we had to drop down from a window for recon missions."
Farrow cheerfully shovelled up the spattered remains of the hulk- he'd filled four buckets with gloop already. "It all depends," he contributed.
"On what?" said James, who had been given the same task but a woefully small spade.
"On how often we go out. We need supply runs, and we need defence, so it all depends on how long we last with what we have here. It's a fine balance."
"So you're saying the more we board the place up, the harder it is to get in, but the harder it is to get out," said Simon, "that's real Zen shit, Farrow."
"You know me, I'm a regular font of wisdom and philosophy."
"You mean bullshit," Harry corrected him.
"Same damn thing."
Ben Quigley unfolded the colour insert. It wasn't a magazine centrefold- many of which formed elaborate pinup galleries in several apartments- but an atlas's gargantuan map of the town. This was fortunate, as it meant it lacked thumbtack holes and suspicious stains.
Crazy-Eyes helped him smooth down the creases, and then slammed his finger in the approximate centre of the map- their position, City Hall. "We're here," he murmured, "and the base is about eight miles northwest, so..."
"It's slap-bang in the middle of the classified district," Ben finished, indicating the vast purple polygon that marked the militarised zone.
That was just as Crazy had expected- too far for them to reasonably trek through the zombie-filled urban sprawl. On foot, it was suicide- if they had some kind of vehicle, it was far more reasonable a proposal- but where would they find one working car, let alone enough to move the Hall's whole population safely?
Ben sighed, and it was clear to Crazy that he was thinking the same thing. Quigley had been one of the few survivors to divulge his past openly and without hesitation- he was Irish, a visitor to the area, and his pregnant wife of one year had been separated from him during the chaos. He was honest, approachable, and utterly determined to find her again, hence his eagerness to assist in anything involving the outside world. To Crazy, that meant he was naive and gullible and likely to die within minutes if it wasn't for the others.
When Harry had opted to investigate the store sheds, Ben volunteered to help. When Farrow had suggested they try and get the abandoned car in the parking lot started, Ben had volunteered. When Edwin opted to fix the transmitter, Ben joined in. The technician-cum-janitor had failed miserably, but it was generally agreed that he'd have never made the attempt if they hadn't been egging him on at gunpoint.
Crazy-Eyes bundled the map back into the atlas and slammed it shut. It had been a token gesture- he was fully aware of the distance and the difficulty of their task- but Ben's hope was contagious.
Ben was suffering from a severe case of optimism, and nothing could cure it. Indeed, he suffered a major relapse when Crazy had suggested they check the library for information on the base. They'd found plenty of information, it was just that none of it was particularly heartening.
The optimist disease had almost claimed Crazy, too, after Maxi's brawny cohort arrived, but his effective cynic's immune system was methodically annihilating it. They were back to square one, and it was a town square with a broken statue and surrounding zombie hordes.
He tossed the book onto an already crowded desk and collapsed in an over padded chair. The library had once been light and airy, but a dozen sealed windows and ransacked shelves detracted from this feel. It was a mess of unfinished notes and scrapped battle plans, testament to Crazy's earlier brush with the hope virus.
"I suppose you didn't find anything?"
Crazy leapt to his feet, hands reaching for his pistols- and then he felt incredibly stupid, because no zombie could or would ask a question before trying to eat his face.
"No," said Ben, who seemed unsurprised by Ivo's arrival, "but we've got ages to look yet."
"I thought you said you'd never leave your post?" Crazy asked snidely, still slightly embarrassed over his reaction.
"I haven't," Ivo indulged in a rare smile, "I've got those soldiers and Dalamari and Edwin looking after things."
"Spotted anything then?" Ben began eagerly, as if expecting news of a whole battalion of rescuers, "it's a good vantage point up there, I know that..."
"Yes, as a matter of fact, and I wanted to tell you personally."
Ben brightened considerably.
"I meant Crazy."
Ben still looked cheerful, but he tactfully withdrew.
"What is it?" Crazy-Eyes was genuinely intrigued now.
"You know how James was blabbering on about something he saw last night?"
"I think I saw it just before the attack." Ivo breathed in.
Crazy leant forward, dropping his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "What did you see?"
"A kid. A girl with a cuddly octopus toy."
Crazy-Eyes kept his eyes peeled for any suspicious children with plush octopi, but he didn't spot any during his rounds. They weren't hiding behind the dead pot plants or hunkering down under the stairs, and most importantly they weren't trotting around near windows putting stupid ideas into his team's heads.
He was almost certain that whatever James had seen hadn't been an octopus-cuddling kid, but he made a mental note to check with the man should he ever run into him again. He'd been very shaken by the sighting and Crazy was sure - regardless of what Ivo thought- that it wasn't the same thing. Not unless James had some hitherto unmentioned phobia of toy invertebrates... although, come to think of it, it wasn't that farfetched considering everything else that caused him to flip out: such as guard duty, unwashed dishes and men with nose hair.
Crazy sighed. "I said 'stop calling me boss' about six times the other day, or am I wrong?"
"You did maybe, but I not there to be one you talking to."
Crazy-Eyes turned round to face Maxi's slightly confused expression. "Oh... sorry, I thought you were someone else."
"Ah, was understandable as it crowded, yeah? I just talk to want about outside communications."
"Telephone lines are down, the radio mast is broken beyond all repair and for some reason they never got cable or satellite installed here," Crazy recounted briskly, ticking off the malign items on some mental list. "We've tried everything."
"You have mast? Ah, right so was Tobias! I can Private have Deller equipment install radio!"
Crazy's titular eyes bulged. "You think you can actually repair it? But it broke off in high winds and-"
"Ah, no repair," Maxi shook his head, "we just use position broken metal and affix our radio it. Afterward we put charge it through and wham! Instant call of distress." Maxi's face moved further into the unfamiliar territory of uncertainty. "Least, Deller Private think so."
"Well, by all means, get to it! Feel free to ask any of my men to help- they'll be more than willing to lend a hand."
"Great! Knew count on you be, Boss!" Maxi pulled off a smart salute and marched off, leaving Crazy to wonder- not for the first or last time- whether the man was actually foreign or just insane.
"Don't you just wish you had a sniper rifle?" Edwin wondered wistfully.
Dalamari leant against the nearest pillar, which creaked. "I'd rather have a bazooka, but if it wasn't so stupidly loud that we'd attract every zomb in a three-mile radius... then yeah, I'd want a sniper rifle right about now."
"It'd just be useful for picking the bastards off from a distance, that's all."
"You might as well just wish to be rescued," Dalamari grinned, "because it's just as likely as finding a sniper rifle in this town."
On the streets- no more than narrow lines of tarmac from this height- the odd shambly pulled its weight across the otherwise deserted panorama. It was, indeed, quite easy to imagine a sniper scope- complete with those weird sliding measurement things on the side- zooming onto their twisted craniums and allowing a (probably silenced) 7.76mm round to do the business from a distance of several hundred metres.
"How long does it take the guy to pee, anyway?" Dalamari wasn't the quickest on the uptake.
"Maybe he just drank a lot," said Edwin, who wasn't either.
"Hmmm," said the black-clad soldier behind them.
Edwin jumped. "Wah?"
One of Maxi's men was walking across the attic at a snail's pace, staring at a small chrome device in his hand, apparently oblivious to the alarm he'd caused. Like Maxi's entire cohort, ammunition belts encircled his waist and shoulder but in his case an MP5k had pride of place, hanging from a loose-fitting gun strap.
Dalamari gave Edwin a gentle nudge. "Do you think this one speaks English?"
"Try Russian on them, then."
Edwin stood forward and took a deep breath. "Uh, borat shuvnur zur?"
"You made that up."
"No I didn't-"
"I don't speak Russian," said the soldier, "so it's a moot point, surely?"
Edwin relaxed. "Oh, good... just thought maybe you-"
"Spoke English as bad as Maxi? No, I guess you could say I'm a native."
Dalamari extended a hand on automatic. "Great to meet you then. I'm Dalamari."
The native shook the hand warmly. "Likewise. Corporal Tobias of the People's Resistance."
"Yeah, I heard Maxi mention that," Edwin interrupted, "just who are you guys?"
"Well, would you believe that a multinational UN peacekeeping force was dispatched from a top-secret base on the coast in order to check how far the zombies had spread?"
"Wow, you're UN Special Forces?"
"No. We're just a bunch of grunts- although I think Maxi might be one actually- but we just found a couple of massacred Specials and stole their equipment. Their mission didn't go to plan."
"Oh," said Dalamari, "what happened?"
"They turned into zombies," Tobias shrugged, "mostly standards but one big fella ended up as a tank. We finished them off and took the uniforms that weren't ruined."
"We call them 'hulks'," Edwin offered.
"Really? We call them 'tanks'," Tobias continued, "but either suits them, I guess."
"If you're just soldiers," Dalamari asked, "how come Maxi's... from wherever and you're-?"
"We were all on a commercial flight days ago," Tobias interrupted, "storm put us off course and we made an emergency landing... and of course we ended up at an airport packed with zombies."
Edwin nodded. "And 'People's Resistance'?"
"Just a name we picked, since we're all from different militaries. Didn't want to cause offence, especially to Deller, who's a bit weird."
"What, and Maxi isn't?"
"Maxi's Finnish, I think- he means well, just doesn't have much of a grasp of the language. But Deller... he's just... weird." The corporal waved the compact device in his gloved hand. "But he's a damn good communication officer, and he was just having me check the signal strength."
Dalamari shook his head sadly. "Sorry man, we've done all that before, and the place is totally dead."
"He's trying to fix up your radio mast with our primary transceiver," Tobias explained patiently, "and I'm just checking to see whether I can pick it up. I'm to let him know if this secondary gets the signal, since it means he's got it online and can stop fiddling."
"You think that'll work?"
"Me? No, I don't. But your boss seems to think it might, so he let Deller go ahead with it." Tobias shrugged and looked out onto the darkening city. "Hmm. Doesn't it just make you wish for a sniper rifle?"
"Guys!" bellowed a voice to the accompaniment of a frantic ascension.
Dalamari whirled round. "What?"
Taking the stairs three at a time, James bounded up to them and used a few vital seconds to catch his breath. "West wing is... under attack," he wheezed, "a lot of shamblies... Crazy says... get your asses down there now!"
Simon lifted his shades, stared through the gap in the wooden planking, and then lowered them again. It was all about style; even though the daylight was already dwindling it was unlikely he'd ever remove his sunglasses or let his ponytail loose.
Green thought he was a poser, and said as much.
Simon just grinned and readied his rifle. Beside him, Red cracked his knuckles and limbered up.
"What are you, a fucking ninja?" Green rolled his eyes. "Karate chop a few of them for me!"
Red gave him a disapproving look and loaded his shotgun.
While the east wing was mostly empty- save for the token guard present mostly for Crazy's peace of mind- the west wing was home to their improvised recroom and most of their sleeping quarters. Every door and window had been extensively barred, but now the survivor's were carefully removing particular obstructions so as to get a view of the encroaching horde.
There were easily a hundred shamblies, slowly squeezing through the innumerable gaps in the Hall's broken fence, lurching through the overgrown grass towards the building.
Crazy swallowed, and was glad that no one saw him. "Alright," he shouted to the defenders, "there's no chance that they've missed us. Pick your targets carefully and don't let them swamp a particular entrance. Start firing!"
The men needed no second bidding- a diverse selection of firearms barked from out of almost every crevice in the barriers. Immediately a dozen shamblies fell headlong into the long grass- but several got straight back up again, hauling themselves upright in total disregard of their weeping wounds.
Farrow stuck his entire hand out of a hole in the wall and blazed away with his pistol. A soft moan and a few wet sounds told him he'd found his mark- he dared to look, and, finding that a zombie was twitching on the ill-managed lawn, he plugged it again for good measure.
With a loud crack, Simon's Winchester drilled a neat hole in the eye socket of a leading zombie- it fell backwards silently, straight into the path of another that was stalled just long enough for Feath to splatter it with a carefully timed shotgun blast.
Again there were more shamblies than there was space- and again they were tightly-packed, pressing against each other in their eagerness to reach the one small door they'd set their rotten hearts on. Even on the rare occasion that Crazy's revolvers missed their mark he invariably hit his intended target's neighbour: regardless of where it struck them, even a shambly would slow down when a .375 round hit home.
For a second he wondered why Maxi- as the best equipped of them all- hadn't acted yet. Then he heard the dull thunk of an under-barrel grenade launcher...
The resultant explosion set a few blades of grass alight and sprayed zombie parts in all directions. Had it been a video game, even the most powerful system would've been hard-pressed to render all the blood and fragmented organs- that's how gory it was. The defenders dove for cover as disgusting unmentionables splattered off their battlements.
In the aftermath, a crater of scorched, smoking earth was the centrepiece to a charred circle of lost limbs- the grenade had claimed almost half of the undead horde. Maxi, however, just grinned- and beside him, one of his soldiers- armed with a gleaming MP5k- started to open fire, using carefully controlled bursts to dispatch the most appropriate targets. Very orderly, very military...
Edwin and Dalamari appeared, panting from the exertion of running most of the Hall's length, but Crazy paid them little heed. Although he couldn't see him in the mad bustle of the front line, Crazy-Eyes heard the deafening blast of Ivo's .44, and he certainly saw the result: a chunk vanished from a zombie's torso, the bullet taking half a fencepost with it.
Firing single shots, Maxi began reaping the shamblies with unerring accuracy- between them, Maxi and Tobias had accounted for almost thirty zombies in barely ten seconds, and that wasn't even including the previous grenade.
Although they lacked the firepower, the other defenders certainly possessed the steadfast dedication necessary for wholesale zombie slaughter, and it wasn't long until less than ten stupid, heedless zombies were trying to push past the now nonexistent fence.
Crazy wondered how he could've possibly thought that there was ever a guiding force behind these things. They were utterly mindless.
And then he saw her- a little girl, possibly five, possibly eight, dressed in a dark blue dress and clutching a colourful, big-eyed, happy-looking octopus to her chest.
She stood at the opposite end of the fence, and timidly pointed towards the lobby.
Crazy realised, at once, that James was missing, and that he'd left no one defending the core barricade.
And in that same, horrible moment, he smelt the smoke of burning furniture.
"God damn. Stop it! FOR GOD'S SAKE STOP IT!"
James's hand was soaked in petrol, but that didn't worry him- what worried him was the thing standing patiently at the front of the lobby, and the gallons of accelerant soaking the barricade. Dozens of empty, plastic petrol cans littered the floor.
It was talking to him. It wouldn't stop. For hours now- telling him to burn. Telling him to burn or be burned. She wouldn't shut up.
There was a fire at the doorway, but it was small, so very small, compared to what would come...
He wrestled with his own hand- indeed, the spasmodic, flexing thing on the end of his left arm didn't seem to be his own flesh and blood. He grinded his teeth and hit it against the still-solid barricade.
Crazy walked in.
James rolled around on the carpet. "Shoot me, damn it! Shoot me!" he screamed, dragging himself away from the tinder-dry barriers and the petrol-soaked table at its heart.
Crazy's mouth lolled open. "You?!"
"I told you there was something there! I told you!"
"You... you did this? After everything-"
"Not me... her..."
And it was female. Once upon a time.
Ben had not been a soldier or a policeman before it happened, but survival instinct was all he'd needed. He'd grown quite good with the compact semi-automatics that had been the standard sidearm of the Hall's rent-a-cops, and so he revelled in victory along with everyone else when the last zombie keeled over- yet another once-mobile heap of fertiliser to add to the lawn.
It hadn't been the most vocal of celebrations- the odd cheer and some scattered applause from people who didn't know any better- but they all ground to a halt when Maxi, in his own way, pointed out the obvious.
