Montana was ass-deep in droolers as soon as she kicked through the buckled remains of the lobby door. Through her RITIGs, it was a green and black vision of hell—a crowd of the unliving rounding on the sudden racket, jaws champing with rabid anticipation.
On a sepulchral autumn night, in the half-forgotten town of Arkham, Massachusetts, the initial outbreak of ARKV stalked out of nightmare and seized that community in its reeking, cadaverous talons. Within forty-eight hours it was spreading its unholy cannibalistic contagion across Europe and South America; in seventy-two, the world was its killing ground.
Mysteries and misdeeds in and around Arkham have plagued Massachusetts for centuries, since the earliest days of the American Colonies. But this was something altogether different, a kind of Horror that even the good folk of Dunwich and Innsmouth could not boast of recalling.
ARKV was the horror that the worthy folk who contemplate such dreadful, weighty matters had feared for decades: the uncontrolled and unconstrained mutation of a man-made pathogen. What those somber and learned folk could not know was the influence on that pathogen of the Visitor, that strange interloper from Outside, still residing at the bottom of Miskatonic Reservoir, in a dark and fetid well that broods beside the drowned ruin of an old farmstead. Nor could they know of the noxious potions and poisons of Herbert West, still oozing and bubbling from failures cast into those eldritch waters long ago, with no thought given to future generations.
When laboratory waste, containing genetically unstable viral material, was illegally dumped into a tributary of the Miskatonic River above the reservoir, the fuse was lit. It became a matter of when, not if.
ARKV was the abominable offspring of the noxious admixtures seething in the depths of the Miskatonic Reservoir and confounded medical science from the outset. The Arkham pathogen was called a virus as a matter of convenience, of expediency: none of the world’s epidemiologists had a name for what it was. It was contagious, that was certain; those infected soon sickened and died: so it was virus-like. But ARKV did something no virus in the annals of human history had ever done:
It brought the dead back to life.
And it gave them . . . Hunger . . .
Like a pugilist caught by a sudden savage blow, our collective civilization reeled and took a header to the canvas; it looked like we might just have lost the title – for good.
But humanity shook its head, spat out a mouthful of blood and teeth…and took a breath.
It fought its way back to its knees.
It took the full count.
And then, dazed, pain-wracked and terrified though it was, it began to rise again.
It was time to get back in the fight.
Tesla (aka Sharon Finnegan, Major, Special Operations, North American Defense and Reclamation Command [NADReC]) stepped back from her latest project, arms crossed, head cocked, eyes narrowed.
I don’t know, she thought. Maybe I should tweak the . . .
Stop! she snapped at herself. It’s a prototype, for crying out loud! If this one works, you can make the next one perfect!
Well . . . okay, I guess. . . she grumbled. She pulled a stained but clean rag and her beret from a cargo pocket on her coveralls, mopped the sweat from her head and settled the beret in place over her grey, bristling stubble.
After her first encounter with Arkham vectors, she had cut her mane of hair to what she thought was a serviceable length. After her second run-in, she had buzzed off the remainder. They were such grabby things, the zombies, and having handfuls of hair ripped out by the roots, she had found, was downright painful. She’d sworn to grow it back later, after she got around to making grab-resistant headgear, but she had come to like it—it was part of her now.
Besides, it would have been just so much extra work to wash camo paint and zombie-guts out of it after every mission.
The night wind shifted, and she was aware, once again, of the graveyard stench wafting up from the street below. She’d taken a quick peek, a visual census before she started arming the weapon, and it was a packed house down below in the “mosh pit.”
“Bless you, Frank Herbert,” she murmured, “wherever you are.”
She’d taken an idea from his science-fiction novel Dune and created her own version of a “thumper,” a device used in the book to call giant creatures from beneath a vast desert. In the beginning, while she was on her own, she used wind-up toys like the little monkeys that bang their symbols, inside coffee cans; later, NADReC had given her the resources to make the real deal.
While most considered NADReC to be a recent player in the game, it had in fact been in operation since the early days of the Outbreak. Under its original mandate, the Command coordinated resources and mission priorities between various military, paramilitary, and civilian forces combatting the unliving. As the breathing population decreased, the chain of command became leaner of necessity, until NADReC emerged as ultimate command and control for all operations, of whatever description or scope, against the zombie hordes in the North American theater.
By virtue of being the top of the command pyramid, NADReC became the scapegoat for those who suffered and died in its name. It was noticed right off the bat that serving in the Command was much like taking a full-contact groin-kick and that the euphemism “nad wrack” had an irresistible similarity to the spoken acronym. Almost overnight “nadwrack” became a call-sign for the Command among its grunts who, ironically, began to refer to themselves as “nadwrackers” or “wrackers” soon thereafter.
Perhaps “wrack” best expressed their attitude toward the unliving.
And sometimes, when things really catapulted off the rails, Command was referred to simply as The Wreck.
Tracking Tesla down by her trail of mass destruction, NADReC lured her in with the promise of access to their considerable material resources, a promise kept beyond her wildest expectations.
Now, her “zumpers” were hollow metal spheres the size of a soccer ball, containing a clockwork mechanism whose sole purpose was to bang on the shell of the sphere and make a hell of a racket.
Which attracted vectors from far and wide. Earlier that day, she rolled three zumpers into a street that was empty, still, and silent. A few hours later, it was wall-to-wall Zippy.
When the human species made up its collective mind to resist extinction, a subtle change in attitude permeated the ranks of the living—the unliving, unthinking enemy was stripped of designations that implied parity with breathers and given demeaning and contemptuous epithets instead. Gone were “Zeke,” “Zack,” “Zane,” and all the rest. In their stead came such handles as “Zero,” “Zilchy,” and—the favorite of an entire generation—”Zippy.”
Zippy the Pinhead was a character from 1970s underground comics, who still commanded a devoted following when ARKV swept the world. Zippy was an icon of irrelevant and mindless behavior and so was a natural candidate as an appropriate metaphor for the unliving.
Most of the Zippies in this little burg were Stage 2, the unliving stage that most resembled a Hollywood-cum-George Romero zombie; what nadwrackers called reekers. She would have been surprised and suspicious had she come across any Stage 1 “thrashers”— that stage lasted no more than seventy-two hours; in practice, it was closer to forty-eight. Living, breathing humans, the raw material of Stage 1 had deserted this mausoleum years ago.
For the most part now, the unliving citizens of the dead community seemed content to wander, aimless, bumping into one another and falling over the odd bit of debris, sloughing off skin, awaiting the final, unfathomable trigger that would precipitate their metamorphosis into Stage 3 shades.
Tesla shivered despite herself. Shades were serious bad news, although the likelihood of meeting any on this mission was slim. They were an order of magnitude more dangerous, more vicious than reekers but not much smarter. Concepts such as “patience” or “ambush” were beyond them; they knew and served only Hunger. If there had been shades lurking about, the activities of the team, stealthy as they had been, would already have brought them a-hunting.
Not that reekers were any less dangerous in the long run; but over the years since the Outbreak, Tes had become fascinated by the behavior of the Stage 2 vectors—however one chose to refer to them—in particular the way their aggression and response to outside stimuli seemed to wax and wane.
To Tes, it appeared to be related in some as yet unknown manner to the concentration of reekers in a given area—thrashers and shades didn’t seem to count. Anything over four or five droolers in a loose group, and something happened—even the most unenthusiastic and torpid of the critters could get riled up and nasty at the sight of prey.
Singly and in pairs, however, she found they could be almost tractable.
When she stumbled upon Fred and Ginger in the early months of the Outbreak, for instance, she would have been lunch had they been thrashers or shades. But the pair, an older couple who had expired still locked in their apartment, merely stared at her with milky eyes, making uncertain, chewing motions with their jaws, after she crowbarred the door to their condo during a foraging expedition.
From the look of things, they had trashed the place while going through Stage 1, but had been unable to open the door or break the heavy windows in the upscale condo. Ginger turned out to be a little jumpier than Fred, and it was not long before Tesla was forced to put her down. But Fred remained the same slow, plodding, morose fellow he had been when they first met.
She glanced at him, on the other side of the roof. He was at the end of his leash—a steel chain secured around his waist and padlocked to the silent HVAC unit—staring in forlorn obsession at a handful of pigeons pecking with uninspired persistence at the graveled roof. He wasn’t straining at the leash; he had just walked until it pulled him up short, then stopped.
“Fred!” she called. “Hey, Fred!”
Fred didn’t react. He wasn’t ignoring her—he didn’t know what ignoring was—but he was becoming less and less aware of external stimuli that had nothing to do with food.
She drew in a breath, cleared her throat, and tried again.
“Uhhhhhhhhhh,” she moaned.
Fred turned to look at her, droopy and hangdog as ever.
“Uhhhhhhhhhh?” Fred responded. She added the question mark; he had no mind with which to understand the concept of a question. The moans they exchanged were, it seemed, the reeker equivalent of “Hey, dude!”
Before she’d put Ginger down, Tesla noticed that there seemed to be a rudimentary communication between the two. When she’d recorded their vocalizations and run them through audio software, she’d identified at least half a dozen distinct patterns. With practice, and a virtual oscilloscope as a tuning fork, she’d become somewhat adept at imitating the various moans and sighs.
“No pigeon, Fred,” she told him with true regret. “Rat tonight!”
“Hhhhhhhnnnnnnnnuuuuuuhhhh,” Fred protested, but turned back, with a hopeful air, toward the cooing squab.
Tesla still hadn’t quite convinced herself that feeding the reeker was a good idea, but it helped to keep him calm. For her own protection, she’d chiseled out his front teeth and pulled his fingernails, but if she cut the animal open a little, he could still do the rest.
Fred served as her pack animal and personal Sherpa now, earning his rat: he had humped the equipment for her part of the mission up fifteen floors without complaint and had performed a number of similar services in the past. But he was a bone of contention with the other team members. He was a drooler and therefore a significant threat, not to mention pungent and offensive.
And it was inevitable: sooner or later, without fail, he would metamorphose into a shade.
Tesla was fond of Fred in a sentimental way, the way one might feel about a hamster, but she was no idiot: Fred wore a metal collar that contained four tiny high explosive shaped charges, all aimed inward. She had done her tests: If either ring on the front or back of the collar were pulled, just like a hand-grenade, Fred would be decapitated in an instant, with little or no damage to bystanders, no matter how close.
She hoped she wouldn’t have to be the one to pull the pin in the end, but she knew she would be.
She turned away from Fred and ambled to the knee-high wall edging the roof, laying a hand on the cool, smooth curve of Tubby, sitting on his little ski ramp. A tubular steel frame stood on her side of the rig, black fabric stretched between the poles and slit from top to bottom. She stood behind her zombie blind and surveyed the street below.
Unable to remember and lacking the ability to conceive of camouflage, reekers were pretty easy to fool at a distance. As long as they didn’t directly observe you building a barricade or painting over a window and didn’t detect your presence otherwise, they were oblivious to most such changes in the environment. Nor did wind-blown debris, flapping window shades, or the like interest them at all—they seemed to instinctively ignore such background noises. In the pitch black night of a city deprived of its power grid, one could create any number of vantage points that, come daylight, would attract no attention whatsoever from thrashers or reekers.
She parted two of the fabric strips that hung limp and motionless. The night was humid and still; the reek of the massed, animate corpses fifteen stories below would have cost her the contents of her stomach a few short years ago. She hardly noticed it now. Between her recent close proximity to Fred, the necessity of dousing herself with “purée of zombie” to mask her scent while setting up this little distraction, and the background stench of a dead city rotting in the late summer heat, her olfactory sense shut down in pure self-defense.
On another night, the lack of any light save the moon and stars would have made it difficult, if not impossible, to make out details in the street below. For the Big Event, she had powered up the floods on the fifth floor; while no replacement for two dozen street lights and the ambient glow of a living city, they lit most of the scene with a pallid and appropriate corpse-light.
If Hell had a Disneyland, she was looking down on its Memorial Day crowd from the tower of the Magic Castle.
Had the street been moonlit or had she been peering through her RITIGs—Reticulating Image Transformation and Intensification Goggles—she would have seen a restless ocean of heads and shoulders. Some of the heads would have hair, some wouldn’t; some would have flesh, others not. But in all her hundreds of hours of observation, she’d never once seen a drooler raise its head except in response to some kind of stimulus.
Like her floodlights. To a corpse, the massed reekers turned their dead, rotten, inhuman faces toward the light, mouths gaping, moaning with eternal hunger. Those who still had arms were reaching up toward the light, toward her, fingers working, grasping, clawing . . .
Tesla flinched involuntarily from the sight of hundreds, perhaps thousands of the loathsome things slobbering for her flesh and blood. The hand that lay on Tubby gripped the hard, cold, reassuring metal, and she took a long, steadying breath.
Screw this! She was DM3, goddammit—droolers feared her!
Her lips compressed into a thin line and her eyes narrowed. Without moving her gaze from the charnel nightmare below, she loosened her grip on the metal casing and found the actuator. She rested her forefinger on that small metal bulb.
“Oh yeah?” she whispered to the empty eye sockets, the snapping teeth, the putrid flesh that strained to reach her. “Well, fuck you too.”
She flicked the switch, and Tubby rolled down his ski ramp, arced upward as he left the upturned end, and soared out over the unliving multitude.
Tubby—TB to his friends—was her latest and perhaps greatest kluge: a home-made thermobaric bomb. Tubby had started life as a beer keg, but now he held something with a little more kick. It had taken her a while to get the mixture right, but all her small-scale tests had been perfect in the end. There was no reason Tubby shouldn’t perform as designed.
As Tubby took wing, Tesla stepped back from the parapet. Compared to authentic military thermobaric weapons, Tubby was a wet-firecracker wannabe, but she expected substantial collateral effects nonetheless.
Even so, she was shocked by the deafening roar of the detonating weapon and stumbled back, hands up, trying with only partial success to shield her face from the violent assault of light and heat. Luck was with her: most of the shockwave was funneled upward by the surrounding buildings, but she was cruelly buffeted by its skirts. Through flash-blind eyes, she gaped at the perfect miniature mushroom cloud rising into the night sky above her, under-lit by the flames of its own birth.
Reeling, Tesla was thrown from her feet as the building shuddered, protesting the abuse. The back of her head smacked the gravel covering of the roof; only the fact that her beret had slipped down the side of her head and cushioned the impact saved her from a concussion. Even so, she saw stars for several seconds that weren’t in any constellations she recognized.
As the bright new stars faded, and the dim, familiar stars took their place, she became aware again of her larger environment.
It was dead—pardon the pun—quiet. No constant susurration of thousands of feet aimlessly pacing the street. No moans and sighs drifting up on the night air. No rattle of bone on bone as the meandering dead collided with one another.
And the smell had changed. The cloying, putrid mass-grave stench of the assembled zombies had been replaced by a peculiar odor that touched an odd, tender memory deep in her past.
It was, she decided, much like the smell her father had created each time he’d attempted to grill steaks during her childhood summers. He’d always over-saturated the charcoal with lighter fluid; when the resulting flames hit the raw meat, the cooker emitted an aroma that combined the reek of petrochemicals with the cloying stink of scorching flesh.
Tesla grinned. She had been waiting all week for this . . .
“I love the smell of burning zombies in the morning,” she said, pinching herself to keep from laughing. “It smells like . . .” And then she lost it, and howled with maniacal laughter, drumming her heels on the roof, her own little happy-dance.
When she sat up, wiping laugh-tears and smoke-tears from her eyes, she heard Fred moaning in consternation. Turning, she saw that he was backed as far away from the conflagration as his chain would permit and was trying to make himself very small, casting anxious glances back over his shoulder at the still-rising column of smoke.
Her grin faded into a look of grim satisfaction. Well, she thought, it must be my night for movie quotes.
“That’s right, Fred,” she called to him, “be afraid. Be very afraid . . .”