"Where boss, hah? Smoke! It smoke!"
She- and it barely qualified for the gender- was a nightmare. It wasn't a nightmare on legs, because it didn't even have legs- just tapering, talon-like points of blood-soaked bone where legs should be.
She hovered- waiting, patiently, for some ineffable event- a full foot from the smouldering carpet. Her skin was mostly pale, with patches of sallow tissue and sagging, sickly, purplish bruises. A scar ran down her midriff, between breasts that were still horribly recognisable, and her fingers were slender, delicate- and alight. Flames licked over them, hungrily crawling over flesh that resisted its efforts to consume it.
The face was just a skull- intact, but with no features, just skin pulled so taut across teeth and sockets that the skull itself had malformed, lengthening slightly.
And when it spoke, no words came- just an echoed moan that somehow spoke volumes about pain, destruction, and the futility of existence.
Crazy-Eyes felt as if the pyromaniac was checking him out.
And then Deller came down the stairs, drawn away from his roof-top repairs by the fumes and the shouting.
The spell was broken- the thing stopped lingering and moved a fiery hand in a scything motion. James whimpered. Crazy-Eyes dived for cover... but there was none...
An arc of flame flashed into existence beside a banister, splintering the wood into burning particles and catching Deller in the chest- he screamed and tumbled to the ground.
He regained his footing, screeching as his muscles crackled, and she waved another arm. A tongue of flame reared from nowhere and engulfed his upper body, and his shriek hit a womanly pitch as his eyes burst, trailing liquid goo down his charred face as his very flesh melted and crawled across his-
A bullet punctured his forehead and his burning body fell, forever lifeless.
Maxi stood on the stairs of the west wing, and there wasn't anything vaguely funny about his expression or choice of language.
"Pyro bitch! Killed him! Die!"
His M16 hammered home a burst of hot lead that struck the fiery abomination in the chest- the bullets left wounds but even they were unnatural- they leaked glowing dust, as if the thing was hewn from marble.
The creature breathed in so loudly that Crazy's ears threatened to rupture- a sigh of cavernous proportions, speaking of fatigue, exhaustion, inevitability...
He needed it to end. He came up firing, and two .375 rounds punctured its neck.
Still active, it raised a hand, reaching towards the fuel-soaked barricade. Roaring something that was incoherent even by his standards, Maxi emptied his entire clip into the floating monster, watching as fire leaked from the gaping crevices in its granite form.
It jerked violently and fell, fingertip limbs acting like useless peg legs, and struggled upright, still trying to bring flame into being.
Maxi gave a kamikaze yell, or whatever the Finnish equivalent would be, and dived from the balcony- casting aside his M16, his hand came up holding a lethal bayonet- he landed heavily, straddling the thing's smoking body, hacking at its throat, oblivious to the fact that magma seemed to be bleeding from the wounds.
And then, with a moan that would haunt him for, oh, the next five minutes, it died. Flame consumed its face, smoke poured off it in turrents: and Maxi- scorched in places but otherwise unharmed- stood up, casting aside his red-hot knife in distaste.
James pulled a fire extinguisher out from behind the reception and liberally doused the staircase, before cautiously tackling the doorway. "It's over," he whispered. "I don't know how it happened..."
"Ah, worry not, you just minded weak. It took time, maybe happen to all otherwise." Maxi, grim faced, adjusted his armour and spat on the creature for good measure. His saliva evaporated with a sizzle.
Crazy-Eyes wanted to hate James, he wanted to be furious with him- but as Maxi said, it could have been anyone. Even when the thing was right next to him, James had had willpower enough to resist at the crucial moment. Best to centre on that, rather than what he'd done before.
Across the lawn, framed by the flame-devoured doorway, a little girl nodded at him in congratulation.
"What are you doing up here?"
Edwin span round. He relaxed on realising it was Feath and not a face-eating freak, but then he remembered that he was doing something he shouldn't be doing and certainly didn't want the likes of Feath noticing.
"Nothing," he said quickly.
"Doesn't look like nothing," Badger said, a shade reproachfully.
Edwin relaxed a little more- Feath wasn't likely to explode at him if Badger was around, although Badger himself was just as combustible at times.
No one could quite remember why they called him Badger- that was the fate of many of the survivors, after Feath or one of the "original" posse landed them with a nickname that invariably stuck despite being entirely arbitrary. He didn't look badgerish- sure, like everyone else he was a bit grimy, but he didn't look like a black-and-white burrowing mammal. Edwin, on the other hand, certainly had hair that indicated some kind of shaggy ancestry.
"That's the mast box, is it?" Feath peered past Edwin's shoulder. "The thing Maxi's comm officer was trying to install?"
"Yeah," Edwin admitted. "I was just seeing if it picked anything up."
"I don't think he got the chance to finish it off," Badger said brusquely. "We'd be better sticking to the lobby and making sure nothing tries to-"
As if on queue, and saving Edwin a lot of face, the apparently stricken machine began buzzing.
It looked like a fusebox that had suffered an overly intimate encounter with a black-cased military radio, and that was, ultimately, what it amounted to- serpentine cables trailed away from it, lashed onto the twisted edges of the mast that the last storm had severely shortened. The idea of a man, laden down with heavy equipment, trying to scale the slippery tiles to wire it all up- it didn't bare thinking about...
An unidentified but promising green LED was intermittently flashing, and a bulbous sphere amid a nest of capacitors and resistors was vibrating, producing the quiet trill that might've passed for a sedated bumblebee.
There was a thoughtful silence, or at least there would've been if not for the insect-imitating transceiver.
"So what does that mean?" Edwin asked eventually.
"Beats me," Feath offered unhelpfully.
"It means there's some kind of activity that wasn't there before," Badger squatted down closer to the device although he didn't dare touch it. "I think it's picking something up."
Feath joined him beside the buzzing gadget. "So what do we do?"
Badger gave both the radio and his comrades appraising looks. "Well, either we try and activate it to pick up the signal- and risk frying whatever it is that Deller guy was working on-"
"Ack," suggested Edwin.
"-or we chicken out and let someone else at it."
"Sounds good to me," Feath was already backing away.
"But there's always the chance that, if we stall this," Badger warned, "we'll miss whatever the signal is."
"Better than having the rest of the Hall beating me up because I fried our only link with the outside world. Let's go grab a nerd or something. And I mean a technically-minded one, not a lifeless wonder like Edwin here."
"Hey, Feeth, I learnt from the best, you self-obsessed trigger-happy nut you."
"Touché. But I'm still going to kick your ass."
"That's why I'm running away."
Badger wasn't bothered by the fact that he wasn't a "character"- that is, one of the homicidal, manic, or just plain weird survivors that was known by everyone else, usually for the wrong reasons. Those who knew Badger knew that- while he was hardly a quiet sort- he was businesslike and not prone to worrying over the future or regretting the past.
He might not have Crazy's infamous eyes or Ivo's hermit mystique or Edwin's distressing facial hair- but what he did have was skill with a wide variety of weaponry and the will to stand against an advancing wave of the walking dead. That produced prestige, of a sort.
Badger certainly didn't resent missing the confused excitement above them in the attic- Crazy-Eyes had forcibly dragged Maxi and Tobias up there so the soldiers could tend to the ineffable machine that had been Deller's last work.
But he was vaguely disappointed to have missed the so-called pyrobitch- the floating pyromaniac that had, purportedly, come close to burning the place down. It was the talk of the Hall, known to everyone- and again, for all the wrong reasons.
"So Maxi shot it?" Farrow asked Green. Despite the mostly-successful reparations the lobby was still crowded- it had ended up like some sort of twisted tourist attraction.
"Yeah, I've said that a hundred times," Green snapped. "He shot it, and it burnt up, conveniently leaving no trace of the body."
James stated the obvious. "You don't sound convinced."
"There's a fire and some fiery asshole burns half the barricade up- it gets killed off and there's no one to blame. If you ask me, the soldiers screwed up."
"I saw it," James interrupted, "I saw him kill it. It existed."
"Why would he set fire to it all then, huh?" Badger interposed himself between the trio. "Care to explain that?"
"I don't have to explain anything," Green drew himself up to his full height. "I just think it's weird that some soldiers come up, there's a fire, and it's apparently down to some fucked-up flying pyromaniac who no one's ever encountered before."
"There're other types of zombs," Farrow shrugged, "so what? The pyrobitch died. They all die. No worries."
"Maybe I'm just paranoid, but I don't trust them, and I sure don't believe their People's Resistance shit."
"If they wanted to kill us, they'd have done it. They outgun us and they've got the skills to match. They've already lost a man to this thing and you guys wonder if it exists? Wow, that's respectful of you."
Ivo sauntered down the stairs, his colossal revolver drawn. Everyone- even Green- felt slightly sheepish. There was much in the way of shifting feet and cleared throats.
"I'm not one for lectures or melodrama," Ivo grunted, "but we're all in this together and-"
A mournful moan interrupted him. There was a lot of clattering as numerous instruments of death were cocked and readied and aimed towards the scorched doorway.
"Gurr..." said the shadows.
"Shambly?" Farrow tried to aim at some imaginary fiend. "Sounds like a shambly."
"Awww hell naw!"
"What the fuck?" volunteered several of the survivors.
A dishevelled young man stumbled up against the door's newly-placed barrier and squinted at them. After a while, he turned his head and threw up noisily.
"Awww hell naw!" he repeated, clumsily pulling himself over the table.
"What are you? A wannabe Jamaican?" Green kept his gun pointed squarely at the new arrival's head.
The man considered this. "Well," he slurred, "I took a lot of drugs. Does that count?"
With those words, Chris keeled over, asleep before he hit the floor.
"I was thinking 'Drug Addled Hippy Scum Dreg'," volunteered Feath.
"He's got a name," James said reproachfully, "he said he's called Chris. He doesn't need a nickname."
"I think ‘Drug Addled Hippy Scum Dreg' would suit him a hell of a lot more."
"We could call him 'Dahsd' for short," Harry suggested.
Drug Addled Hippy Scum Dreg grunted and rolled onto his side. He was, to all intents and purposes, comatose, but there was a good explanation- he reeked of alcohol, vomit, and mind-altering chemicals- so they'd unceremoniously dumped him in one of the hospice beds. Currently the improvised hospital was empty save for Steve and the druggy, but the Hall's occupants had- in deference to Chris's weirdness rather than Steve's nameless illness- kept the two far apart.
The survivors were already talking about shooting Chris and throwing him to the undead- and, rather worryingly, Crazy-Eyes got the feeling that they weren't joking. The foul-mouthed, incoherent junkie hadn't made any friends- in fact, he'd tried to bite Badger when, concerned for his health, he'd visited him. No one had dared rebuke the man when he retaliated by punching Chris/Dahsd in the face- quite the opposite.
"He ain't going to talk," Green snorted.
"Yeah," Feath agreed, "we should just leave him be."
"What, alone? He'll wake up and try and hump Steve or do something really fucking weird," Green snapped.
"That was a mental image I could do without," Harry made a face.
Crazy, for once, was inclined to agree. But he watched the grunting sleeper, and, aware that'd he'd probably catch something awful, nudged him one last time, shouting "Chris!" into his ear. There was no response, and he was about to admit defeat and move his little entourage from the hospice when the man snorted and sat bolt upright.
He blinked, stupidly, in the room's pale light. "Awww hell naw!"
"I wish the daft bastard would stop saying that," Feath growled.
Chris lay back down and closed his eyes. Green hit his arm, none-too-gently.
"Hey, before you pass out on us, we want a few answers."
Chris's eyes snapped back open. "I came from Notsley, okay? Now fuck off."
Green hit his arm again. "We need more than that, asshat."
"I went to Notsley to see some family- it was empty, so I came back here. End of story." Chris lay back again.
"Where the hell is Notsley?" Feath asked the world in general.
"Small village near the city outskirts," Crazy explained, somewhat disappointed. "He's just a refugee."
"What did you expect? He was another Delta-Force-hero-type? Hah!" Green rolled his eyes. "Fat chance."
James allowed himself a chuckle.
Crazy gave them a warning look. "We have to know something about everyone here, you know that." He glanced at the end of the room, where Steve still lay, breathing gently but otherwise unmoving. "We need to find a medic and figure out what's-"
"Well, you know everything now," Chris opened one eye. "I told you to fuck off."
Crazy grabbed him by the collar of his filthy shirt and held him up, oblivious to the smell. "Look here, you inbred narcotic-chugging scab," he growled dangerously, "we're letting you stay in the safest place in the whole city. You're not in charge, you're not going to act like you're doing us a favour, and you're going to stop swearing at me. Savvy?"
Chris swallowed, but he wasn't prepared to let it lie. "He swears a lot," he said defensively, nodding at Green.
"Green's not a drug-snorting freak. Until you prove otherwise, you are. Now stay here until we decide what to do with you."
Crazy tossed the man back onto the bed and stormed out- the others cautiously followed.
When they were gone, Chris looked towards Steve, and saw the promising medicine cabinet.
"Hey, nice place you got here," he grinned.
"Co- .... –top. No, th-....st-... –ruption."
There was another crackle of static.
"-ome-... is-... eakto- .... –ity. Co-...."
"Damn signal is just as warped as ever," Corporal Tobias snarled.
He and Maxi- probably the only people with radio operation skills in the whole city- had gone straight to the scene after Badger's discovery. There was a signal, and that news had spread like wildfire throughout the Hall- but they'd only recently refined it to an audible level. But even now it still wasn't coherent, and Tobias had a horrible suspicion that it was just an automated emergency broadcast- that they were wasting their time, and that the Hall was humanity's only bastion.
"Yeah, we not much making progress," Maxi sighed. He twisted one of the myriad dials half-heartedly.
Deller's radio beeped- Maxi leant away from the machine, as if he'd caused it pain.
The voice returned, but this time the hurricane of interference had become a mere storm.
"Come... this is the- -op Military B- ...."
"Military?" Tobias stared at the radio. "I heard 'military'!"
There was a pause.
"We did not- ...-that last- .... –smission," the voice hazarded, "please repeat..."
"They can hear us!" Maxi exclaimed- his enthusiasm causing some subconscious fluctuation that forced him to make sense.
"This is the City Hall," Tobias practically shouted at the transceiver, "Corporal Tobias of unit 4 speaking- we are a holdout of approximately forty survivors," he continued, hoping that statistic was correct, "please identify yourself!"
Another, millennia-long pause.
"Roger that City H-.... –is Peaktop Mili- .... -rgeant Hazar speaking-"
"Peaktop?" Maxi whispered questioningly.
"Pretty sure it's the mountain base," Tobias replied. "We read you Peaktop," Tobias turned to the radio, "please state your business." He felt like such an uncompromising bastard, but for all he knew they were contacting them just to rub their noses in their predicament.
"...-ger that City Hall! We are-.... ... -all survivors in order to prot-... -illian populace. If you have transport-" –there was a burst of deafening static- "-y and get civilians to- .... –and we can protect the-..."
Tobias scowled. "Uh, repeat that Peaktop, we did not receive all your message."
"Repeat that City H-... did not hear your- .... –ast message."
Tobias could see this getting tiring. "We're requesting that you repeat transmission!"
A geographical pause.
"Affirmative City Hall- we are trying to- ... -ors in order to protect the civi- .... .... –transport, and can safely leave your bui-...... –please try and get civilians to Peaktop so that we..."
"I think he wants us to take all the civvies to Peaktop," Tobias said through the corner of his mouth.
"We do got no transport," Maxi shook his head.
"It'll be dangerous for us to go," Tobias said loudly enough for Hazar to hear, "we're secure here Peaktop- any attempt to leave might endanger-"
Something bleeped loudly and urgently.