Ronin, once known by other names, flinched despite himself, swearing lustily as, a scant few blocks away, a massive fireball blossomed over the unliving city. The concussion rolled over him a moment later, followed shortly by a wind-born stench that was disturbingly redolent of backyard barbecues.
“What the fuck, Tesla!” he spat, gagging on the putrid miasma.
It was torrid enough already in that sweltering graveyard of a city; perspiration cascaded down his torso under the so-called “stinksuit” like water droplets sliding down a steam-room wall. His camelback had already run dry, and now the little pyro was trying to set the whole city on fire.
The fabric of the experimental garments—BDUs in this case—was supposed to breathe, but the ambient humidity was such that he would have gained little relief had he been buck-naked. And the slippery, synthetic fabric had a distinctly unpleasant feel against sweaty skin.
Stinksuits, the team had been told, exuded pheromones below the level of human perception that would nonetheless cause the wearer to smell like a drooler, thus camouflaging the individual from Arkham vectors. Of course, no one knew conclusively if the unliving hunted by scent, nor could he imagine how one might determine if the suits did in fact work, but the R&D folks thought it was worth a shot, so wrackers got to field-test the concept.
Ronin tolerated these sometimes-irksome events because R&D did produce a number of useful gadgets and continued to compile and update the “MacG,” a manual on jerry-rigging weapons from the scavenged detritus of civilization. Lighting up a street full of thrashers with Molotov cocktails and a beer sling had been one of his more surreal, if legendary, contributions to the conflict.
The puffball gun, holstered on his right thigh, was another little gem. It was a lineal descendant of the CO2-powered paintball guns so popular before the Outbreak and the non-lethal weapons that were being developed for law enforcement and the military. Rather than paint, the puffballs contained a chemical mixture that, upon contact with oxygen, expanded in a millisecond into a head-sized blob of sticky foam. Fired into a zombie’s mouth, it removed its ability to bite and, if the creature tried to claw the foam from its face, as was almost always the case, the hands would be incapacitated too; the drooler would be out of the fight. The foam could be removed with alcohol—even wracker moonshine would do—but the unliving never caught on to that trick.
Puffguns were all but silent as well, a distinct advantage on low-profile ops in hot zones.
The fireball and resulting cloud were beginning to disperse, but the odor continued to intensify, and a raw, orange glow now danced like an aurora along the midtown skyline. Ronin retreated into deeper shadows, concerned for a moment over Tesla’s fate.
Most wrackers agreed she was going to kill herself one day, if that meat-bag Fred didn’t get her first. Tes had briefed the team on all the details of her “distraction,” complete with schematics, chemical formulae, and ballistic computations that meant nothing to anyone but Tes; but Ronin was pretty sure that detonation had been way over the top. Literally.
Still, there was nothing to be done about it at present; he would try to raise her on comm after he met up with D.
Ronin eased his tall frame against the alley wall, setting his broad shoulders against brick gone moist in the humid night. Of all the team members, Ronin most looked the part of a zombie-killer: scarred, brooding, muscular, hard of eye, and insolent of manner. Rather ironic, he often reflected, as he had been a card-carrying geek before the Outbreak. Although he had never been much of an athlete, he did enjoy the outdoors and rejected the stereotype of geek-dom in his own way by devotion to the gym, the martial arts, and tattoos. When the dead rose to consume the living, no one needed accounting software anymore, but they sure needed muscle and mean. Ronin had the muscle, and the mean came all too soon.
After a few short years—it seemed like centuries—he was a little leaner, boasted many scars, and had lost a good measure of his humanity. He knew it—he was more comfortable re-killing the unliving than sitting in a mess hall with other wrackers. And Ronin was okay with that.
His devotion to the martial arts saved his life from very near the onset of ARKV—when the Outbreak rolled down the East Coast, engulfing the Washington, DC metro area, Ronin was in the mountains of West Virginia eighty miles away, at a week-long martial arts seminar. Although that erstwhile “band of brothers” had disintegrated rapidly as members set off to find friends and loved ones, Ronin began his solitary fight for life on the outskirts of the worst, rather than in its belly.
Given that it took him quite a while to get his head around the whole walking dead thing, it proved to be a boon. Looking back, he reckoned he would never have survived an area thick with the unliving. His oscillation between suicidal ennui and berserker rage against the abominations would have gotten him munched sooner rather than later.
By the time he had killed a dozen or so zombies, Ronin had his mental shit together and found that he had something of a knack for the work. It wasn’t long before he was picked up by a local mobilization against the droolers; when that militia was absorbed by NADReC, Ronin went along with it.
Unlike Montana, NADReC declined to offer Ronin a command; he had lost too much in those months spent fighting, killing, and surviving on his own. When a man is forced to keep his own counsel for too long, it becomes the only one he trusts or craves. In another kind of war, Ronin’s detachment might have won him praise, perhaps even accolades and advancement. But in a war where every human casualty was almost irreplaceable, a higher level of compassion, of shared humanity, was required.
Ronin mopped sweat from the fine-grit sandpaper of his shaved skull, flipped the HUD monocle over his right eye and checked his location and the time. On this op, he and Pilgrim D were on sweep detail: they would recon for salvage, survivors, and anything else that might interest The Wreck, while Tesla supplied the diversion, and Dickie and Montana went after the (Fucking) Football.
Whatever the hell that is, Ronin thought.
Three teams, thirteen good wrackers all told, had been lost so far trying to hunt down and secure the Double-F; there hadn’t been a whole lot for the rescue teams to retrieve except gore-covered tactical gear and spent weapons. Echelon Zed—this war’s version of the CIA—was keeping a tight lid on what the Football might be, but nadwrackers weren’t idiots: You didn’t survive long in the Zuck if you were. Everyone naturally assumed it had something to do with halting, or at least slowing down, ARKV.
The living had taken back a hefty chunk of the planet, but the endgame had yet to be played; the living were still very much an endangered species. A cure, a vaccine, a counter-pathogen that would destroy the unliving; anything of that nature could tip the balance and restore the living to the top of the food chain. The way Zed was throwing lives at the objective, it couldn’t be anything less.
Well, he decided, if Tes had bought the farm, at least she had created her diversion. He ought to make use of it, out of respect for the (possibly) dead. He was one block and five minutes late for his rendezvous with D.
Most wrackers used nicknames or call-signs, from the newest recruit to Old Peg herself, the current Southeastern District Commander of NADReC. Some used call-signs because their given names carried too many painful memories; others because they couldn’t bear to do the things they had to do as themselves: they had to act through a kind of surrogate persona.
And still others, like Montana Red, his team leader, simply couldn’t remember what their real names had been. The horrors of the Outbreak had been too much for many, and millions of survivors around the world suffered from traumatic amnesia.
But you didn’t have to remember your past to kill droolers in the present—Montana had proven that in spades.
Montana had been a wracker since Day One, before the Command even had a name, when it was little more than isolated bands of the living fighting to stay that way and turn back the rising tide of cannibalistic dead. If you believed the stories, Montana wandered into a staging area out of the Zuck one night, a fire axe on her shoulder, a magnum on her hip, and asked, “Okay, boys and girls—who wants to get red?” The legend had been growing ever since, eclipsed only by the facts.
And yet, Montana couldn’t remember who she had been or even where or how she had acquired the axe and gun. No matter: she didn’t need to know their pedigree to use them well.
When NADReC finally assumed supreme command of the continental theatre, she was offered a cushy gig as a tactical analyst, but she turned it down.
All Montana wanted to do was stay in the field and kill zombies.
She tended to bring her teams back alive, too, which had certainly recommended her and her people for this little goat-rope. Ronin prayed to whatever gods might be listening that her record would remain unblemished for one more night. The hulking wracker was no coward, but Zippy still owned this town big-time.
Leaving the shadows, he moved to the end of the alley farthest from the downtown conflagration and crouched to peer out at the dim, empty street. The wind was picking up now, perhaps fed by the inferno; it sighed and slid cool fingers across his damp, close-cropped scalp, down his back.
The sigh became a hissing moan, and the cool fingers suddenly became blades of ice that sliced into his spine.