"-peat City-... -all, we did not- ...." the radio said weakly.
"The damn battery's going!" Tobias ground his teeth. "Peaktop- we are losing power! We cannot leave the Hall, but we will try and remake contact-"
The radio gave one final tone and died.
"It's been pretty clear," Farrow admitted, "odd wandering shambly but otherwise pretty quiet."
"I haven't seen anything co-ordinated," Ivo agreed.
"Well, you wouldn't," James insisted, "They're zombies. They don't co-ordinate."
"You know what he means," Feath snapped, "usually shamblies congregate together. They must like how they smell to each other or some shit."
Ivo didn't add anything to that. Personally, he wasn't so sure anymore.
Crazy-Eyes had taken to the attics with the People's Resistance's last two members. They'd politely turned everyone away, locking themselves inside the Hall's highest floor. Everyone knew about the radio, and thus everyone assumed- quite accurately- that the three were discussing its use, or possibly the transmission they were rumoured to have received. Everyone had been called into the lobby- for the first time, everyone except the narcoleptic Chris and the sick Steve were gathered for the news.
Ivo knew the attic like the back of his hand- or better, in fact. His hand just had a few scars he paid little attention to, but he knew of every loose floorboard and every plank of knotted wood in those attics. Thus he'd surreptitiously eavesdropped on the trio from the floor below- positioning himself directly beneath the thinnest, most rotten portion of the floor, and listening to their every word.
And he wished he hadn't. He didn't want that kind of burden- he was just glad that the decision wouldn't be his.
He half wished the zombies would come back, because the tension was killing him. Not as literally as the undead would, admittedly, but at least you knew where you stood with zombies- behind a strong barricade, hopefully, pouring bullets into them. There wasn't any of this pseudo-political strife and unease.
And then, grim-faced, Crazy-Eyes appeared- all eyes turned to him as he, Maxi and Tobias slowly came down the creaking stairs.
He told them everything that had happened.
"Can't you plug it into the generator?" Red offered.
Tobias shook his head. "We don't want to try anything with the radio- it'll burn up if I so much as look at the transistor. Deller was our comm officer- I'm not even officially trained."
That was a lie, and the corporal knew it- but he didn't want to be the one responsible for clumsily destroying their only means of communication with the outside world. Better that they thought of the radio as some unfathomable technology no one should risk altering.
"We can find a battery," Simon suggested, pointing out through the door to show his point. "There's bound to be a hardware store someplace-"
Crazy-Eyes shook his head. "Same problem. We're left facing a dangerous excursion either way."
"Why bother?" Simon shrugged. "We're pretty secure where we are. Peaktop could be worse off."
There was a general murmur of assent.
"That's the choice though, isn't it?" Badger sighed. "Peaktop will be more secure- they've got survivors and they're trying to help the outside world. More than we do. We can assume they're better off."
"Yeah," said Farrow, "but we all know it's a big risk. Either of the two options is a big risk."
"There's always another way," said James.
"Yes," said Ivo, "we all die."
"What do you suggest then?" Green asked somewhat snidely.
"Not my place to suggest anything," Ivo responded, already wishing he'd kept mum.
"Look, the Hall's in one piece," Edwin grinned worriedly, "and we'd have trouble getting to Peaktop. We can't risk it."
Feath turned to him. "Don't tell me you haven't thought about it though?"
"'Course I've thought about it. It's a big, safe military base full of weapons. It's our best bet- but we can't get there, can we?"
"Altogether we might make it," Red mused.
"Altogether we might get jumped by a dozen fasties and eaten alive," Ben pointed out.
"Going on foot would be suicide," Green snorted, "we'd have to go past the graveyards for fuck's sake!"
"Even if did, we have firepower," Maxi's expression hardened, as did his grip on his M16.
James looked up. "What do you think Crazy?"
Crazy-Eyes had been leaning on the balcony, apparently not listening. He turned, slowly, and sighed deeply.
"We don't know about Peaktop's situation," he began. "They have survivors, but they could be surrounded on all sides by zombies. We're not even entirely sure what they're requesting- and there's too many of us to risk an exodus. We'd be ambushed for definite."
"But you're the one who wanted to go in the first place," Ben protested, "before you even knew about the soldiers there-"
"You've got a wife out there. Right?"
Ben paused, then nodded. "Yes..."
"And you think she's still alive?"
His answer was immediate. "Yes."
"Then do you want to risk this without knowing all the facts? We've got no transport. We would die on foot-"
"Hah, actually, you do got transport."
Everyone turned to the opposite end of the lobby- to the west wing's stairs, where Chris was staggering down with a dopey grin.
"Huge fuck-off bus down Echoes Avenue," he said happily. "A double-decker. Looked like it worked to me. Not many dents."
Farrow's eyes goggled. "Is that the morphine bottle?"
"Bastard's popping every pill we've got," Green's jaw flopped open.
"Hehhh," Chris wheezed, "just helps concerny-ration. Yeah. Ration. Thing. Fuckin'."
"You bastard," said Edwin.
"You bastard," said James.
It was a sentiment shared by everyone present. Chris just grinned at them, saliva dripping from the corner of his leering mouth.
"Don't thank me, heh," he slurred. "Just big life saving bastard bus. Bastard bus."
"It'll be broken down," Tobias said.
"But what it isn't?" Maxi murmured.
"Every other car our supply teams have come across has been crippled," Crazy-Eyes explained. "This won't be any different."
"Get right here now," Farrow snarled at the addict, who appeared to be waltzing along the balcony.
"Yeah, or we'll come up and get you ourselves," Green growled. "That stuff's meant for Steve when we find out what's wrong with him."
"Gah, he's fiiiine," Chris rolled his eyes. "Saw, saw, saw him standing up, looking out window. He's good."
"What?" said Edwin. "He's up?"
"It ain't me!"
They turned. Steve, wide awake, was hurriedly throwing himself between the front door's criss-crossing obstructions.
"Steve?" Red squinted at him. "How'd you get out there?"
"I've been out there for days," Steve panted, "it ain't me in there!"
Farrow blinked and, above him, Chris chuckled and started twirling in circles. "You what?"
"Then who is it?" Badger went up to the man. He certainly looked like Steve...
"It's an it, all right," Steve grunted. "You don't know what those things can do-"
But they did. Already, they could smell burning wood, and hear the crash of cracking masonry.
Everyone was armed- it was the done thing. City Hall was undoubtedly the safest place in the godforsaken metropolis, but that didn't mean much- when you ate, slept, or even washed... you kept your gun to hand.
And that's why- when shrieking, howling abominations began pouring through the windows- some people lived.
Instinct took over, and Ivo drew and fired twice in quick succession- heads popped like rancid melons, showering festering brain matter and shards of skull like fleshy grenades. Later he'd obsess over using his dwindling ammunition, but right now he was too busy trying to survive.
Someone beside him went under in a pile of clawing limbs, screaming in bloody agony- he shot the fastie tearing at the man's face
Farrow and Badger co-operated- through some unspoken measure- and managed to down a fastie that had come dangerously close to them, despite lacking high calibre weaponry.
People were shouting, swearing, and firing near-blindly at the windows, sending the few remaining shards of glass flying in an effort to take down the climbing foes before they gained entry.
The walls of the lobby split asunder, and a pair of towering beasts stepped through. One hulk- so rotten that it looked like a cutlery set embedded in bright red play dough- picked up the closet object to hand and hurled it at the scattering survivors.
The improvised projectile turned out to be a shambly, and the impact broke both its legs; unperturbed, it began crawling towards the fresh meat.
Zombies, moving with startling speed- pulled themselves through the splintered openings- the holes were living masses of shamblies, with the occasional fastie eagerly clambering over the writhing ramp formed by its undead fellows.
"Fall back to the east wing!" Crazy roared, "There's too many! Don't waste your ammunition-"
The east wing- with a sense of macabre convenience- chose that moment to explode. A fireball roared down the corridor, eating up the staircase, crumbling it into ashy matchsticks. Crazy-Eyes saw people fly backwards- some of them alight- and knew that, come the aftermath, there'd be many who wouldn't be there to clean up.
"So what now?" James panted- still firing at the approaching undead despite the advised ceasefire.
"Seems obvious to me," Red muttered, shoving the man in the opposite direction.
There was an echoic scream, and a flaming, levitating pyromaniac emerged from the smouldering remains of the Hall- a male version of what Maxi had dubbed the "Pyrobitch". The Finn also claimed this new discovery- realising the threat the freak posed in the tinder-dry Hall, Maxi sent a grenade spiralling into its chest.
"Ha, fuck yes," Chris giggled, falling onto the balcony and kicking his legs gleefully.
In the shower of hot, caramelised flesh that followed, Crazy mutely ordered everyone to move to the west wing, not bothering to compete with the constant, unauthorised gunfire.
"No!" Steve dived after the procession, even as he fired over his shoulder at the legless shambly that had come too close for comfort, "the thing is in there! I've seen what it can do-"
And then they all saw what "it" could do. The door behind Chris's squatting, sniggering form disintegrated into microscopic chunks- and Steve's doppelganger leapt for the drug-crazed hippy.
It looked like Steve- the line of the nose, the position of the eyes- but there, the similarity ended. The eyes were so bloodshot that they literally pulsed red, the mouth was twisted open in a perpetual, blood-trickling sneer, and its hands were useless flaccid wads of muscle- shredded by the sharp, foot-long protrusions of bone that now obtruded from them.
It trod heavily on Chris's neck, and then began stabbing at his arms and chest. It moved like a puppet- as if it wore the appearance of Steve like a limp outer skin, with only some unseen innards holding the whole thing steady... but Chris, in the space of a second, was a hacked mess.
Shotguns, pistols, rifles- all were discharged in its direction. It flew backwards in the hail of bullets but regained its footing almost instantly- yet the next volley must have shredded a vital of the chameleonic zombie, because it fell and lay still.
To the jubilant, eager cries of the shamblies, the hole widened further as a hulk ponderously smashed its arms forward as one fist- and the effect was like a dam breaking. The shamblies poured over each other, reaching towards the living eagerly- and the hulks, pressing against the horde, crushed the lesser undead underfoot.
"Get in! Quickly!" Crazy skipped the stairs altogether, leaping up and hauling himself bodily over the banisters to reach the west wing's balcony.
Everyone was panicking- but on hearing the voice of authority, the survivors ran up the stairs in a rapid-moving human river- in the chaos, some good Samaritans dragged up Chris's bleeding body and took him with them.
Crazy's guts lurched nauseously as he saw that someone had lived through the destruction of the east wing- a man rose to his feet from the wreckage, and Crazy recognised him as the man they'd called Vegetables, ever since Feath had learnt he was a farmer. No one had known him well- but he stumbled, staggering drunkenly towards the fleeing inhabitants, and a fastie latched onto his back, sticking bony thumbs into his neck and biting with broken teeth. Crazy shot it, although he knew it was too late.
"Everyone in," Maxi panted, and Crazy-Eyes saw that Tobias was with him, taking pot-shots at the creatures as they began tearing the core barricade to pieces with alarming rapidity. "What we do?"
"We need to collapse these stairs," Crazy said flatly. "You've still got a grenade?"
"Yeah, still grenade..."
"Then use it. It might buy us enough time to plan something."
Beneath them, the first shambly approached the stairs- only for them to fall forward and crush the creature. Disconsolately, the other zombies milled around aimlessly- or, more accurately, without apparent aim.
Outside, a little girl wiped her eyes on the tentacle of a plush octopus, and vanished into the night.
Crazy-Eyes halted in mid step, and looked around.
He stood still for a few moments, straining to hear.
Nothing. He started walking again.
He spun round, frowning.
"Oh, uh, it's the doppelganger," someone said apologetically.
Crazy spun in the opposite direction, and glared at Edwin. "What?"
The Hall's only surviving janitor winced under the burning gaze. "Eh... it's not dead. It's walking around in the lobby and shouting."
"Self narration seems to be one of its habits," Ben added.
"KILL!" said the doppelganger.
Crazy-Eyes frowned at the doubly-reinforced doorway, and then at the pair of survivors. "Right. Now get back down there- they might have enough brains to assault the other end of the Hall."
The two nodded and scurried off.
"Oh, shut up," Crazy muttered. He didn't mutter it at all loudly- they were all taking pains not to advertise their presence to the creatures behind the broken staircase and its blocked door- but it seemed, to Crazy, that it was a huge design flaw for a zombie variety that favoured stealth to feel the need to scream at the top of its decaying lungs.
No doubt it was stumbling around there, waving its spiky arms, still maintaining Steve's bloodied façade and hoping for another kill.
Not that Chris had died- against all odds, the man still lived. That said, he'd been lucky- his wounds, while horrific, had missed his heart and arteries- and he had been on such a potent chemical cocktail that it was a wonder he could feel anything. Powerful coagulants and painkillers flowed through his heroine-craving veins, and his drug-fuelled willpower kept him going.
Which, as many survivors whispered amongst themselves, wasn't a good thing. Chris certainly wasn't the most popular of the Hall's inmates.
"KILL!" suggested the doppelganger.
Sighing, knowing things could only get worse, Crazy made his way back to the dormitory.
"Can the burnzies fly?" James asked.
"Uh, burnzies?" Tobias made a face.
"It's what we're calling them now. 'Pyrobitch' doesn't really work when some are men. But it was a good name," James added, remembering Maxi's looming presence.
"Yah," said Maxi.
"Whatever." Tobias rolled his eyes. "But we don't know about flying- we've never seen them float more than a foot above the ground. There can't be any close to hand, otherwise they'd have burnt their way through the doors and attacked us."
"Unless they're holding off for something else," Ivo muttered darkly.
"Oh, yeah," Green guffawed, "they're real tacticians, these zombies."
"They planned the lobby attack pretty well," Farrow reminded him. "It was a close call."
"Ah, the whole thing's a close call. All this supernatural shit is just getting to me."
"Supernatural?" James scratched at his nose absently. "How's it supernatural?"
"Are you kidding? There's no way you can claim this is because of some atmospheric phenomena or angry fucking monkeys. We've got flying fiery bastards and Steve look-a-likes."
"That could've been a coincidence..."
"Like hell it could've. It was a Steve clone with a dagger growing out of each hand."
"Gonna get the bus then."
They turned- and saw Chris. He was grinning stupidly, dozily swaying on the spot, his whole body wrapped in greying, blood-spattered bandages. He looked like the world's only hippy mummy.
"Bus," he repeated, still smiling inanely.
"What the hell are you doing up?" Farrow stood up himself, prepared to lose his seat to the Hall's numerous chair-scavenging jerks in order to face Chris.
"Yeah, we hoped you were dead," Green growled.
"Nah, but we will be. We will be. We need the bus, man. BUSSS MAN! I ALWAYS KNEW YOU WOULD GO... INTO BUSSSS MAN!"
Chris staggered off back to the infirmary, still singing. They didn't care if he stayed in the hospice's vicinity, as all its remaining supplies had been stashed elsewhere. As for the scalpels- if he decided to cut himself, they really wouldn't bat an eyelid.
Farrow turned to sit back down, shaking his head sadly- but someone had already made off with his chair. He grumbled something incoherent and settled for leaning over the table.
"If that bus is in one piece," James mused, "it might be worth going to. I think he's got a point."
"He's a moron, and he's talking crap," Farrow muttered. "As long as the Hall holds out, we're safe. Going outside right now would be suicide."
"But how long will it hold out?" Ivo sighed, and stalked off.
Green watched him go, and then snorted once he was out of earshot. "Hah! Pretentious overcoat-wearing asshole."
James was aghast. "What?"
"You heard me. Sick of his attitude. Total poser... big trailing coat? You're begging for a zombie to grab it and eat your face. And don't get me started on Simon, always wearing sunglasses and a damn girlie ponytail. No offence."
"None taken," said Simon. Food tray in his hands, he walked past to find a less hostile table.
"Your attitude is getting to me," Farrow snapped. "Do us all a favour and be more optimistic."
"Well, there's every chance Chris'll overdose soon."
"Oh, yeah. That'll be a day to cherish."
A distant, almost imperceptible voice shouted "DIE!", and they all swore at it.
Sleeping in the Hall was not a popular pastime. It was utterly necessary, of course, but even the most hardened survivor never really got used to their situation.
People ate to refuel, they slept to recharge. Relaxation just never happened- especially since Crazy had exploded on finding that the group had been using the generator for frivolous activities like playing Killfest 3000 or watching Jubbly Jugglers 4, courtesy of skiving office workers and, respectively, a perverted Mayor.
Even before the appearance of screaming Steve-clones, people would wake in the night, disturbed by something they had no wish to identify.
This was one of those moments. James rolled off his bed, blinking furiously, part irritated, part terrified by what he'd heard. A dull, almost organic sound, a strangely soft pop that still lingered in his ears.
He wasn't the only one- others were stirring, others were throwing themselves out of the sea of mattresses that dominated the so-called dormitory.
"You heard it too?" James asked an indistinct shadow, not sure himself why he was whispering.
And then they got the opportunity to hear it again. Harsher this time, closer, and they would all swear later that the Hall itself shook a little- it sounded like an explosion but it still had that kind of bubbling, organic quality.
"Hit the lights!" someone ordered.
There were brief footsteps and the sound of a hand fumbling for a switch, and then light returned to the dormitory. There were only three intact bulbs on the ceiling for the whole of the former audience hall, but they were enough to pick out choice details of the improvised residence, bringing those still stubbornly clinging to sleep back to wakefulness.
The windows were boarded up thoroughly- just as Londoners had blacked their windows to evade the bombs of the Blitz, the survivors hid their lights to avoid the outbreak of walking dead. A handful of people were pressing their faces against the boards to peer at the outside world through tiny cracks- and James thought this was pretty inadvisable, considering the zombies' love of smashing through things.
The door slammed open and Red breathlessly scanned the chamber, rifle following his gaze. Seeing nothing that posed a threat, he lowered the weapon, looking slightly nonplussed.
"We heard it come from here," he said by way of explanation, looking about himself in guilty confusion. Behind him, his fellow guard- Feath, on this occasion- looked similarly baffled.
"I reckoned it was closer to the remains of the east wing, myself." Badger yawned, swapping a threadbare blanket for his jacket. "God knows what it is, mind."
"He probably does," Farrow held his crucifix and twirled it in his fingers, "but he's not been talkative recently."
"Man, I wish that thing would die already."
There was a third blast- and the Hall lurched. The reverberating, almost flatulent detonation rippled throughout the building, causing a brief but forceful shower of debris from the long-abused rafters. The light bulbs flickered and died, and one or two fell to the floor, smashing so cacophonously that the place was soon bristling with weaponry recovered from shelves and from beneath pillows.
"The generator just copped out..."
"The basement. They've got the basement..."
"Shit," said Edwin, the only voice James managed to pick out in the dark.
And then the walls blew apart, assaulting the nose and ears like so many tons of fertiliser-filled firecrackers.
A part of James he despised muttered "told you so" as people picked themselves up, no doubt wishing they'd kept away from the windows as both Crazy-Eyes and common sense had dictated.
Then they saw the hulk. And yet they held their fire, because it was so unfamiliar- while a hulk was but a normal person bulked up by the posthumous equivalent of steroids, the creature shuffling and croaking towards them was the most freakish tank zombie they'd ever seen.
A tall, stooped shape, its flesh and skin was so malformed that in places it clung like elastic while in others it drooped in waves of blubber. The face was a burnzie-esque skull, as James might've put it, but the rest of the body was bloated, unseen innards shifting and squidging beneath the dermis. What James had first taken for ragged clothing or perhaps tentacles turned out to be bare intestines- a sickening, garish mass that leaked unspeakable liquids on the grass as the thing lumbered towards the wall's opening.
Then it exploded. The first, most widespread reaction was that Maxi had launched another of his ever-dwindling grenades, but then James put two and two together and realised that Ivo had taken it down with a well placed shot.
"A suicide bomb zombie?" Farrow picked balloon-like scraps of hide from his clothes. "This just gets better and better-"
Red screamed something, Feath shouted incoherently, and then there were rending noises.
Something had managed to overcome the collapsed stairway.
There was a lot of blood- there was always a lot of blood.
There was a lot of death, a lot of swearing, a lot of screaming.
But somehow some escaped- it was a mad press of bodies, a writhing mass of sweating flesh, fighting against each other as the slashing menace dove amongst them.
Later there were questions, later people would realise that some of their own had died in the resultant fire fight, but the end result was a sprawling killing field with an increasingly minute array of breathless survivors.
"We're leaving for the bus," Green said flatly. "They got Red, you want to be next?"
"I'm not dead," said Red.
"I don't want to go the way he did," agreed James.
"Fuck you," said Red, who coughed up more blood, and then promptly lost consciousness.
"We don't even know if it's real," Edwin pointed out. "I mean, that addict bloke doesn't seem the most reliable-"
"It does exist," Maxi sighed. "We see it ourself. Question is- it work?"
"No, the question is 'is it safer than this place', and the answer is hell yes," Farrow wiped a hand across his eyes. "Face it, the Hall is a ruin now."
"Peaktop is our best bet", came the general consensus.
"We need to think this through," Crazy-Eyes sighed. "We can't just go out, there'll be more of those exploding bastards, more shamblies, maybe even more of those... things."
The doppelganger, which was apparently still not dead, was flung several feet off the floor as every survivor pivoted and emptied their barrels at it. When it landed, it was in several dozen separate pieces.
Badger shuddered. "God damn, that thing just wouldn't die, would it?"
James earned some very angry glances.
"Sorry," he apologised guiltily, "that was in bad taste, I'll admit it."
"Enough already," Green snarled, "I'm heading to the basement. We've got a generator there, a little petrol, a few supplies- we can get to the bus, start it up, drive to Peaktop-"
There was another explosion from far beneath them.
"I think they've been blowing the place up," Feath wheezed. He was alive, and in better nick than Red, but he was still wounded.
"I don't care. We've got to do something!"
Outside, a little girl nodded at Crazy.
He gave her the finger, and stalked off.
"You've got to be fucking kidding."
Feath froze, and then turned around. To his amazement, it was actually Crazy-Eyes rattling off the expletives. He couldn't ever recall hearing the man swear before.
"We're battling for our lives," he continued in a growl, "and you're moving shit around."
"It's not shit," James protested, "we can use all this."
Crazy shoved one of the trolleys- it rolled across the floor, threatening to fall over before a group of survivors rushed over and grabbed it. "Use it? The damn generator is older than you are, we've nearly ran out of petrol for it... and you're taking it with you instead of supplies! Oh, you can't be serious-"
Edwin shifted uncomfortably. "I thought we could use them-"
"Two PCs? Where could we use them? Are you people insane?!"
The former Hall janitor sidled away from the hardware-piled trolley as if to distance himself from the decision to save it.
"And do I see Farrow with an armful of porn DVDs?"
"No," said Farrow, shoving something into his jacket.
"People are fucking dying," Crazy-Eyes snarled, "and you're treating it like a game. We've got no ammunition left, we've got no time for-"
"What do you mean no ammunition?" James gasped.
Crazy-Eyes sighed. "The armoury is almost depleted. We've always had to ration it, but we-"
"Oh, leave it out," Green snapped. "Don't worry about that shit. We just need to go... now. And don't look at me like that- we're not trying to undermine you, we're not trying to cause a split, we're just trying to save ourselves from a fucking huge horde of zombies."
"Exactly," Ivo pounced on this point, and Crazy was distinctly grateful for it. "The moment we set foot outside, they'll be on us. We wouldn't last a minute."
"Actually," Badger volunteered, "I haven't seen any sign of them. They've moved on again."
"Exactly," Green continued, mockingly adopting Ivo's gruff tone, "they're dumbass flesh-dripping rotting bastards. They've no brains to plan things."
"So this is it then," Crazy-Eye's sighed. "You're just going to run outside with your trolleys full of shite, and hope for the best."
Ben swallowed. "Aren't you coming?"
"Of course I'm coming," Crazy snapped, slightly more harshly than he'd intended. "It'd be suicide to stay here alone, even more than running for this damn bus."
"Told you so," said Chris.
"Ah damn," Farrow grimaced. "I thought he'd had had the dignity to die."
"No luck, man," Chris grinned. He looked near-skeletal, worn down to his last layer of skin by fatigue and generic hardship. "Wouldn't miss this for the world- you're going to have to admit that I was right, man. Yeeaahhh."
"Just shut up."
"We all right," Maxi announced, popping his head through the twice-ruined wall. "It all clear Hall outside."
"But none of you are prepared," Crazy persisted.
"What, you suggest we wait?" Green snorted. "What for? Seriously, what can we do except get to this bus and go to Peaktop? You saw yourself- the basement is in pieces. The attic'll get flooded with fasties, or we'll get burned from the ground up by those burnzie bastards."
"And what do we do if this bus of yours doesn't work out?"
"Then we die. What else can we do?"
"No talking- just run."
It was audacious, it was stupid- and yet, it was going to work. It had to work.
Dawn was still an hour away, and the shambling hordes were forever visible- but they were slow. Ponderous. Not a threat.
They shot at them anyway, if only for the psychological benefit.
Fasties howled in a distance- and that's why the survivors ran. A fast zombie was more than capable of slaughtering the lot of them if it got close enough. It was dark, the road was a relatively confined space- a lone fastie would be a one-freak-massacre.
They ran from the hall, down the antique cobblestones, past the abandoned sports cars that marked this upper-class portion of town, vaulting over overturned trashcans that had been raided by a dozen different scavengers. A zombie lurched out of an alleyway, blundering between the fences of two quaint little homes- a passing survivor shot it without thinking.
And then they were there- the town centre. A huge but deserted courtyard, dominated by an elegant fountain that had, regrettably, been crushed by an out-of-control Porsche. Skewered atop the once-magnificent centrepiece, the shattered car looked like some awful modern sculpture.
"There's the bus!" someone shouted.
Someone died- again. People were bound to die, but it shocked Crazy when it happened; a fastie pounced from nowhere, instantly removing the jugular of some unfortunate in a spray of sinew and blood. It was shredded by gunfire amidst the terrified shrieking, but it had found its mark.
"Get to the bus!" Maxi roared unnecessarily- but he was a soldier, and bellowed orders comforted him.
They poured over the fountain, splashing through the inch-deep wastewater in order to avoid the lingering shadows at the courtyard's edge. A fastie howled for the umpteenth time, but it was even more distant. Perhaps they didn't know where they were...
The bus, a colossal double-decker, had smashed a lamppost aside and mounted the curb- but it seemed to be in relatively good nick. Chris, who was staggering around fuelled purely by adrenaline and mind-bending chemicals, had been right. The addict giggled as people pushed past him, apparently happy to be proven correct for once.
"It's not over," Crazy warned, "nowhere near over! We have to stand guard and see if it even works! Don't get your hopes up-"
The bus shuddered into life. The engine was cacophonous, belching smoke, but it ran. A lone headlamp flared up- the other was smeared across the grill- and the astonished onlookers were blinded.
"I've been waiting for you idiots," someone barked irritably, "get inside!"
Crazy-Eyes knew all about the voice of command: if you sounded like you knew what you were doing, well, people assumed that you actually did, that you weren't just bluffing and taking lives into your hands. Confident bullshit-spouting could pass for leadership any day of the week.
It had served him well, but now it had turned on him: the bus driver had the voice of command. He sounded so sure of everything that people just... did what he said, Crazy included. Even the damn fasties seemed wary of him and his chugging behemoth of a bus, howling impotently in the distance instead of closing the gap and tearing them all limb from limb.
"Get in," the driver roared. And people got in. They fought to get in, spurred on by the apparently furious man at the wheel and the baying hordes outside.
"Bloody hell," someone screeched in an unmanly manner- it was probably James. "There's a zombie at the window-!"
The driver, without taking his eyes from the survivors scrambling up the bus's step, fired over his shoulder with a pistol. The face at the window- which had been harmlessly licking the glass with a gunky, bloodied tongue- splattered along with the glass.
"Get in," the driver repeated through clenched teeth. James didn't hesitate in running, pell-mell, as far down the bus as he could.
Feeling remarkably petty, Edwin and Farrow manhandled one of the trolleys onboard, but if the driver noticed he didn't comment. He just kept motioning people inside, smouldering with generic, undirected rage.
As the bus filled, literally rocking under the pedestrian traffic and its violent engine, the driver mutely ordered people upstairs with a gesture. They trailed up the stairs, clanking all the way.
Crazy, who had waited for the rest of his terrified group to swamp inside, stepped aboard.
The driver, bizarrely, broke into a grin. "Hang on, Mack."
The bus gave a roar, like some unchained demonic entity, and lurched backward. It rose into the air, and Crazy knew that the madman had just crushed a fire hydrant and at least two zombies. He also knew that half of his entourage had fallen out of their seats, sprinkling profanities.
The bus spun on the spot, rubber smoking and engine choking, and then leapt forward, accelerating at an alarming rate, headlights turning the black road into a polka-dotted frieze of unsteady light.
Crazy, not yet prepared to take a seat, grabbed a rusty handrail: doing as he'd been told, he hung on for dear life. He couldn't help noticing that the driver's cab- stripped bare, it seemed, by time and scavengers- still bore a "maximum passengers: 65 seated, 38 standing" sign. However, someone had scrawled a tally beneath it: it was at number twenty-one.
The driver, grinning into the night, was a large man, shaven headed, tattooed, and heavy-set. As Crazy watched, he added two more marks to the tally board, rounding off another group of five.
"Damn zombies," the driver shook his head. "I'm Pye. You must be Crazy-Eyes, right?"
Crazy just nodded.
"Great. Heard about your little group," he shouted over the clanking engine, "from some bloke called Timothy. You know him?"
Crazy could only half-shrug, half-nod. He could barely remember how many people had come to the Hall and how many had left on expeditions, never to return. Pye didn't seem to mind the uncertainty, and just gave his own one-armed shrug in response, as if to say "oh well".
"Told you the bus was going," Chris said suddenly. He'd swung his way over to the front, lurching from rail to rail. "I mean coming. Heheh, coming."
Crazy frowned at the two. "How did he know about you? And what-?"
"He's my psychic twin, what do you think?" Pye made a face. "How am I meant to know? Ask him yourself. I just parked at the courtyard a week back, waiting for you guys to get a move on."
"Why wait for us?"
"Hey, I can't risk going to Peaktop alone, Mack. I need someone to cover me- and hell, I can't just leave people behind. The Hall had lights on sometimes, I knew someone was in there- and it wasn't that hard to sit tight, because they must've thought the bus was empty-"
"Heheh," said Chris.
"Can I hit him?" Pye asked politely.
"If he doesn't shut up within five minutes, go ahead," Crazy responded kindly.
Chris snorted, and stumbled away, still giggling at his own joke.
The buildings were already thinning out as they roared away from the city centre- but the traffic wasn't. There were forsaken cars aplenty on the main road- the bus smashed past one, nearly tearing it in half, and there were rattles aplenty as the trolleys and the survivors fell about noisily.
With a few rhythmic bumps, Edwin fell down the stairs with a muffled "ow." Crazy could hear Dalamari and Feath laughing at him.