That’s not the wind!
The Arkham virus-analog was a cunning and elusive mutagen. Precious time was lost in combatting the initial spread of the infection, until it was realized that the progression of the disease advanced through three distinct, metamorphic phases or stages.
Victims in Stage 1 manifested severe, even crippling, flu-like symptoms for several hours, followed by a precipitous and catastrophic plunge into homicidal madness. It was impossible to restrain or incapacitate these sufferers in any normal way and dangerous to try: law enforcement personnel compared the infected to late-stage addicts in the throes of meth meltdowns. Early death-tolls owed as much to self-defense against attacks from the infected as they did to outright mortality from the disease.
In point of fact, ARKV’s Stage 1 mortality rate was on a par with the Black Death, rising as high, it was later estimated, as sixty-five percent. Stage 1 “thrashers”—so labeled because of their violent and unreasoning behavior—burned out, as it were, in thirty-six to forty-eight hours; the overwhelming majority of these fatalities did not reanimate. The unliving were not responsible, per se, for the collapse of civilization—there simply weren’t enough people left alive to keep it going. Had a portion of the dead not risen, the Apocalypse would have continued uninterrupted, nonetheless.
Of the four-and-a-half billion victims of the first stage, only one in a hundred reanimated as Stage 2 vectors, but that was far more than enough. Each vector had the potential to reignite Stage 1 of the plague among the uninfected and annihilate living humankind forever. The war against the unliving, for mastery of the globe and the fate of collective humanity, began in earnest then.
“Zombie” came into fashion at that time—up till then the “Z-bomb” had been ruthlessly suppressed by government and press alike, in the interest of reducing panic. While there was no question the pandemic was unthinkably devastating, the insane behavior of the initial victims might be nothing more than an extreme, fever-induced psychosis.
When the dead began to rise, however, with an obvious and insatiable appetite for living human flesh, even the stodgiest skeptic could be heard to use the forbidden word from time to time.
This newest manifestation of ARKV did indeed fit the bill of the classic “Romero” zombie: dead, walking, rotting, ravenous. “Reeker” followed soon, as the dead began to do what the dead do best—rot.
Communications between individuals and groups in the struggle against the unliving soon became a hopeless tangle of circular references: Did “dead” mean a true corpse or a reanimated body? Was a “zombie” a thrasher or a reeker? How about “drooler?” And what the hell was a “zarkie?” Only the pitiful remnants of the Internet geek community used such extravagances as the latter invective, but examples still made their way into common usage from time to time.
Decades later, cultural anthropologists and linguists would dissect and analyze the evolution of jargon during the conflict. Most would agree that the appearance of Stage 3 vectors more or less settled the matter.
Shades began to appear in increasing numbers where the unliving were thickest and thus immune to all but the most savage and persistent incursions by the living—towns and cities for the most part, long deserted by all life, even the rats. The disease had sufficient time to work its last and most profound evil in those festering cauldrons of undeath.
Breathers who first encountered Stage 3 vectors had a number of epithets for the newcomers. “Undead Mutant Ninjas from Hell” was briefly popular, but in the end even the Internet community dropped that one. It was not, however, an altogether inaccurate description of the new abominations.
Reekers, unmolested for extended periods of time, became dormant and began to discharge body fluids. This process continued, much the way a corpse desiccates in an arid climate, but independent of atmospheric conditions—reekers in wet environments transformed as readily as any others. The resulting . . . form . . . resembled nothing so much as dark brown or black jerky wrapped around a bleached skeleton, a caricature of human muscular anatomy. Their evil, wizened faces, blind-white eyes, and snapping teeth—needle-sharp and shark-plentiful—made them rapacious, repugnant goblins whose hunger for dripping-red man-meat was even greater than that of their Stage 2 siblings.
Silent and spider-like, with an uncanny ability to climb, shades bore an unsettling resemblance to the perennial martial arts movie villains in their head-to-toe black costumes.
“Jerky” was nominated, until the shades proved the fatal whimsy of that term: there was nothing jerky in the way these new unliving moved, hunted, and killed—cured meat never bit back. “Shadows” became the new designation, and the critical brevity of combat communications shortened that to shades virtually overnight.
This latest metamorphosis was the most horrendous and inexplicable to traditional, hide-bound academics and scientists. It defied the very laws of nature, and rumors of “alien hybrids” began to circulate. Later, these urban legends were laid at the doorstep of a shadowy government misinformation campaign, but no one could doubt that shades were not natural. That is to say, not natural to our ecosphere.
Terminology became much less ambiguous: there were thrashers, there were shades, and there was everything in between, call it what you would. “Zombie” still got everybody’s attention—and the message across—quite succinctly. Variations and usages became dialectal, regional, colloquial. Dead meant dead again—whatever it was, whatever it had been, it wasn’t going to terrorize a living human, ever again.
The language of the times, from the early days through the ensuing years of struggle, reflected the hearts and minds of those who survived, for however long: angry, bitter, brave, defiant. It was, in the final analysis, simple bigotry—toward that which frightened, tormented, and killed.
The lexicon of bigotry is, and always has been, vast and inventive.
Ronin surged to his feet, turning as the first of the shade-pack came at him, mouth gaping, hissing; crooked, bloody fingers reaching to grasp and claw and tear, to satisfy the Hunger.
His instincts, not his rational mind, made the decision to draw his sword rather than a pistol or puffgun. Swords were silent, never jammed, and never had to be reloaded. Just like fire axes.
Katanas, or at least the cheap foreign and domestic facsimiles thereof, had become popular before the Outbreak—every Gen Xer had one hanging somewhere in his or her crib. However, the quality of those knock-offs was unpredictable; Ronin had seen more than one fail in a battle against the unliving, all too often to the fatal consternation of the wielder. True, there were good-quality blades to be had in the vast second-hand store of the Zuck, but kenjitsu—Japanese swordsmanship with live steel—had never been a big pastime in the States, so those blades were few and far between.
Not all the copies were subpar, however. Ronin had chanced upon one he considered exceptional. It was neither ancient nor Japanese but a modern Yankee adaptation of the katana design. The model had been produced before the Outbreak by United Cutlery, which had marketed the weapon as the Honshu “tactical wakizashi.” It was all high-quality stainless steel and ABS plastic, and it had never let him down.
As he drew the blade over his left shoulder, he pivoted just enough to clear the path of the oncoming shade. Taken by surprise, the zombie could not adjust; it passed him on his right as he continued the draw in a wide arc—the sword took the top of the zombie’s skull off like a weed-whacker beheading a daisy.
Ronin reversed the blade in a tight curve. Pivoting on the ball of his foot, returning to his original position, he caught the next shade with a Babe Ruth right through the ears. The creature’s body, black rawhide wrapping corpse-grey bones, was hurled to one side as he shouldered past it, meeting the next head-on. The katana swept out again, catching the third shade just over the right hip, moving up and across its torso with little resistance, until the blade emerged with a flash of reflected firelight and a spray of thick black ichor from the thing’s left shoulder. The top half of the body slid to the pavement, and Ronin groin-kicked the remainder into a pile of garbage before it could fall over of its own accord.
The katana was behind him and to the right when he completed the kick, and the next shade attacked with a chilling moan of anticipation. Thank all that was holy, the unliving just kept coming—hey diddle diddle, straight up the middle. Had they even the vaguest notion of strategy, tactics, and cooperation, well, he wouldn’t be here because he would have died long ago.
As it was, the unthinking zombie “tactics” almost succeeded. Ronin brought the sword up and over, from his low right to his high left, like the Tin Woodsman winding up to split a stump. The zombie’s head offered much less resistance than time-hardened oak, and the force of the blow coupled with the shade’s momentum wedged the curved blade deep in its sternum. It was twice dead, but as it crumpled, it still managed to disarm him.