"You say you're going to Peaktop?" Crazy-Eyes asked cautiously.
"Yeah. Aren't you?"
"Yes- but why-?"
"Same reason as you guys, then!" Pye shrugged, taking both hands off the wheel for a moment. "It's a military base- you think of anywhere safer than that, man? I spent days at the depot thinking 'what do I do'? And then it hit me! Peaktop! So I grabbed this here bus and crashed my way into that fountain of yours, looking for other survivors. This Timothy guy comes along, tells me about the Hall, and so we haul up and wait it out. We knew you'd come sooner or later!"
"Where's Tim now?"
"Uh..." Pye shifted uncomfortably- but it may have been down to his near-skeletal seat rather than his guilt. "I think he was the zombie I just shot in the face a few minutes back. He went missing a few days ago. Sorry... I..."
"It's alright. I didn't know him. I don't really know anybody, to tell the truth."
"If you're going to Peaktop," Crazy heard Ben shout suddenly, "you're going the wrong way! I looked at a map and-"
"Relax, Paddy." Pye waved a lazy hand. "I'm taking a shortcut- the highway is full to bursting with rotting cars. We'll have to take a few sliproads, but we'll get there."
Crazy looked outside- he could still see the orange embers of the Hall rising into the night, smoke colliding with cloud as the sun slowly started to make its presence known. All they had to show for weeks of resistance were a few trolleys of equipment, meagre bags of supplies and the mayor's salvaged porn collection. And three dozen loud, boorish survivors with little or no common sense...
"This is Dr Dodds!" said a voice from nowhere. "Repeat, do not come to Peaktop! Repeat: do not come to-"
Pye irritably smashed a fist into his dashboard. The radio clicked and went silent.
"Damn thing keeps doing that." He grinned roguishly, and then saw Crazy's expression. "What?"
Pye was a picture of innocence. Crazy was just staring.
No one else had heard it; no one else had been witness to Dr Dodds's bizarre warning. But it was undoubtedly a warning. It was undoubtedly a plea, a stranger begging them to stay clear of Peaktop.
"Look, it's just some whacko," Pye told him in a surreptitious undertone: Crazy-Eyes had to strain his sane-ears to hear the man over the engine. "Keeps going on and on about keeping clear of the place. But I can't talk to him: I just pick up his transmissions. I keep the thing on in case we hear from the outside world... but so far?" Pye grimaced. "Just been that nutcase. God knows what he means."
"It seems pretty obvious to me what he means," Crazy frowned.
Pye sighed. "What, you think it's overrun with zombies? A huge military installation like that? Give me a break. It's just some idiot who wants to screw with us."
"Don't talk like that." Pye gave him a look. "If Peaktop was full of soldiers still, don't you think we'd have seen something of them?"
"Hey, maybe we would if they actually knew the city wasn't just a zombie pit. Think about it: if all they see are those running freaks swarming all over the place, are they going to risk their men on a search?"
"We call them fasties," Crazy explained.
"Never mind. Listen, I should maybe mention- we did make contact with Peaktop. They were saying that-"
"Fasties! Loads of fasties!"
The interruptions were numerous and profane- and then there was the unmistakable howl of the sprinting zombie variety, followed by the barking of guns and the tinkling of smashing glass.
"Don't waste your ammo!" Crazy shouted. "They won't be able to keep up-"
"Shoot them all down, people!" Pye bellowed over him. "I'm going through the side roads- and this hunk of junk don't turn quickly!"
As if to emphasise his point, Pye sent the bus hurtling round the corner- it crested the pavement, claimed the life of an innocent lamppost, and came near to toppling.
More gunshots, more caterwauling from both humans and their undead pursuers.
"Open the windows if you can!" Pye berated them, "It'll get damn drafty at night otherwise, I don't want you breaking 'em..."
On the top floor- which was practically a wind tunnel already thanks to the numerous gaping reminders of Pye's driving manner- Maxi and Corporal Tobias were rushing towards the rear.
Ivo was already there, leaning through a particularly large lesion in the metal. Calmly picking off choice targets with his .44, his miniature cannon splattered the rotten enemy across the landscape.
"Good, backup," he said, as if only just noticing the two large soldiers, "you guys ever fired from a moving vehicle?"
"Hah," Maxi grinned, taking aim with his M16. "I move born on the practically!"
"He means, 'damn right, now leave it to the professionals'." Tobias dispensed this translation with a sly smile.
A particularly large fastie clambered up a gutter pipe, somersaulted off a window ledge, and came towards them, all grasping talons and blood-leaking lips-
-and was split into twenty-seven pieces of festering flesh by a swarm of rifle rounds.
"Hey, Dal!" Feath yelled over the huddle of survivors struggling to take a place at the back window. "Keep an eye on the sides!"
"What? Oh... yeah. Right!" Dalamari checked his magazine and then slid to his knees, muzzle thrust through a broken window. "Got you!"
He thought he'd been given a break, a rest from the usual chaos of defence- and thus he was so shocked when a fastie head butted the glass aside that he shot it in the face, barely registering its existence.
"Can't you drive a little better?" Crazy-Eyes snarled back upfront.
"Hey, I'm going so fast that by the time I see something, I've already ran it over and got sworn at because of it!" Pye grunted something rude. "You suggesting I slow down?"
More howling. Angrier, louder- and closer.
"Hell no," Crazy shook his head. "Step on it!"
Pye grinned again. "Sensible guy. I like you."
"I'd like you a lot more if you actually had a plan."
"I've got one- we get to Peaktop before we're eaten alive. I've got a lot of fuel canisters shoved in the luggage department- and if we run out, meh, we can find a gas station."
"You got any weapons?"
"Other than the sledgehammer under my seat? Nah."
"Don't ask." Pye put half a dozen extra marks on the tally, and then turned his attentions back to the gradually emptying road.
The bus roared on.
"I don't know what I expected," Ben admitted.
They watched the meadows roll past.
"Neither do I," James responded agreeably.
More meadows rolled past.
The survivors had got past the "school trip" mentality- and while that meant an end to obnoxious yelling and chanting, it meant a return to the angst-ridden, depressing reality of their situation.
The supply boxes and the equipment trolleys rattled alongside Pye's massed fuel reserves, and the sloshing, rattling cargo ensured that few of the passengers had any leg room.
"I don't know," Ben continued, "zombie cows. Something. It's all so... so..."
"Empty?" James offered.
"Yeah. Empty. Somehow that's more depressing-"
"Than hordes of rotting farmers? Give me a break." Green rolled his eyes, and pretended to go back to sleep. Not that anyone could possibly sleep with a computer monitor pressed under their knees, but he made the effort.
"Hey, there's a tractor over there!" Dalamari nodded out the window.
"Don't see anyone near it," Farrow added realistically, if a touch cynically.
"I don't mean survivors- it's another vehicle! A spare! I should go tell-"
"It'll be so slow a damn hulk could chase us," Badger managed to dissuade him. "And it'll be no fun driving slowly down country roads if there aren't any commuters to block."
Sunlight had began to creep over the grassy expanses, and it looked quaint, perhaps even welcoming- but, excepting Dalamari's tractor sighting, it was deserted. There weren't even signs of a struggle: no broken fences, no muddy tears in the earth, no suspicious blood splatters on the fields.
"It's quiet," Pye murmured, despite the efforts of the bus's engine to prove him wrong.
"So it'll be a good time for us to have a little word," Crazy-Eyes replied calmly.
"If you say so. There's a sign behind me, you know," Pye grinned. " 'Do not talk to the driver without good cause'- "
"This is a good cause," Crazy said humourlessly. "You're saying we should go to Peaktop despite this Doctor trying to advise us otherwise..."
"We don't know who he is. Why should we listen to him?"
"Why would he lie? Why would he turn us away when we could save him?"
"Might be a government type," Pye grimaced. "Trying to cover up their mistakes."
"I don't think there's even a government left, now. You're too suspicious."
"I'm just suspicious of complete strangers telling me what to do," Pye hissed meaningfully. "You disagree? Get the hell off my bus."
There was a click.
"You know," Crazy said levelly, "if I was a certain kind of person, I could shoot you here and now, and my group would be free to make their own choices."
The driver looked up the barrel of a revolver. "And if I was a certain kind of person, I could plough this hunk of junk into that big tree. We'll go to Peaktop and see what happens." Pye matched Crazy's famous stare. "And that's final."
Crazy, his expression bitter, holstered his gun.
The man had a point. But Crazy-Eyes resolved, there and then, not to mention the Peaktop soldiers requesting all civilians to head their way. He needed Pye to keep an open mind: if the driver knew Peaktop was definitely habited, he'd close his opinions to the issue and they'd never be able to keep him away from the place. For now, it was best to agree with him: they could check Peaktop out from a distance, and then approach if it was safe. And only if it was safe.
"There's a service station up ahead," Pye said conciliatorily. "I bet we can all agree to give that a look. We could do with stocking up."
"Sure," Crazy accepted that proposal. "We can agree to that."
"We'll need the supplies," Pye continued. "Because, if I'm right, and the highway is clogged up, we may have to continue on foot."
From this distance the highway looked like a fence- like a homely white picket stretching across the horizon.
But in actuality the pale mass of concrete towered over the landscape, dwarfing the industrial estates that had leaked from the city as the roadways grew. The surrounding chimneys didn't smoke; there wasn't a blur of coloured specks atop the asphalt; and there weren't any police pursuit helicopters filming "When Good Motorists Go Mad 7", and that was practically synonymous with the city's most congested routes.
There were vehicles on the highway, but not an impenetrable mass of abandoned traffic- they couldn't be sure, of course, but it wasn't half as bad as Pye had expected.
"Not half as bad as I expected," said Pye.
"Good," Crazy muttered. He saw the service station: as promised the complex was positioned beside the sloping ramp that merged the road with the highway.
Standing up- as he'd eventually sat down despite his better judgement- Crazy-Eyes turned to address the group, which had lapsed into another fatigued silence.
"We're stopping at the station to check up on supplies," he began. "We're low on medicals in particular, and several of us really need them-"
"I'm fine," Red said stiffly, still stuck in a blood-stained sheath of bandages.
"I think Chris is dead," said Feath, his own arm in a stringy sling.
"No I'm not," said a lump that looked like a mummified beatnik.
"-and so," Crazy continued more loudly, "we're going to park ourselves there and split into groups. Big groups. Some can guard the bus, and the rest of us can have a look for anything useful."
"Yeah," Pye agreed, making the bellowing Crazy-Eyes sound meek, "the service station has a lot of stuff. Cinema'll be useless to us, for example, but we can get as much as we can from the supermarket and the petrol stands."
"Right," Edwin nodded.
Crazy-Eyes gave him another edgy look. "You don't sound convinced."
"Well..." Edwin squirmed under the attention of his peers. "We could just stay there, for example, instead of heading to Peaktop..."
There was a group mutter that either translated into consent, ambivalence, or possibly "what did he say? The damn engine is too loud".
"He's got a point," Badger nodded. Apparently his muttering had fallen into the former category.
"Bleh," murmured Chris, who fell into a unique hallucinatory category all of his own.
"Yes, he has a point," Crazy-Eyes sighed, "and it's one we'll investigate. There's not a lot else we can do until we know what-"
"Airport might be favourite," Pye interrupted, "I thought about that first, you know-"
"Like said," Maxi shouted from the second deck, "it burnt out. Empty! People's Resistance come from there."
"Does he have supernatural soldier hearing or something?" Pye shook his head in amazement, and then the actual words caught up with him. "Who the hell are the People's Resistance?"
"The two of them are tourists that also happen to be soldiers," Crazy explained testily. "They arrived at the airport, found that all hell had broken loose, and made their way to the Hall."
"Oh yeah?" Pye looked interested. "That plane of theirs will still work then..."
There were footsteps, and Tobias appeared at the bottom of the stairs. "No," he corrected sadly, "it wouldn't. It burnt up when our backs were turned. We didn't know what happened at the time, but now I reckon it was a pyrobitch that did it..."
"Burnzie," James piped up. "We decided on burnzie."
"No we didn't," said Ben.
"I think they're both dumb names myself," said Green.
Pye squinted. "What?"
"Don't ask." Crazy-Eyes gave him a sympathetic and slightly sardonic pat on his heavy shoulder. "Just keep driving and try to ignore the children."
The "Verdant Pines" station was advertised on the mile of colourful billboards that preceded it, even on this less important route. Verdant Pines was a somewhat ironic name, considering that a thousand-acre forest had given its life for the city's numerous additions over the centuries.
"There's a lot of vans and trucks," Dalamari muttered, just loud and suspicious enough for everyone to hear.
Crazy-Eyes glanced at the lay-bys and emergency stop points. "They look empty," he said flatly. "We're not going to risk stopping if we don't have to."
"We don't really have to stop at VP either," came the anonymous comeback.
"Yeah we do," Pye said cheerfully, "because all that fuel sloshing around outback is actually beer."
There was a long pause.
"Maybe," Pye replied, "maybe not. Either way, quit being such smart arses- we're stopping at the station because this is my bus, and your boss persuaded me to do it."
"Uh, I did?" This was news to Crazy-Eyes.
"He's our boss?" Chris chuckled at this, and slowly slid sideways off his seat. Farrow, without looking, just draped his jacket over him.
"We're here now," Pye announced.
Slowing, the bus veered left and entered the Verdant Pines compound. The sprawling parking space within was surprisingly barren- not even five percent of the allocated spots were filled. Bluntly, the place looked as lifeless as the surrounding countryside: the cars and vans had no doubt been empty since its outset.
Whistling, Pye parked his bus directly in front of one of the rows of gas pumps.
"Right, class," Crazy rose again. "I'm not going to pick anyone, but if I don't get volunteers I'll have to. Half of us can-"
There was a god-awful roar.
A figure stood atop the concrete giant that was the highway, head reared back, legs splayed.
It leapt. It sailed through the air, getting closer with every second, and Crazy realised just how big it was...
The hulk landed heavily, already running. Misshapen arm outstretched, it hit the bus.
The bus wobbled precariously but didn't quite topple- nevertheless, the front window shattered and the metal buckled, sending Pye and several others sprawling.
It was huge. Ten feet tall, muscles and sinew faded to a leathery grey, the skull-headed freak's arms were twisted parodies of their former selves.
Bound with barbed wire, the limbs had been warped by unmentionable powers, becoming gnarly, wood-like clubs attached to either of the thing's powerful shoulders.
Like a stony gorilla, the beast laid its outsized mutations in front of it and screamed again, sounding more like a hydroelectric dam than a person.
On the bus's step, a little girl shook her head sadly, and offered Crazy her plush octopus as consolation.
Convinced he'd gone entirely mad, he shot her.
Crazy had never shot a small child before- no matter how often crowded public areas had tempted him to do so.
It had been part instinct, part terror reflex, part insanity that had made him pull the trigger: but as far as he was concerned, those three factors were interchangeable. He'd regretted the decision the moment the revolver's retort pierced his surroundings, seeping so far into his consciousness that the crack of the bullet drowned out the roaring zombie and his panicking cohort.
And so he gradually realised he was having a severe psychotic episode.
The little girl had vanished, as he'd half expected, but he certainly hadn't foreseen everything else to go with her.
The bus was gone, the zombie was gone, all the survivors had gone... it was just Crazy-Eyes, alone in weird blackness.
And an octopus. A happy-looking, wide-eyed toy octopus. It appeared out of nowhere, squatting on a patch of nothingness that was positioned roughly where the bus's step would have been.
Then, from around the plush novelty, the ground began cracking.
This irritated Crazy, as a couple of seconds ago it had just been blackness. His hallucinations had no damn consistency. Whoever was in charge of the continuity on this production needed to be shot.
Whether he liked it or not, the ground- which was, admittedly, like glossy black glass and so it wasn't a complete departure from the oblivion it used to be- was splintering.
And things crawled out of it, so Crazy-Eyes decided it was quite a contemporary hallucination, taking into account the zombie situation and everything.
But these weren't zombies. Zombies were positively mundane, reassuringly human by comparison.
The things lurching out of the shining floor looked like the kind of abomination Lovecraft would've written about if he'd found himself sandwiched between Cthulu and a giant squid the morning after a four-year acid trip.
Some looked like stick insects contorted onto a bipedal skeleton, others were a mass of pulsating, sickeningly organic stuff splattered across angular frames that looked more like metal than bone. Others defied the imagination. It was a lazy descriptor, but accurate as no one in any frame of mind would want to envisage the things.
Crazy, however, was getting sick of this. He had also just realised he still had his pistols, even in his hallucinations: accordingly, he emptied both barrels at the closest freak. It twitched, made a suitably horrible noise, and then disappeared.
Soon afterwards the rest vanished. The toy octopus lingered for a second longer, and then it, too, popped out of existence.
Then the bus rushed back, and Crazy was staring out its door. In the distance, beside the first pump of the gas station, a little girl went behind the building and vanished.
But back in the part of the world that was actually relevant, a ten foot freak- screaming defiance and scraping at metal with its barb-edged clubs- forcibly pushed the bus over.
With an almighty clang and the tinkling of several square metres of broken glass- and the assorted screams and curses of several square metres of freaked-out men- the bus hit the concrete.
It was difficult to linger on a hallucinatory episode- no matter how disturbing it might've been- when the bus you were standing in had just been overturned by a gigantic ambulatory corpse that wore razor wire as bracelets...
Crazy-Eyes leapt into action.
However, Pye was a step or two ahead of him.
The titanic zombie squinted in confusion as a screaming bald bus driver hurtled out of the upturned vehicle at an insane vertical velocity- bringing a ten-pound sledgehammer cracking over its skull.
The blow would have shattered granite, but despite a sickening squelch and a momentary stagger the creature was still upright.
Pye responded to this by hitting it in the crotch. He used so much force that blood sprayed from its back.
It didn't have genitals, but it did appear to have an awful lot of multicoloured guts- Crazy's eyes almost watered in sympathy. Almost.
Howling, the beast swatted Pye aside like an insect- the man spiralled through the air, closely followed by his tumbling hammer. They landed heavily: one clanging, the other thudding wetly with a grunt.
Crazy aimed and fired. So did a dozen other men, pulling themselves out of the wreckage and taking aim at their largest target to date.
There was a noise that could only be described by Chung. Chung, of course, was a famous Chinese weapons expert who could have readily attributed the sound to an M16's under-barrel grenade launcher.
A second later the zombie's head exploded. It keeled over with a deafening, gurgling death cry, as if its very innards were protesting. Apparently the protest degenerated into rioting a moment later, because thick gooey sludge began pouring from the neck in a torrent. Crazy had never smelled anything so foul- and his bunk used to be beside Edwin's, back when the janitor had argued that showers were a waste of the Hall's limited supplies.
Pulling himself through the window with every sign of exertion, Ivo frowned at Maxi. "Thought you said you'd run out of grenades?"
"Lied," Maxi said simply. "Now let's who see alive, yeah?"
"Damn, that hurt," Pye wheezed loudly.
"See?" said Maxi, helping the nearby Farrow to his feet. "That the first. Good."
A muffled voice fought to be heard over the background of swearing and groans.
"Aaw, hell naw!"
"Not so good," Farrow stated in an undertone.
“Hey, what do you know?” James grinned and picked something up off the countertop. “An eyeMod. Wonder if it works…”
“I don’t think Crazy approves of those things,” Feath warned him.
“Oh, I think I remember his talk on them.” James slowly lowered it. “Doesn’t like how they distract us from, you know, more urgent noises like the zombie trying to bite you…”
“Maybe,” Feath agreed, “but I reckon he’s just a Microsoft fanboy.” He shoved a third bottle of lukewarm mineral water into a half-price rucksack and hauled it out the store.
Dalamari looked at the newsagent corner guiltily. “James…?”
“Is it right to… take stuff out for entertainment? I know we’re meant to be sticking to essential supplies and all, but I think of what’s ahead of us and-”
“Are you talking about the dirty magazines or the latest Stephen King?”
“Both, if you’ve got to know.”
James frowned, pausing in his biscuit-stealing duties. “Read the King blurb,” he suggested.
Dalamari dropped his bread crate and cleared his throat. “Let’s see- ‘Michael Heinber didn’t think that blah blah blah blah… but when he arrives at blah blah… he finds that the occupants undergo a terrifying change when it rains. They give in to… their most primal urges… and resort to cannibalism…’” He blinked at the paperback and swallowed.
“Don’t think that’s appropriate,” James stated.
“Agreed. I’ll stick to teen magazines.”
“Knowing you, you mean ‘Friend’s Chat!’ instead of anything hot.”
“Funny.” Dalamari stowed some literature away amongst his baked commodities. “Oh- don’t forget to try all the electronics while you’re over there.”
James hopped over the till and picked up the phone’s receiver- as was traditional- and was greeted with a depressing monotone. “Nope, nothing as usual- urrgh!”
Dalamari jumped. “What? What is it?”
“Oh… nothing. Just a body behind here.” James shuddered and looked away. “I think the mp3 player must have been hers…”
“You guys talking instead of working?” Feath asked breezily, stalking back inside with a now-empty backpack and immediately starting to refill it.
“I’m moving, I’m moving,” Dalamari grumbled, retrieving his bread and lurching outside.
“Nearly done,” James responded, turning away from the dead cashier. “Got a few tins of those vacuum-packed oatmeal crunches that don’t rot no matter how many weevils you chuck at them. But what I was just thinking about was medical supplies- we need anything?”
“Good thinking,” Feath jabbed a finger towards the medicine cabinets. “Guess we can clear out the pharmacy counter: just don’t let that bastard Chris see any of the drugs.”
James set about raiding the relevant shelves.
“Unless there’s something you’re not telling me, I don’t think we need any of that stuff-”
The clerk’s desk exploded into slivers of wood and plastic. She stood bolt upright, arms outstretched, eyes bleeding and face shredded by jutting splinters of bone...
…and James smashed a six-pound economy-priced tub of haemorrhoid cream over the creature’s head.
Dropping their groceries, the men sprinted across and emptied their weapons into the twitching body- one after the other, like bizarre factory workers.
Then they stood there and breathed themselves back to calmness, trying to ignore the gun smoke and the pungent chemical scent smeared across the surrounding area.
“That was just fucked up,” Feath eventually announced.
His cream-spattered fellow survivor nodded with a shiver. "I'll never look at Preparation H the same way again."
"Uh... not that I ever look at it, anyway."
Dalamari was waiting outside with a (probably empty) pistol. “I heard gunshots…”
“Everything’s fine,” James assured him, “we took care of a zombie, that’s all.”
“Ah. Good. I guess.” He wrinkled his nose. “What the hell is that smell, though?”
“Don’t ask. Let’s just go report to Crazy.”
Across from the Verdant Pine’s convenience store, the rest of the group milled around with a kind of bored paranoia.
“Managed to recover anything?” Crazy-Eyes asked one of his salvage teams tiredly.
“Just about everything,” Harry announced cheerfully.
“The computers are totalled,” Badger reminded him loudly. “Only got the one that’s not battered to pieces.”
Harry shrugged. “Yeah, but what are the chances of us actually finding a working phone line? Slim.”
The third in the trio- Steve- just grunted in agreement and went back to work.
Badger hauled a crate free, scraping it by the constraints of the crumpled bus. “If this isn’t the last of the ammo,” he wheezed, “I’m going to shoot something.”
“You’d be hard pressed to do that without bullets,” Harry pointed out.
“Yo Crazy,” Dal called out. “Got a bunch of food like you asked. Medicine too.”
“Good,” their leader flapped a hand vaguely, “Go lay it down over there…”
Pye watched the men oblige, opting to stack their findings on an arbitrarily selected patch of asphalt. “I know what you’re thinking,” he declared softly.
Crazy was stirred from whatever private hell he was currently occupying. “Hmm?”
“You’re wondering what the hell we’re going to do with all these supplies now we’ve got no transport.”
“I know exactly what to do,” Crazy snapped, resenting the bus driver’s tone.
Pye shrugged disarmingly. “Hey, just voicing an opinion: we’re pretty immobile now. You’ve got your men checking all these cars-”
“They are not my men!”
“-but even if they work, how you going to shift fifty people?”
“Forty people,” Green corrected him flatly, emerging from the bus’s rear with oil-slick hands. “I don’t think we’ve bothered with a headcount in weeks, but we left a lot of bodies back at the Hall.”
“You can’t haul such a huge group through hostile territory without problems,” Pye agreed.
“Yeah, so we should shoot half of them so we can move them around more easily,” Crazy snarled sarcastically, turning on his heel and stalking off.
Green watched him go and sniffed. “I would say that he’s changed,” he said, “but I think he’s always been a drama queen.”
Pye didn’t respond, which suited Green just fine. He helped himself to some mineral water and sat himself down in the shade.
For a while, because Crazy was absent- or at least pacing the bus with a face like thunder, causing all and sundry to let him be- Pye found himself acting as some sort of unofficial lieutenant.
Pye had thought the City Hall’s survivors were incredibly lucky to have so many firearms to their name- but not when he realised how quickly they were going through their pitiful ammunition stocks, any how inept most of them were when it came to conserving their rounds. Even factoring in food and water, ammo was their most pressing issue.
No ammo. No women. A bunch of men with guns- great in the short term, but you couldn’t rebuild civilisation with them. Or start a decent conversation about anything beyond the lack of “desperate survivor chicks, know what I’m saying?” and various sports that everyone missed almost as much as the opposite sex.
No women. Pye considered that- it really didn’t make any sense. With fifty or forty or however many goddamn people they’d dragged out of the goddamn bus, half of them should’ve been women. Even a misogynistic stats professor would’ve raised an eyebrow at the discrepancy- no matter how much more “suited” a man might be to escaping from such a physical and violent environment, it made no sense that not one female had been spotted.
He barely listened to the reports, dwelling too much on the enormity of their situation without really trying to think about how enormously screwed up everything was.
Report one: “You were right, every single car is dead. Not many of them in the first place, but we tried every truck, every saloon, even that camper van- all dead.”
Report two: “Telephone mast seems to have most of its wires cut. But Edwin and me found a dead technician and this electric drill. This any good? I think it still works- wait, no, I just broke it. Never mind.”
Report three: “The main building? Boarded up and emptier than Red’s pants.”
Report four: “Screw you, Simon.”
Report five: “Heard we got…. Uhhhh… drugs found, yeah? I could really sorta need some. Put to good use… sorta thing.”
Report six: “Right, whatever, quit looking at me like that- is that a hammer? Daaamn, that’s a big hammer. G’bye.”
Survival, Pye thought, putting his “big hammer” away. There must be something out there beyond forty confused sex-starved losers with their own drug-crazed stalker.
I just hope it’s not more sex-starved losers with extra drug-crazed stalkers. But hey, at least at Peaktop they’d have military ranks. Getting stalked by a Colonel would probably be a prestigious honour.
Crazy moped by, deep in thought. Pye stood up from his seat on his crumpled bus and patted the man’s shoulder.
Crazy shook him off. “Don’t start. I’m just not sure where to go from here, and getting advice from you guys isn’t always welcome.”
“I guess I can understand that.” Pye smiled grimly. “Bet all the hallucinations about small kids aren’t doing you too good either.”
Crazy froze. “How the hell did you know about-?”
“Crazy! Guys! Jesus! Pye! Everyone! Get over here!”
Having called down every survivor and the Son of God, Harry found he had a rapt audience as he pointed frantically at the horizon.
“The fasties followed us from the city!”
“How far off are they?”
“How the hell should I know?” Harry snapped, “I only ever did a basic math course! And none of the exercises involved figuring out the average speed of goddamn zombies!”
“Well, how many are-?”
“Trying counting them yourselves! Jesus…”
Badger grimaced. “You think we can outrun them?”
“Look, I just said-”
“I was talking to Crazy, Harry. What do you think, boss?”
“Yeah, what do you think?”
“Yeah, have we got a chance?”
Boss. That word again. They only ever thought of him as “boss” when they were in deep shit and needed him to get them out.
Oh well. He’d never been one to shy from responsibility. Or deep shit, for that matter.
“No,” Crazy told them flatly. “I don’t think we’ve got a chance of outrunning them. We need to fall back to a position that we can defend.”
“The mall?” Edwin suggested. “I reckon we can barricade that up-”
“Someone already did,” Ivo interrupted. “We won’t get inside in time.”
“The petrol station,” Ben piped up. “Then we’ve got a large firing circle.”
Green frowned. “What the hell do you mean by ‘large firing circle’?”
“I, uh, read it in a book once…”
“If the book didn’t involve zombies, I’m going to hit you one.”
“What is it with you and zombies?” Chris drawled. “Zombie this and zombie that.”
“We should try standing our ground behind it,” Pye told Crazy levelly, ignoring the spiritedly pointless debate behind him.
Crazy raised an eyebrow. “You’re thinking… what, exactly…?”
“Main entrance has concrete bollards, and those security huts are practically firing bunkers. But mostly I’m thinking that to get to us there, the fasties would be funnelled down the road.”
Crazy looked at the potential chokepoint. “And they’d have to go past the gas station…”
“Damn right. Once a decent-sized bunch gets there, we blow the fuck out of the place.”
“Sounds like plan to me,” Maxi agreed. “Come, Tobias. We have… important military things to do.”
“Whatever you say.”
Pye blinked. “Was he being sarcastic, or…?”
“I really don’t know,” Crazy admitted.
“If the man with the rifle dies,” Simon said in his best Russian accent, “the other takes it up and fights on!”
“You’re not funny.”
“They’re further away than I would’ve thought,” Red muttered. “Part of me wishes we could get this over with.”
Farrow grinned. “Yeah? All of me wishes that they’d never get here.”
“We’ll have to make every round count,” James murmured.
“Great advice,” Badger agreed. “Oh, and you know what else guys? The bullets come out of this end. The object of this activity is to send bullets into the runny shouty bitey creatures that want to eat us.”
Green prodded him. “Being the sarcastic jerk is my job. Buck up.”
“Fuck up!” Chris responded immediately, and giggled madly.
In passing, Tobias tapped Farrow on the shoulder. “Remind me- why do you have him here?”
“He’ll get eaten first.”
“Ah. Classic tactic.”
“We have claymore mines on the road corner,” Maxi announced, slapping Pye on the back.
“And we mean that literally, it’s not some weird metaphor,” Tobias smiled. “The fasties will be shredded before they even get here.”
“You didn’t forget about the petrol pumps, did you?” Pye asked warily.
Maxi shook his shaggy head. “No, we set them far, far back from petrols. We can detonate station at own convenience.”
Crazy nodded approvingly. “I didn’t know you had claymores, but it sounds like they’ll save some lives.”
“We would’ve used them at the Hall,” Tobias admitted, “but they’d have made a mess of the place.”
“Yah. Not good if you want to hang round and don’t want holes punched through those weak walls it had.”
Pye checked his shotgun and assured himself that his sledgehammer was in reach. “I guess the blasts will also let us know when they’re here.”
Tobias looked away suspiciously.
Maxi looked too, then turned back to him with an expression of confusion. “What up?”