Three more shades rushed from the fire-lit gloom. Ronin jump-stepped to the far right, outside the reach of the moon-eyed creature on that flank. As their mutual trajectories brought it into range, he hooked his left arm over its corresponding limb, like a square dancer taking a partner’s arm at the elbow. He snaked his right hand around the back of its skeletal neck, then traded places with it in a whirl and a snap, redirecting its momentum and his into a tight semicircle; its forehead impacted the alley wall with a brittle, rotten-wood crack! His right hand slid around its throat, and he spun to its far side in a blur. Hooking a leg behind the shade’s spindly ankles, he grabbed a handful of larynx and drove his fist toward the zombie’s heels. The back of the elongated, malformed head met the concrete with lethal force, and ichor sprayed out in a curdled black-red halo.
One of its fellows hit Ronin like a linebacker as the wracker straightened, driving him into the unforgiving brick wall, teeth clicking rapid-fire as it sought his throat. But it was treading on parts of its downed comrades and couldn’t find the right leverage. Ronin shoved a forearm up between them and jammed it into the shade’s mouth. It bit down, worrying at the Kevlar forearm guard, unable to understand that it couldn’t bite through the tough material.
Yet another shade made a lunge for Ronin’s throat, snapping its repulsive, piranha-like teeth, oblivious of its fellow already grappling with him. That withered specter, frustrated that it couldn’t get to the meat and facing encroachment by a rival, whipped its face toward the interloper, squalling like a scalded puma.
Ronin brought an elbow up and over, driving it into the temple of the distracted zombie as hard as he could—the blow hit the shade like a nightstick. Not enough to put it down, but it staggered; its associate took that opportunity to throw it across the alley and leap once again at Ronin.
Ronin snatched a throwing knife from his bandolier and met the leap with the upthrust blade. The zombie’s body weight brought it down on the knife; the point went in under its chin and straight into the brain. Ronin didn’t bother trying to retrieve the blade—he let the shade take it along to Hell. He’d get it back when they saw each other again.
Ronin’s erstwhile dance partner—spun the width of the alley by its pack-mate—had tripped over a body and gone down; it was thrashing around, trying to get to its feet. It seemed to be having an inordinate amount of difficulty, even for a zombie. Perhaps the temple strike, or the impact against the alley wall, had damaged something vital, without which even ARKV couldn’t tug the corpse-puppet’s strings.
Ronin didn’t care, and Zippy didn’t count when it came to excessive force. He jumped high and came down with both feet on a knee that was sprawled out to the side; he felt the joint turn to crunchy hash under his boots. The zombie did not moan this time—it howled.
The nadwracker kicked it in the face, bouncing its skull off the bricks; it sagged and flopped over, leaking a sticky tarriness from its mouth, nose, and ears. Ronin stomped the head like the neighborhood bully stomping pumpkins on Halloween, with disgustingly similar results.
His instincts flared in alarm, and he spun again, to confront two more shades closing on him. It was tight, but he still had enough time.
Even as he was drawing the puffgun, something went thwup thwup thwup, and a blur tumbled out of the darkness, cartwheeling past his ear. A second followed before the first had found its mark; the last two shades abruptly sprouted evil-looking tomahawks from their foreheads. The wedging action of the ‘hawks split their skulls like ripe casaba melons, and they dropped without further discussion.
Shaking his head, a testy squint in his eye, Ronin turned toward the approaching form, arms akimbo.
“Show off,” he said, his voice dripping with mock disdain but genuine indignation. “I had this!”
Pilgrim D gripped a tomahawk handle, put a foot on the meat, and heaved. The ‘hawk came free with a distinct—and disgusting—pop.
“I’m not the one who was late to the meet, bro.” D retrieved his other weapon with a similar, unsavory noise and began wiping the blades down carefully. “You’re welcome, by the way. What’s with the fireworks?”
Ronin shrugged, bent to free his own blade. If there had been more shades lurking about, they’d know by now, but he didn’t relax overmuch. They weren’t out of the shitter yet. Not by a long shot.
“I just hope Tes didn’t punch her own ticket this time.”
D sheathed his tomahawks, then made a palms-up “WTF?” gesture. “Bound to happen sooner or later, hombre—what can you do? Just hope you aren’t at ground zero when she does.”
A few inches shorter than Ronin, Pilgrim D was . . . stocky—he carried his muscle under a layer of what he called, with a straight face, insulation and padding. He wore his salt-and-pepper hair long, gathered at the nape of his neck and hanging down his back, daring an opponent to grab it—D practiced long and hard at killing whoever or whatever might grab that lure.
D had been in the belly of the beast when the Outbreak arrived in Southern California. The gentle, affable writer and meditation teacher fought his way out of the LA Basin along with his wife, mother-in-law, and a clutch of friends and neighbors. After running a harrowing gauntlet, they were able to join the refugees streaming into Nevada, heading toward Las Vegas.
Montana and D met briefly during the early days of the Outbreak in that desert city, then again some years later when NADReC began assembling elite teams.
D didn’t get the “Pilgrim” until he and Ronin discovered a mutual admiration for the movie Jeremiah Johnson. In that context, the word referred more to a far traveler and a survivor than to a holy pedestrian.
He flipped his monocle into place, looked cross-eyed for a few seconds, and then flipped it back.
“Times a-wasting; we better git.”
“Word,” Ronin agreed. The pair scanned the battlefield a final time, then ghosted off together into the hot, dark, stinking night.
“Well,” Dickie Strange commented dryly, squinting at the mammoth pillar of smoke and flame towering over midtown. “There’s yer sign . . .”
Resembling a plumber more than a legend-class sniper, Dickie was a bit of an anomaly on Montana’s team: he was the only one amongst them who had seen actual military service and been trained in the arts and crafts of warfare.
Dickie was aged whipcord covered in denim—stinksuits be damned, his attire never changed. Dickie contended that, with all field gear and body armor in place, it was hard to tell what someone had on underneath, so what the fuck, right?
Older wrackers noted in Dickie an eerie resemblance to the late George Carlin, including a blond ponytail drawn so tight it brought tears to the eyes of onlookers. Dickie smoked to excess whenever tobacco was available and mourned its absence when it wasn’t.
In the months before ARKV, Dickie had been working as a bouncer in an illegal brothel in Las Vegas that occupied the top two floors behind a discount dental office. Like Ronin, he had been absent from his digs when the Outbreak swept through his home town: Dickie was a prospector as well as a bouncer and something of an inventor. Even as the first wave of infected inundated the Strip, Dickie was in the desert nearby, testing his “gold Geiger-counter.”
(Dickie was convinced that his invention broadcast particles that bounced off everything except gold, which absorbed them. By following a trail of nothing, so to speak, Dickie hoped to strike it rich . . .)
Dickie’s call-sign was a case of tradition gone wrong: an old team mate had tried to hang “Dr. Strange” on the odd little sniper, but Dickie’s penchant for referring to himself in the third person thwarted that. Other wrackers settled the matter by adopting the compromise mutation, “Dickie Strange.”
Montana, securing an extra brace of ice picks to her thigh with duct tape, shook her head in disbelief. “Girl’s gone crazy,” was all she said.
Where Dickie was wiry, Montana was . . . svelte—she had been described as Aphrodite with Diana’s muscles. Montana sported a mop of fiery Celtic red that earned her part of her call-sign. She also had the fair skin and fae beauty of that ancient bloodline. And she was never more beautiful than when she was in her wrath.
She towered over Dickie by a good five inches, but if that fact intimidated the sniper, no one could recall noticing.
Dickie and Montana had gravitated to each other in the aftermath of the Battle of the Las Vegas Strip and had been very much in each other’s company ever since.
Dickie raised his rifle, brought the scope to his eye, and peered in the direction of the blast, hoping to see two figures silhouetted against the blaze—one short and living, one tall and not. After a quick moment, he shook his head and lowered the gun.
“Too far. I couldn’t see them if they were there. Want me to bounce over and take a look?”
Communications were a big pain in the ass on this mission. The city was too far down the reclamation list to merit an aerostat—a miniature, drone blimp used to relay digital signals in the absence of functioning satellites—so they were at the mercy of the concrete canyons; thus far, that mercy had been non-existent.
But this wasn’t anything new for wrackers—they didn’t refer to Command as The Wreck for nothing.
Montana chewed her lip, running a finger along the edge of her khukuri in contemplation. After a moment, she shook her head, sliding the massive blade into its oiled sheath.
“Nah. She’s unleashed worse hell and come through it in one piece. We have to depend on her to do that tonight. I don’t like it, but the Double-F comes first, and then we all need to get the hell out of Dodge.”
“I hear that! Well, if she is dead, we don’t have to worry about her reanimating.”
Montana arched an eyebrow, invisible in the darkness, under the camo paint.
“Oh? How’s that?” She knew Dickie was setting her up, but he wouldn’t leave her alone until she let him have his laugh.
Predictable as a knock-knock joke, Dickie flashed a wicked grin. “Well, I figure if the blast did catch her, she’s in a couple million pieces right now.”
Montana made a rude noise and rolled her eyes. Time to get Dickie focused on the task at hand.
“All right, funny-man, let’s mount up. The zombies aren’t going to kill themselves.” She spun her shotgun on its sling, checked to make sure there was a round in the breach—she had disabled the safety when she checked the weapon out of the armory: superfluous nonsense; going to get some ‘cruit mas-tee-cated.
“Trying out Tes’ new shells?” Dickie asked.
Montana nodded. “I’ve just got to see this ‘meteor shower’ she keeps hooting about. Wish I could have run a couple through at the range before we left. I hope the goddamned things don’t blow up in my face. Will you still love me if Tes’ meteor shower turns me into a faceless hag, Dickie?”
“Eternally and without interruption, Sweetie-Darling,” Dickie replied. Dickie fussed at his webbing, adjusting the groin strap on his tactical harness with a leftward yank. Satisfied with his new-found freedom, he slung the rifle and touched a finger to his forehead in salute.
“I’m off to the office, honey. Want anything from the bodega on my way home?”
Montana’s kick missed his butt by six inches as he melted into the dark. “Just keep those droolers off my ass. I’ve got a bad feeling about this pillbox as it is.”
A sound drifted back to her that might have been a smooch.
Smiling to herself, Montana turned back to the objective and paused for the briefest moment.
There was nothing left to do, no preparations unmade; events were in motion.
It was time.
Many of the elite nadwrackers enacted elaborate rituals before a rumble with the unliving. Montana did not. What was the point? Either you had your shit together or you didn’t. Either you lived or you died. And if you died and came back, you’d never know.
Montana dismissed the thought, drew a deep breath, held it, let it out with a long sigh, settling the seething nuclear reactor of kill!kill!kill! in her belly, finding her inner butcher, letting the hot, coppery breath of bloodlust wash through her.
She sighed, emitted a delicate belch and cracked her neck to the left, the tender side.
Then she crossed the street to the old ten-story apartment block, shadows born of the growing inferno in lock-step beside her.
She was ass-deep in droolers as soon as she kicked through the buckled remains of the lobby door. Through her RITIGs, it was a green and black vision of hell—a crowd of the unliving rounding on the sudden racket, jaws champing with rabid anticipation. A reeker snarled and lunged at her. She tilted the shotgun, aiming from the hip; a bit too flamboyant perhaps, given the circumstances.
Montana’s mind may have frozen in the instant the shotgun failed to discharge, but her body continued on about its business. She stepped into the oncoming zombie, wielding the long gun like a cudgel stick. She struck upward with the hardwood stock, under its chin, and the blow ripped the front half of its skull off; she kicked it into the path of the next two.
Potted palms, dead and dry as any shade, rustled to her left; she whirled on the lurking drooler, charging with the shotgun as if it sported a bayonet. The mouth of the barrel served instead, as she thrust into the thing’s gaping jaws, driving it into the wall, until the barrel punched through the base of its skull and into the drywall.
The reeker’s lower jaw snapped once on the unyielding steel; then it was still.
Wrenching the gun free, Montana reversed it; it now became an axe that spattered the brains of her next opponent into the eyes of its companion. The force of the blow sent the carcass into the blinded zombie’s knees and both crashed to the floor, thrashing furiously. Montana’s impromptu axe rose and fell . . . and there was stillness.
Montana huffed in irritation, and threw the useless shotgun onto the pile of bodies. She couldn’t take the chance that all the rounds weren’t duds. The meteor shells were supposed to unload a storm of double-aught skull-shredding incendiary pellets guaranteed to cook the formerly grey matter of any drooler unfortunate enough to get a face full. But she’d have to see that another day.
Reaching over her shoulder, she unlimbered her fire axe.
The edge seemed to glow eerily in the green vision of her RITIGs, and she might have become entranced for a moment, had an errant reeker not charged from the blackness of the elevator nook. Montana stopped it in its tracks with a slap of the axehead flat into its face, then popped it through the forehead with the hook.
As the reeker slid to the floor, pulling itself off the axe, from somewhere in the building overhead, echoing down the emergency stairwell, Montana heard a scream.
She was in the stairwell and three floors up before her mind caught up with her body, and she sorted out what she had heard. A scream. Not the moan of the unliving, but the scream of a living human being. A very young and terrified female, from the sound of it.
Six floors up now, and Montana was still taking the stairs two, sometimes three at a time. Her legs were filled with molten lead, the axe in her hand felt like a telephone pole, and she had given up on oxygen somewhere around the fourth floor.
Oxygen is for pussies, she reminded herself, never slackening her pace.
Below and behind her, she heard the continuous, measured pop! pop! pop! as Dickie continued to “thin the herd.” He was out there somewhere, moving from fire escape to rooftop to window ledge like a wizened little orangutan, with his scoped Armalite 22 M-15 carbine and a satchel full of .22 long rifle ammo.
While most nadwrackers scrabbled for every magnum and big-bore shotgun they could get their hands on, Dickie had done the math: all you needed to do was put a bullet in the brain, and any bullet, it turned out, would do just fine. The Armalite was easy to carry, fun to use, and .22 ammo was a lot easier to find now than heavier calibers. It didn’t have the same penetration as a bigger round, but at reasonable range, with a good eye, you could breach the skull nineteen out of twenty shots.
At least Dickie could. He knew all the soft spots . . .
Dickie and a six-legged camel couldn’t carry enough ammo between them to put a real dent in the ranks of the local unliving, but he could keep them confused and distracted. In the canyon-like maze of the city, the soft, ripping-cotton report of the .22 bounced around, and the zombies couldn’t home in on it. To add to their frustration—Can they be frustrated?—every tenth round or so, Dickie would punch a hole in a derelict car, take a chip out of a brick wall, or shoot out the last shard of glass hanging in an otherwise denuded window frame.
Unlike more random, natural events in their environment, each of these sudden, sharp noises and brief flashes of motion seized the attention of the zombies anew. Unable to conceptualize things like distraction or ambush, the hapless droolers just kept turning from sound to sound, movement to movement, like an obscene school of fish.
From the sixth floor landing, Montana saw the legs of a reeker on its way down, drawn perhaps by her gasping, foot-pounding ascent. They would meet on the smaller landing where the stairwell turned to complete the climb to the seventh floor.
Can it see me, sense me in this total darkness? The question was as old as the Outbreak; no one knew the true answer. She had to assume it could.
She forced new energy into her exhausted legs, sprinting up the last steps as the zombie turned the corner and faced her, snarling from a bloodless face torn with deep gashes that wept black pus. She held the fire axe at waist level, gripped in both hands, the head horizontal. As she closed with the hideous apparition, she thrust upward in a powerful spearing motion.
The blow landed a bit low, catching the abhorrent creature in the throat and smashing it into the cinderblock wall. She heard and felt the structures in the throat collapse; wet, brittle, crumpling sounds. The blow would have killed a breather in an instant, if only from the shock, but the drooler just clawed at her, jaws snapping with a horrendous clack.
“Try that without teeth, motherfucker,” she muttered, pulling the axe back and striking again in a fluid, lightning-fast blow. The zombie was just opening its pie-hole again, and the top of the axehead obliterated its front teeth and kept going, until the cold metal hit the hinge of the jaw. For a second time, the drooler was hammered against the wall, and Montana kept it pinned there with one hand on the axe haft, while the other snaked to the small of her back, pulled an icepick from the assortment sheathed there, and punched it into the reeker’s forehead.