“Sorry. Just thought the claymores were about to go off. Murphy’s Law, you know? And that was a suitably dramatic moment.”
“Who is Murphy? And why he write up asshole laws?”
“I… never really thought about it like that…”
The man jumped. “What? What is it? You see something…?”
“No,” Feath panted, running up to their position and doubling over, “no, it’s just that me and Ben found a way up to the highway.”
Pye looked at him like he was mad. “What’s the big deal?” He pointed to the curving ramp beyond the checkpoint’s yellow-striped barrier. “It’s right there. We can walk up to it. With our feet.”
“No,” Feath said again, “I mean the unfinished part. We can climb the scaffolding.”
“It’s a bit out of the way if we want to go to Peaktop, but he’s right,” Ben nodded, equally out of breath. “I told him not to go walking around in his condition,” he added guiltily, “but he insisted on going and-”
“Shut up, Ben.” Feath slapped his bandaged chest and tried not to wince. “The doppelgangers barely scratched me, and that was days ago. I think.”
They looked skyward. Forty, perhaps fifty feet from the ground on reinforced pillars, the bypass looked complete: if not for one hundred metres of absent concrete. Instead a wire frame model of wooden struts and metal poles took its place.
“I see your point,” Pye began slowly, “but if we can climb up there, so can the fasties.”
Feath nodded with an enthusiastic grin. “Ah, that’s the beauty of it: we climb up, then knock the scaffolding down. Then there’s no way in hell they’d be able to follow us!”
“That’s not a bad idea,” Tobias began thoughtfully. “We could get some petroleum from the pumps and use it to make a makeshift bomb-”
“No need, and no time,” Maxi announced. “I have hand grenade left. If well used, and if scaffold poor quality, should be enough to send it tumble.”
Crazy-Eyes frowned. “How much equipment have you been saving up for moments like this?”
“Only grenade. Oh, and one tin of cream of chicken soup.”
Ben blinked. “So… is it explosive chicken soup?”
“Not unless eaten with beer. Then it can be quite gassy.”
“I don’t know,” Feath exhaled, still weary from his scouting jog. “It’s probably tougher than it looks.”
Pye sniffed. “Considering the track record of the city’s construction firms, I wouldn’t be too worried. Your call, Crazy: you want us to try this?”
Crazy looked to the distance, but the convoy of tirelessly galloping zombies had passed into the dip of the hill, and they were obscured from view. “All right,” he decided after as much thought as he dared allow himself, “let’s try it.”
“Everyone,” Pye bellowed, “change of plan! Head to the scaffolding!”
Dalamari, startled by all the noise, looked about himself. “Okay. Where’s this scaffolding?”
“Good point. Everyone follow Feath!” Pye added.
The survivor in question rolled his eyes. “Oh, great. Yeah, sure, I don’t mind running back there-”
“Good. Start running-”
A keening wail split the air, an approaching howl from a source that didn’t require any imagination to envisage.
“-because your life depends on it.”
“There’s another statement for the Captain Obvious award,” Badger grumbled to himself, holstering his half-empty pistol.
”So… who is this Captain Obvious?”
”Lieutenant,” Tobias snapped, “for the last time, it’s just a meme. You don’t need to worry about anyone outranking you.”
Maxi paused. “I… not know what that is.”
“A meme? Well, it’s a unit of cultural information that tends to be self-propagating, in the vein of inherited genes or, presumably, a virulent disease.”
”Some feel that the very idea belittles the grand scope of the mind by scaling down human thought and experience into such an abstracted concept: personally, I feel it reeks of pretentious Cartesian pseudo-theology-”
“I, uh, go stand over there now. To keep watch.”
“Yeah, you do that, Maxi.”
James watched the burly officer retreat across the scaffold and smoothly took his place on the walkway. “You could’ve just said it was an in-joke. Or a fad.”
”He’s been talking to me for ages about his duties as ‘high ranking leadership sort of person’- I had to get rid of him somehow.”
”He’s just worried.”
Tobias sniffed unsympathetically. ”I think everyone half-sane is worried.”
”Well, perhaps Maxi suddenly turned sane and it’s a shock to his system.”
The scaffolding had proven far harder to scale than first expected. Although it showed no signs of collapsing, the construction firm that had first erected it had obviously never intended for dozens of people to climb it at a time- and certainly not when various murdering howling things were in hot pursuit.
And that was the other issue: the fasties, hardly known for their stealth, were nowhere to be seen. By now they should have cleared the hilly road and already been bounding towards them with stupid eagerness, but the horizon was still empty.
So even though the lack of ravening killers bought the stragglers more time to clear the massive structure of wooden planks and steel support poles, their late arrival was a point of contention.
“They got lost.”
“They gave up.”
“Harry was seeing shit.”
“We got lucky.”
“Huh? What was the question?”
Those that had already cleared the vertical maze of platforms stood watch- or paced backwards and forwards impatiently, as James was now doing. Tobias didn’t like exposing his back to all that wide empty concrete on the freeway behind him, but needs must…
“I think,” said Feath, scratching at his bandages, “there’s maybe something to the idea of dualism.”
Tobias blinked, and realised that the man was talking to him. “What?”
“I said, I think there might be something to the idea of dualism.”
The soldier gave him a disbelieving look, the sort usually reserved for talking animals, alien invaders or reanimated corpses. “Do you really think this is the best time to talk about this?”
“Yep,” Feath said flatly. “We used to talk about some really deep Zen crap on watch duty- and hell, even during our breaks it wasn’t like we could ever get the Hall’s LAN or televisions running for more than five minutes, despite Farrow’s best efforts…”
“Wouldn’t have put you down as the philosophical type.”
“And I wouldn’t have thought anyone could be dull enough to know that much about memes.”
“Hah. All right. Tell me about your stance on dualism.”
Feath held out his fingers as if counting off points. “Well, Cartesian dualism is all about the nature of mind and body, right? That the mind is intangible and separate from the brain?”
“Something like that- and it’s complete bollocks,” Tobias said, fully expecting that Feath was setting up a bad joke and trying to be funny.
“Well,” the man continued, and he seemed perfectly serious, “I used to think so. And I’ve tried to talk to the others about this, but James doesn’t understand and Crazy is too busy and Ivo is… well, Ivo is too Ivo. But it occurred to me- most of the zombies are what we’d call ‘mindless’, right?”
“But most of them have brains. So… either the mind is a separate entity to the brain, spiritual energy or some crap, or they’re not mindless.”
Tobias considered this, and then shook his head. “No. It’s like brain damage: if the mind was separate, then it wouldn’t undergo changes when you had a brain injury. The zombies are the exact same principle.”
“I don’t know. Maybe the mind is separate… it’s just that it communicates through the brain.”
“So you think that a zombie’s mind- or, hah, soul- is separated from their body. That it’s still around, screaming about its predicament? That although the brain’s been switched back on, the mind has just been shut out somehow?” He laughed. “You’re right. That is some deep crap.”
Feath shrugged, obviously hurt by Tobias’s disdain. “It’s a possibility. Excuse me for getting all spiritual now that the goddamn dead are walking the earth…”
“Ah, sorry, I didn’t mean to sound like that. You’re right. You’re probably the first guy I’ve come across who’s even tried to think about the logic behind what’s happening.”
“I don’t think there’s anything logical about this situation…” Feath began glumly.
Tobias shook his head. “No. No, I believe that everything, no matter how fucking bizarre, has to be tied into the way the world works. Even zombies have to some sort of physical logic behind them.”
“You really think so?”
“I don’t think, I know. Everything confirms to the laws of physics. That’s why even those rotten bastards fall over and die again if you give them a taste of Newton’s third law.” Tobias grinned winningly.
Feath looked uncomfortable. “About that… physics wasn’t my strong point. I took debate classes.
The corporal deflated somewhat. “Oh. Well, take it from me, that’s a suitably witty quip. Pretty sophisticated.”
“Everyone’s on the scaffold now?” Crazy-Eyes asked.
“Looks that way,” Badger told him, checking the ground below just in case. “Took longer than we thought, but hey, so did the fasties. It’s not like we could just leave all the supplies behind,” he added, indicated the bulging rucksack over his shoulder.
“They must have got lost,” Harry muttered. He knew what he’d seen, and he didn’t like how some of the others were currently claiming he’d made it all up.
“Pity we waste claymores,” Maxi said sadly. “They could come have in very useful.”
“Think we might have time to go back for them?” James suggested.
“We’re not risking that,” Crazy informed him sternly. “Besides, we’d be just as likely to trip them as the zombies.”
They agreed with that sentiment, and began ascending at a leisurely pace, knowing half of their group had already reached the summit.
The structure was a kind of L-shape: the foot of the L serving as a huge stabilising base for the jutting spires that twisted their way around the legs of the highway-in-progress. Sodden bags of cement, rusted power tools, a long-forgotten lunch box: all signs that the construction team had been working here when it happened.
“It’s to be expected,” Crazy heard Red say, “fasties have a short attention span. I remember you guys telling me about that one that ran away from the barricade at the Hall.”
Crazy froze. He remembered what he’d first thought then- unlike his charges, who had assumed that the single surviving fastie had got confused or had lost interest, Crazy had decided that it was a show of tactics.
Mixed assaults, pincer movements, guerrilla attacks, retreats. They had been showing an increasing understanding of warfare.
The survivors had been expecting the horde of galloping zombies to match their route step for step. But why would they, when they were so much more agile? When they could go where the living couldn’t…?
It was then that Crazy looked up.
A sea of bodies flowed off the other end of the uncompleted highway.
Some missed their mark and fell to a messy second death, but they had numbers on their side, many latching onto the base of the scaffold and immediately running towards the ladders that’d take them to the topmost precipice and the choicest prey.
In a space of time so brief that it barely registered, the leading fasties reached the humans, driven back by gunfire that was only forthcoming because of Crazy’s quick warning.
They’d gone around the claymores, the choke points, the conveniently-flammable gas station: all in favour of a long detour to reach the highway. From there they could access the scaffold and, in their element, massacre the humans who lacked their climbing ability.
Pye smashed his hammer over a fastie’s head with such force that its crumpled body brought down some of its fellows it as it plummeted down the stepladder. Using this brief respite, a few men surged forward to plug the opening with sandbags, loose planks, anything they could find- even as, behind them, their comrades-in-arms shot the zombies who were entrepreneurial enough to bypass the ladders.
“That won’t hold them for long,” Tobias warned Crazy. “We need to get up top and collapse this thing from there-”
“This not do,” Maxi interrupted solemnly. “You all weighed down with supply. And hitting scaffold at top not be enough to dislodge.”
“They’re pretty persistent!” Badger shouted, knocking a fastie off its perch with a blast of buckshot.
“Give me sledge,” Maxi demanded, flexing his open hand at Pye.
To Crazy’s amazement, Pye obediently handed over his hammer without a word.
“You do not need many people to do,” Maxi told him firmly, giving the weapon an easy, experimental swing. “One man can do job easily. Especially one with big tool and grenade. That, broadly speak, my life philosophy!”
“Maxi,” Ivo began calmly, “I don’t think you’ve thought this through-”
The lieutenant pressed his haversack into the hands of the unresisting Simon. “Hah, have you time?” He demanded of the man. “Have you grenade and hammer?”
“I left mine at the Hall,” Ivo responded dryly.
“Move aside,” Maxi rumbled. “And back. I need this to do.”
Crazy-Eyes frowned. “Are you trying to tell us what to do?”
“Yar! I am larger and will hit unless co-operate! What more, you know I right! Get those civilians out of the hell here!”
Tobias rested his gun in the crook of his arm as he frantically tried to reload, aware of the commotion beneath their feet. “Look, Maxi, I’m not sure if-”
“Let him,” Crazy-Eyes said softly.
Having cleaned up the last of the fasties to have found a way around the barricade, the men stood back to let Maxi past, his perpetual confused grin usurped by a slightly more focused look of utter determination.
Nursing their wounds, not sure what to say, the group let themselves be herded up towards the safety of the highway. They reached the reassuring solidity of the concrete as Maxi, a few stories below them, grimly adjusted his grip on the sledgehammer.
“Want some of?” They could hear him bellowing. “No? Have some of anyway! Yes, is that the way to do it!”
There was a damp squelch and a shocked shriek as the lieutenant sent a particularly exploratory fastie flying off the walkway. The most pressing threat dealt with, he began hammering on the nearby clamps that joined the crossbars of the scaffold together.
One fell off. And then a second. The third prompted the entire structure to moan as innumerable planks and struts creaked and rattled. The loss of a fourth caused the whole thing to lean slightly to the left.
The impromptu blockade ruptured in a cloud of dust, allowing the flood of zombies to pile up the narrow stepladder. They instantly fell upon the soldier in a mess of rending, clawing fingers.
His right arm exploded into useless strings of muscle as one of the creatures latched on and began chewing and scratching with unholy fervour. Wincing, ignoring the fact that something had just pulled off his ear and was moving onto his eye- making wincing particularly difficult- Maxi produced his last grenade with his one intact hand and removed the pin with his angular belt buckle.
Screaming defiance until the end, Maxi crushed the undead under a hundred tons of woodwork.
His last words lingered in the survivor’s ears long after the screams of the zombies and the thunder of the explosion and the roar of the collapsing scaffold bled away.
“HAND TO HAND TO BE HAVING OF OLD ME!”
They had no idea what he’d been trying to say, but it was badass enough to transcend the language barrier. They knew heroism when they heard it.
Sergeant Hazar’s rank had already changed repeatedly and regularly, and he didn’t plan on giving the lieutenant any more ammunition. Today’s report was on time- early, in fact.
In this situation, having some jobsworth demote or promote him on the spot should have meant absolutely nothing, but he was always strangely depressed whenever his superior started throwing his weight around.
Not that he had much weight. The officer’s gaunt face stared at Hazar through a storm of interference, looking as if he hadn’t eaten or slept since the last time they’d talked.
The sergeant glanced at the worn clipboard as if to remind himself of the statistics, but in truth he just wanted to avoid making eye contact with his lieutenant. “Six standards, one adroit, two heavies, one immolator.”
“And that was all? In the whole of the last week, that’s all you’ve come across? You’re very sure about that?”
“I’ll check, sir.” Hazar made a great deal of fiddling with the file cabinets out of view of the webcam, and dropped the clipboard on the floor while he rattled the doors. “Yes,” he said after a suitable interval, “it all adds up.”
The static-smothered image on the screen nodded thoughtfully. “Good. We must be making a dent in their ranks.”
The lieutenant paused. “You sound troubled, sergeant.”
“No one else has died, have they?”
“Then cheer up.” The man flashed a rare, thin smile. “You’re making a difference out there.”
The small monitor flickered and died. A dot of light lingered at its centre for a moment before feeling compelled to scroll off-screen. It probably needed a fuse changing again.
But it definitely needed repair after Hazar’s fist sent it bouncing off the wall.
“Difference? We count corpses all day and sleep in a fucking box every night!”
“It’s not all bad,” someone said defensively.
Hazar sneered. “Yeah? I’m using polystyrene peanuts as bedding, and last I checked, I wasn’t an antique vase or a gerbil in a cheapass household.”
Behind him, Hill stepped through the security hut’s doorway. “Someone has to do it,” she said with a slight shrug of her one good shoulder.
“Yes,” Hazar snapped, “but that’s just because we need something to stop going insane with boredom. We’re not exactly performing an essential service here!”
“What else do you suggest? Like you said, we don’t do the job for its necessity to Peaktop, we do it for ourselves.”
Hazar kicked the surprisingly resilient television aside and hoisted his radio out from behind a shelving unit. “I’m going to play around with the frequencies again, that’s what.”
“With your friends at City Hall.”