The fight had been all but silent. She craned her neck and stared up at the ruckus on the seventh floor landing.
A dozen zombies at least were sardined on the landing, all of them trying to get at the door to the seventh, none of them able to fathom the complexity of the thumb latch (although sheer probability dictated that one of them would trip it sooner rather than later).
Expedience and personal safety dictated that she slap leather and start shooting; it would be a lot like one of those old video games. The puffgun would be of little use, however, as the pack was facing away from her. She could try to puff their legs, but she’d just end up with a pile of pissed-off, stuck-together reekers obstructing the door—not the kind of Gordian knot she wanted to untangle.
Unlike Dickie, Montana had opted for a big hog-leg, and the boom of the Desert Eagle .44 would be like ringing the dinner bell, if additional unliving were still lurking elsewhere in the building—and she had to assume there were. They might not hear a beat-down a couple of floors below or above, but they’d sure as hell hear that gun. Besides, as Dickie often reminded her, it was getting harder and harder to find ammo in that caliber.
With everybody defecting to pansy-guns, she lamented the deprecation of large caliber guns in favor of smaller, more resource-efficient firearms.
Guess we get to do this old school. She tightened her grip on the axe and started up the steps.
Truth be told, when she threw herself into the red and black maelstrom of combat, Montana felt something rising up in her, with gaping saw-toothed maw and lolling tongue, its necklace of skulls rattling, its thousand arms unfolding, holding nothing in its myriad hands but fire axes and Death. It would not—could not—be satisfied with the dispassion and detachment of gunfire; it had to feel the mist of her enemy’s vital juices on its face.
It is a mercy, perhaps, that the unliving crowded into that noisome space had no thought processes, could not see in the pitch blackness of the landing, and therefore had no feelings of terror and madness, as Kali Ma rose up behind them.
And laughed . . .
Weightless now in her hands, the axe split the skull of the zombie in the middle of the back rank. It sagged as she released the haft, snatched out a nine-inch nail honed to a needle point and sank it into the temple of the creature on her right. Before it could begin to sag, she was on the drooler to the left, punching a trench spike through its right eye socket. Her first kill, the blade of the axe buried in the rank ruin of its skull, hadn’t quite reached its knees when her hands closed on the axe haft again and yanked it free.
She whirled the axe in a wide arc; the blade hacked through the base of a zombie’s skull and caught the one just beyond it below the ear. The blade easily parted the clay-like resistance of unliving meat and bone, all but decapitating the zombie and sinking into the cinderblock wall. As the moaning corpse to her right began to turn her way, Montana stepped back, wrenched the axe from its captivity and pivoted with the momentum. The hook caught the unliving square between the eyes and the head burst in a viscous cascade of congealed, rotten tissue.
The force of the blow continued through the zombie’s skull, and the axehead hit the wall again, this time at an awkward angle. The torque of the impact wrenched the axe from her hands, and she felt her feet becoming entangled in the offal of her first victims, their thick ichor making the footing treacherous. She sprang back, as three remaining zombies turned toward her, and drew her khukuri.
“Forget those katana-swinging ninja wannabes,” she told Dickie when she found the knife in an otherwise looted gun shop. “If what you want, Dickie Darling, is to hack off limbs and heads, ain’t nothing like a khukuri.”
(She had licked the flat of the blade then, the tip of her tongue flicking over the razor edge, that light in her eyes. Dickie couldn’t help it: he shuddered.)
The khukuri was the traditional fighting knife of the Gurkha tribes and had served with the Gurkha regiments of the British Army from World War I through the Falklands. Its reputation for mayhem was such that, legend had it, German soldiers confronted with one often micturated themselves.
Droolers, on the other hand, did not accord it the respect it deserved and paid the price.
The first unliving arm to reach for her vanished at the elbow, leaving a glistening black stump. A snarling face slid from the front of its skull, the exposed sinus cavities gushing putrid slime, and a head leaped free of its moorings, bouncing off the wall with a spongy thud. A neck snapped under a vicious backhand stroke—the heavy spine of the hooked blade was as deadly as the glittering, blood-bright edge. But it was an awkward cut—the varnished wooden handle, slick now with ichor and sweat, slipped from her hand, and the knife spun away into the gloom.
For a heartbeat, Montana froze, squared off against the last two droolers. She could have sworn they hesitated as well. Sudden inspiration seized her, and she snap-drew the Eagle.
She grabbed the nearest zombie by the Windsor knot still hanging at its Adam’s apple and used her body weight to swing it around, shoving it into the last one. She rammed her rigid forearm into the cold, unbreathing chest, forcing the reekers back, wedging them into the corner.
Then she shoved the magnum deep into the mouth of the one she held and pulled the trigger. Its skull served very well as an impromptu silencer, and the sound of the big round going off was a wet, muffled, echoless belch.
The bullet hardly slowed as it punched through both skulls and sent a rooster-tail of gore up the chute formed by the angle of the walls. The last pair of unliving slid to the floor and a fine, cold mist settled over Montana’s forehead.
Kali Ma sighed in ecstasy, and the Morrighan grinned, licking her scarlet-dripping lips . . .
By the book, it was called DCS—Dynamic Contact Shooting—but the wrackers had ripped off a late twentieth century flick and christened it gun-kata. Gun-fu was also popular. A phonetic of the acronym, “Decease,” never caught on. It seemed redundant.
It evolved from techniques developed in early twenty-first century law enforcement and dignitary protection, combined with fundamental principles from fighting and self-defense systems such as Krav Maga. A well-trained wracker could scythe through a small mob of unliving, dispatching zombies with contact shots and vertebra shattering blows. Kicks, sweeps, knees, and elbows were all brought to bear, although the use of front head-butts was discouraged due to the risk of infection from incidental fluid spray.
Montana was a senior instructor for the Eastern Seaboard Protectorate.
She eased the latch and pulled the door open a quarter inch. Concentrating past the roar of blood in her ears, she listened for a few precious seconds
Somebody was having a party in the corridor, and the Grim Reaper was catering. She knew that sound all too well: a hallway full of droolers trying to get through a single closed door.
She dropped to one knee, poked her head through the door and rotated it left-right-left so fast her neck-bones protested audibly. Barring legless zombies, taking a low-line was safest; by default it seemed, the unliving stared straight ahead until attracted to motion or noise. By the time they could react to something at knee height, she’d be out of sight again.
To the right, the hallway was empty. Three doors—one to either side and one at the end—hung open, the heavy commercial doors wrenched off the hinges to one degree or another. If those apartments weren’t empty, she’d have a good chance of hearing anything trying to move into the hallway. But she doubted any players on the opposing team were absent from the hoedown at the other end of the hall, which was an indescribable snapshot from Hell.
It was a virtual repetition of the stairwell. Eight reekers this time, jammed into the end of the narrow hallway, those nearest the door clawing and hammering at it, the ones behind hammering and clawing at their backs. If any had needed to breathe, they’d all be dead by now.
An absolute text-book scenario, she thought, and shrugged. Okay, gun-fu it is.
Rising, she drew her puffgun to supplement the magnum and stepped into the hall behind the raging zombies. She drew in a deep breath and roared it out at them:
“Shabbat shalom, motherfuckers!“
It was anticlimactic and infuriating: None of the unliving heard her over their own racket.
So she started walking toward the rancid, heaving mass with an easy, measured swagger; she raised the magnum and shot a drooler through the back of its head.
Screw stealth. Let ’em come.
The . . . concussion was the only word . . . of the magnum round detonating in the concrete and cinderblock confines of the hallway got their attention. Not to mention being liberally splattered with the former contents of their comrade’s skull.
Even as they turned, she was within striking distance. She raised both pistols . .
And slipped into Montana time.