“Hah, remember all that smoke? They’ve moved on by now.”
“Or burnt to death,” Hill countered.
Hazar whirled on her. “Tell you what- you go out to the bridge and watch the canyon. You can take my clipboard.” He eventually produced said notes from under the table (taking longer than he’d planned, somewhat ruining the dramatic impact) and threw them her way. “But you know what? I’d sooner try contacting maybe-dead men over the radio than counting definitely-dead men in a ditch.”
“So what you’re saying is that you’re take one fruitless job over the other. Just for variety.”
“That’s about right, yes.”
“Despite being ordered to ‘count dead men in a ditch’.”
“The lieutenant never specified which was more important,” Hazar said innocently. He turned the radio right way up, took its electrical lead, and began groping under the table for the flex that lead to the generator. “I’m making my own deductions.”
Hill’s eyes narrowed. “You haven’t told him, have you?”
“What, about survivors who used to be holed up at City Hall but tragically burnt to death? What would be the point of that? It’d just depress him.”
The flailing plug eventually found its mark, sliding into the socket with an audible crackle. The radio screamed.
“-anyone reading this?” pleaded a terrified voice through the thunderous static, “I know you’re… …there! This is Doctor… … …do not come to Peaktop, repeat, do not come to-”
Hazar slapped the device, which gave a whistle and switched channels.
”I’m getting sick of that guy,” he growled.
Tobias was quite surprised to see Chris, of all people, sauntering up to him.
Tobias looked up and then away again, briefly examining him as if instantly determining that he wasn’t worth responding to.
Chris swallowed, made as if to walk away, but thought better of it. He squatted down next to the soldier. “So, uh, I hear you were kinda close to that Maxi guy.”
“I said ‘no’,” Tobias repeated at a much greater volume. “I didn’t know him at all.”
“Well, you’d known him longer than the City Hall gang, right?”
“But I didn’t know him better,” Tobias muttered. “I never made the effort. I just tagged along, treated him like scenery. Big scenery, scenery that was good with a gun, but still just scenery. You know what I did the last time- the last time ever- that I saw him?”
“I fobbed him off. I broke into technobabble to drive him away, because he was annoying me. I always treated him like he was a joke.”
“It’s natural to feel guilty-”
“That’s not it!” Tobias interrupted angrily. “So many people have died before him, and I never batted an eyelid. When Deller was burnt alive by some fucking freak of nature, I took it in my stride. And god knows how many of the Hall’s survivors have died since I came here, but you know what? I didn’t fucking care. I just ignored it all. All of it.”
“I think they- we- all do,” Chris told him flatly. “If anyone sat down and thought about what was actually happening, I mean really thought about it, you’d go nuts. And I don’t mean funny nuts. I mean shouting running scratching-at-your-own-face-and-howling nuts. That’s a kind of military thing, right?”
“Clawing at your own face, or forgetting dead friends when it suits you?” Tobias asked snidely.
“If you want to put it like that, sure. But you guys are trained to have all sorts of shit thrown at you and get on with life… this is just a really, really… different kind of war.”
Tobias sniffed. “You came over here to try and make me feel better by spouting crap like that?”
“I thought someone ought to make the effort.” Chris waved a bandaged hand at the rest of the readying group. “Either they think you’re okay with it, or they think that leaving you alone would be for the best. I decided to go and pester you, because I wouldn’t want you to get left behind when they steel themselves for the trek ahead and finish peeing off the sides of the highway.”
Tobias looked down over the concrete’s edge at the charred and smoking scaffold. He rubbed at his eyes and smiled humourlessly. “You’re pretty lucid now. I don’t remember you ever making much sense.”
“I think it’s wearing off,” Chris said dejectedly.
“Anything. Everything. Take your pick. Even those little green capsules you had in your supply pack. I… kinda took them when your back was turned.”
“Uh, that was lice killer. The pods were meant to be crushed up and rubbed into your scalp or skin...”
“Well, they made me feel better. Or at least less itchy.”
Tobias got to his feet. “I have to ask. What are you an addict of? Medicinal stuff? Illegal stuff?”
“Like I said, take your pick. Anything to ease the pain.”
“The pain of what?”
Chris sighed. “I really don’t know. All I know is that I’ve been injecting or ingesting or inhaling and in-whatevering all sorts of gunk for as long as I can remember. Even before… you know… it happened. And I don’t know why.”
Tobias looked aghast. “That’s… that’s awful!”
Chris grinned weakly. “Aww, it’s not as bad as you might think- I’ve done cold turkey so often I could’ve emptied out the leftovers from one of those Thanksgivings you see in sitcoms. Like, when the whole neighbourhood turns up and they all take turns to say funny shit. And I don’t puke up so damn often now that there’s practically nothing left to eat.”
“Except lice killer.”
“Hey, don’t knock it. It tasted sorta fruity.”
There were a lot less cars than they’d expected.
"There’s a lot less cars than I’d expected," said James, slow to think but quick to speak, as far as Green was concerned.
"You must be the eighth person to say that," Green snapped at him.
"Know why that is?" Badger asked conversationally.
"Because there’re a lot less cars than anyone expected. We’re walking down a highway on foot and the only remotely remarkable thing we’ve seen- or rather not seen- is the lack of abandoned cars. So it’s either that or talking about the goddamn road markings. Lighten the hell up."
"He’s Green," Farrow protested. "If he lightened up, he wouldn’t be himself. He’d be Lime or something."
Ivo smiled at the back of their heads. He was carrying his share of the supplies, but he preferred to act as rearguard to the significant horde of marching survivors: partly because no one complained that he was getting in the way, but mostly because it gave him the opportunity to overhear several conversations without getting spotted and pulled into them. Ivo enjoyed social interaction, as long as the interactive aspect was entirely optional and not particularly social.
What nobody had commented on, of course, was the lack of corpses, animated or otherwise. They’d bitch about the cold, and the long walk ahead, and about each other’s taste in music, but Ivo had noted that none of the groaning, wheezing crowd had said something like "it’s too quiet" or "I can’t wait to see some action". Only soldiers with dubious morals and a poor screenplay to work from looked forward to combat and dead friends and general chaos, as if it was a form of entertainment to break the monotony.
And they only had to worry about whatever country or movement was acting as Hollywood’s latest target. As far as Ivo knew, no character in a badly-written action flick had had to cope with flesh-eating Al Qaeda members or communists the size of a truck.
He slowed his step slightly as he explored this thought. Although most assumed the worst, no one really knew if it had spread across the world, or even across the country. But Ivo was vaguely curious as to whether, say, Bin Laden was now just a shambler with a hat, or a fastie with a scraggly beard. Or perhaps he’d ended up as one of those kamikaze freaks with the bloated bellies…
In fact he was so enwreathed in his thoughts that he very nearly walked into a little girl standing in his way.
Ivo experienced what Dalamari called "brain lock", an experience that came naturally to the jittery and the indecisive. It was utterly alien to Ivo- his mind had just broken down for the first time in his life, leaving his heart pounding madly and his brain desperately trying to examine its own sanity.
"Buh," he said, all traces of his erudite calm vanishing.
The first time that Ivo had seen her, at the hall following James’s struggle with a parade of various supernatural horrors, he hadn’t been entirely sure of what he was seeing, or even if he’d really seen it- especially after the likes of Crazy-Eyes had thought he was making it up.
But here, up close, he was convinced she was real. Her dress was intact, if faded, and despite a little grime she looked hale and healthy. She even looked happy, in the unfocused manner of a tired child. Coupled with the garish octopus clutched to her chest, she looked like a regular kid: not like someone who had been struggling to survive in an apocalyptic almost-wasteland.
In front of them, the oblivious survivors continued to walk on ahead. Ivo barely noticed.
"Are you real?" he asked, his throat aching as he forced each word out.
She appeared to consider this. "As real as you are," she eventually decided.
Ivo frowned. He was in no mood to take philosophy from a kid, mysterious teleporting kid or no. "All right then, am I real?"
"If you’re asking, you must be," she nodded, apparently glad to find that her new friend existed after all. "Octo says that real is ‘hard to de-fine’. Then he said I wouldn’t understand, which upset me, but then he said that none of you would understand either, so I felt better."
"Yes, Octo." She must have interpreted his confused tone as an attack on her choice of nomenclature, because she waved her toy at him defiantly. "He keeps me safe. And he says he likes the name I picked him almost as much as his shape. He says that it’s very port-ent-us."
As bizarre as this exchange was, Ivo decided it would be an insult to his intelligence and the intelligence of adults the world over if he wasted time and effort with stupid questions. After everything he’d seen in the past few weeks, he told himself it was stupid to remain so close-minded. Sometimes you had to take things at face value.
"And Octo moves you around, does he?"
The girl smiled. "Yes. He vanishes me. But sometimes he takes things away as well. Everything that he can he takes away."
Ivo nodded, but didn’t say anything. He got the feeling she was simply making sure that he was paying attention, not waiting for his input.
"Octo says he can’t take the worst thing away," she continued apologetically. "He says the worst thing can’t even be seen, and that’s one of the things that makes it worst. It keeps a lot of the other bad things safe, but Octo says it can’t get me as long as he’s there."
"Octo sounds like he’s been very useful to you."
She paused and looked up, as if listening to something. "He says ‘back at you’. I’m not sure what he means."
Ivo shuddered. The girl adjusted her grip on Octo and carried on talking.
"He says he’s part of the solution and part of the problem as well. But he says that we are too, so I think that must be one of those things that are good and bad at the same time. Octo can move a lot of things," she added, giving Ivo no time to interject, "and they don’t have to be bad things. He says that some of you men have the right cap-ass-itees for what he needs. That you all think in different ways, but in ways that are right." She smiled again, but this time her expression was glassy. "And he says he’ll move you first…"
Ivo’s stomach lurched and his mind rebelled when the highway dropped away from him and he flew upwards, the ground rapidly fading into black. And then the direction of his momentum changed and he felt himself plummeting back into the void as the wind howled in his ears and he heard himself howling back, screaming that this wasn’t happening…
And all the time an octopus, with big round eyes and a painted smile, sat at the heart of darkness.
"It's probably no consolation Crazy, but I believe you."
"No offence, Chris, but you're right- that's no consolation. You're a self-confessed drug addict who repeatedly affects fake accents and does bad celebrity impressions. Won't go very far in convincing the others."
"My Jamaican accent is awesome, dammit! I based it off my room mate." Chris grinned, and then looked pensive. "But I know what you mean. People aren't going to take me remotely seriously. And they already think that you're, you know…"
"Crazy? Yes. And this latest story isn't going to help matters."
Chris nodded. "Yeah. Uh. What exactly is it you…?"
"Ivo. That goddamn kid abducted him, saw it with my own eyes. But everyone's saying he went down with Maxi. He didn't. He was still alive after we cleared the scaffold…"
Chris nodded again, but he blatantly wasn't convinced. "You're really sure that you didn't just-?"
"Damn it!" Crazy thundered, causing the survivors walking in front of them to peer over their shoulders uncomfortably. "The dead have risen and some of them levitate while setting shit on fire but some girl with a toy octopus has to be a hallucination! You people are so stupid sometimes."
"Yeah," Chris mumbled, "that's going to help your cause. Everyone just heard you call them stupid."
"Good. You're like the people who'll buy into Superman flying around and throwing tanks, but cry foul when the world fails to see through a change of clothes and a pair of glasses."
"That's a behavioural consistency issue, not something based off physical possibility in-universe. Besides, he changes his voice and posture too."
Crazy spun around. "Where the hell did you come from?"
"Apparently I'm just a lot quieter when I'm not carrying a sledgehammer," said Pye.
"And you're here to laugh at me too? Thanks for the support."
"No, I believe you, I just think your analogy was shit."
"And nobody has been laughing at you," Chris added.
Crazy sneered. "They've been pitying me, which is worse. They think the pressure has finally gotten to me."
"Maybe it's gotten to both of us. I've seen the kid too, remember?"
"Oh, a shared hallucination. That's equally likely-"
"Cut out the snark for a minute," Pye snapped. "How is it hard for you to face the possibility that we're just seeing things? If they can make things combust, it doesn't take a great leap of the imagination to think they can affect our minds. Besides, I know about Ivo seeing the kid. And James… well. I know what happened to James."
Crazy's expression hardened. "Tell anyone and you're dead."
"Wouldn't dream of it. But, incidentally, threaten me again and you're dead."
"Don't respond to that," said Chris, "otherwise you'll have a chain which ends up with everyone killing each other."
"Regardless," said Pye, already realising how ridiculous his exchange with Crazy must have sounded, "the kid could be another form of psychological assault."
"Incidentally," said Chris, "what did happen to James?"
He was ignored. "That's not their style," said Crazy. "I don't see anything trying to subtly undermine my authority. So far their attacks have consisted of different variations on ‘throw zombies at us until we die'."
"Unless something with a better grasp of tactics is commanding them."
Crazy shuddered. "She's real, Pye. Trust me. I saw her take Ivo away, no matter what anyone says: I don't know the what, the why or the how, but she's real."
Tell them that she is real.
"What?" said Chris.
Pye and Crazy looked at him.
I said to tell them that she's real.
"Do you guys hear that?"
"You know, the… I…" Chris looked around, although he wasn't sure what for. He had another headache, and he knew it wouldn't be long until a migraine threw a party and invited agonising stomach pains over. "Never mind. I'm just going to… going to find the medicine box. Excuse me…"
They watched him wander off, cradling his head. "What's the deal with him, anyway?"
"I really don't know," said Pye. "The guys say he's usually typical of someone going through cold turkey, but apparently he takes everything. According to Ben, Chris has swallowed painkillers, breath mints, cough syrup… oh, and anti-thrush ointment. I honestly think it might be a psychological need, rather than any genuine drug addiction. God knows why the habit hasn't melted his organs by now."
"We should maybe stop him…"
"Green's the one lugging the medical supplies around. He'll stave him off. Or at least insult him until he gives up."
They walked on silently for a little while.
"I think they're tactically sound, and you think so too."
Crazy-Eyes stopped in his tracks.
"Yeah," said Pye, "whenever they do something that could pass for smart, I see you look away and mull it over."
Crazy tried to shrug it off. "Could well be coincidence. And maybe some of the individual zombies are brighter than we think- it doesn't mean they're being controlled."
Pye forced a chuckle. "Did I even mention anything about ‘control'? Now I know you know what I'm thinking about. It would explain why we haven't found any women. They concentrated on destroying the entirety of one gender, knowing that all the survivors would be well and truly fucked, whatever we do. They're not wandering killers, they're organised."
Crazy sighed. "But why? If it was a virus, or a horrible random fluke of nature- well, it's just random, chaotic murder, no logic behind it. But if you add sapience into the equation, some sort of higher plan… it makes no goddamn sense.
He looked at the sky. "Why is this thing malevolent? What does it get out of it? Why would it want to wipe us all out?"
"Maybe it's malevolent for the sake of malevolence. Maybe it's the Hitler of the supernatural world and doesn't think we deserve to exist. Maybe it thinks this is fun."
"Maybe there's no point worrying about it because we're utterly powerless against it."
"See, that's where we differ on this." Pye straightened up. "Whatever we're dealing with, it wants us dead- but it can't just stop our hearts or turn us into zombies by willing it to happen. It has to try and face us on our terms. Even when we go toe-to-toe with four-ton freaks with clubs for hands, it's something corporeal. Something we can blow the ever-loving fuck out of."
Crazy-Eyes pinched the bridge of his nose. "I thought you were just saying that the girl is a psychological projection or some rubbish?"
"I still think she might be. We just don't know whose."
This ongoing work-in-progress story was written by Edcrab, one of our testers.