In mid-stride, time slammed to a crawl; she could almost hear the jagged shriek of a needle being raked across an old vinyl platter. Her vision constricted; the air around her became a viscous non-ness that she slipped, rather than walked, through. The reekers, moving so swiftly a moment ago, now seemed like characters in a slow-motion movie that was playing around her. The situation, once so dire, seemed quite workable now. There was plenty of time—all the time in the world.
Frejya of the Golden Tears drew her sword and smiled . . .
The first round from her puffgun caught a zombie in the cheekbone; the foam flumphed! out and wrapped around the thing’s head. Its hands came up to claw at the smothering mass and stuck fast. She slid out of its path with an easy, fluid movement as it staggered off down the corridor.
Turning, she clipped a drooler in the temple with the underside of the magnum’s slide assembly. Wrackers often reinforced their weapons so they could be used as cudgels, hatchets, or knives, if choice or a dearth of ammo so dictated. Montana was no exception.
The edge of the fortified muzzle cracked open the zombie’s skull and spun it to the floor.
She continued the swing and drove the muzzle into the side of a drooler’s head, pulling the trigger at the instant of contact. Vile-smelling effluvia erupted from the opposite side of the reeker’s head as it too dropped.
And she kept turning, gliding forward as she did.
“Keep moving in circles and curves, and something good will happen,” her DCS instructors used to tell her. It was analogous to spinning in flag football, making it more difficult for opposing players to get a grip on your flag. She spun, and the fingers clutching her harness were twisted, bent, and torn away.
She punched the puffgun into a zombie’s mouth and fired. The expanding payload blew the skull apart, and she ducked—so languid, it seemed, so slow—as the forehead—eyebrows still attached, she noted—flashed past her ear.
A twist of her hips, a step, and the magnum punched into and discharged through the forehead of a frothing drooler.
Three unliving remained between her and the besieged door, and it was all up-close and personal: she didn’t have room to raise her guns, so she jabbed up and out at the throat on her left, the magnum round carrying away the base of its brain.
She twirled like a dancer toward the last two . . .
Graceful . . .
Floating . . .
And slipped again, this time on the gore-covered floor.
Still in Montana time, she had the rare opportunity to appreciate her feet rising into view in front of her, passing the level of her eyes as her head tilted back and down.
Montana time ran out at the apex of her trajectory, and she plummeted to the floor in real time.
Her head slammed into the unforgiving tile with brutal force; her vision flared into unrelieved whiteness. Pain shot down her arms, and as they first spasmed, then went limp and numb, the guns flew from her hands.
Her breath left in a huff, and showed no signs of returning any time soon.
The eternally ravenous droolers closed in to partake of a proper lunch; she tried to draw back a leg, kick out at a knee, slow them down somehow.
Not this. Please. Not like this.
Then the air, the very space in the hallway . . . contorted . . . and the unliving crumbled—in a breath, in a heartbeat—into an ash so fine that it hung in the air, holding to its form for long moments ere it dispersed.
Montana blinked in astonishment and promptly summersaulted into the roaring abyss of unconsciousness.
Montana, jerking back to awareness, would have struck out at the blur hovering a few feet away, but her arms were not yet sufficiently responsive. This allowed time for her eyes to focus on another pair of eyes: bright, earnest, concerned.
A girl of perhaps ten or eleven knelt beside Montana in the light from the open apartment door, the threshold stained with puddled ichor.
Montana struggled to her elbows as the girl looked on placidly, making no move to help or hinder. The wracker turned her head first one way, then the other, as much to test her neck as to survey their surroundings.
Something was missing . . .
A memory stabbed at her, urgent, needle sharp; her eyes flew wide in shock and dismay. She sat bolt upright, pain be damned.
“The reekers! Where are the zombies?”
The girl looked sad, regretful.
“I read Mom’s book at them and they went away.”
The air twisting, writhing like a live thing . . .
Something small and cold, with tiny, sharp claws, ran up Montana’s back. Her scalp stood at attention; there was a roaring in her ears.
Her mouth, dry as coffin-dust, worked for a moment without producing articulate speech. Then:
“Where is your mom now?”
The girl’s sadness deepened perceptibly; tears brimmed in her tired, red eyes.
“She got sick and tried to bite me. I had to read the book at her, too.”
Fine grey ash drifting to the floor . . .
And then Montana knew.
When you came right down to it, it wasn’t any stranger than two-day-old corpses reanimating and feasting on the living. No wonder Zed wanted the book—if it could turn millions of the unliving to powder as easily as a hallway full . . . the war was over!
“So it’s like a gun, right?” she said.
The ragamuffin nodded, eyes bright, lower lip trembling.
Nice one, Red! She kicked herself in the mental ass. Why not ask if she wants to help with her mom’s autopsy, while you’re at it?
Montana rocked to her knees, extended a tentative, apologetic hand.
“I’m sorry, sweetie,” she said. “It must have been so hard to do what you had to do today. You saved your life and mine. I’m sorry about your mom, but you’re a hero! Did you know that?”
Knowing it was bullshit but willing to be mollified at least in part, the youngster said, “My name’s not Sweetie—it’s Katy Lynne.”
“My name’s Montana,” the wracker said. “Thanks for helping me when I was down. We call that having someone’s back.”
Katy rolled her eyes. “Everybody knows that, Montana! Who’s ‘we’?”
“The people I work for,” Montana said. “We’re called DM3. You’ve heard of us, haven’t you?”
Katy’s eyes widened; she looked at Montana as if the wracker had transformed into Wonder Woman. “You’re the soldiers who kill zombies!”
“That’s us!” Montana said, thinking, At least until you came along, kid! Looks like you’ve got a few things to teach us about killing droolers.
In post-Outbreak vernacular, DM3 was shorthand for NADReC—it was derived from the Command’s motto: Dimitte Mortuos Manere Mortuus—Let the Dead Remain Dead.
“We’re here,” she said, spinning a tale from whole cloth and feeling guilty about doing so, “to get everyone out of the way before we come and kill a whole lot of zombies. We don’t want any civilians to get hurt, y’know?”
Katy Lynne nodded, and the look in her eyes almost broke Montana’s heart. There wasn’t anything here for this kid but horror and grief; boy, did she ever want to get out of there.
“Where’s the book now, Katy Lynne?” Montana said, gaining her feet at last.
“In there,” Katy said, pointing through the open door of the apartment, for all the world as if she were telling Montana where to find the toilet. “I don’t like to touch it—it feels nasty.”
“No problem, Katy,” the wracker said. “You just let ol’ Montana handle it.”
Taking Montana’s hand, Katy led her into the living area of the dingy, mold-ridden apartment, where a large, antique volume sat open on a coffee table, like a great medieval bible on display in a modern cathedral. Montana bet the damn thing must weigh ten pounds.
As she neared, she caught a faint, unpleasant whiff from the book—somehow she knew it was the book, despite all the possible sources of malodor nearby—a repugnant synthesis of musty old leather and the coppery reek of blood. Living human blood.
“It is kind of nasty, isn’t it?” she said to Katy, as she reached to pick up the hideous tome. The child pulled on her hand, leaning back, anchoring Montana in place more with the desperation of her grip than the weight of her slight frame. When Montana looked back in surprise, Katy was shaking her head, her eyes locked on Montana, pleading.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” she said in a small voice made eerie by its matter-of-factness.
Montana jerked her hand back as if the book had turned into a nest of cobras, which itself would not have surprised her at that point. Visions of droolers turning to dust made her reconsider, and she took a full step back.
“You and your mom brought the book with you, right Katy?” The young girl nodded. “How did she carry it?”
Katy stooped and pulled a crumpled black wad from beneath the coffee table, a thin cotton backpack. She handed it to Montana. “This,” she said.
Well, Montana thought, maybe it needs to be read from to be . . . effective. Here goes the proverbial nothing!
Both hands inside the backpack as if it were a huge oven mitt, she reached for the book with more trepidation than confidence. Despite her precautions, the exposed flesh at her wrist came into fleeting contact with the cracked, ancient leather binding.
The spark that jumped from the book to her wrist was a tongue of blue flame a foot long. The arm went numb to the shoulder; bitter cold edged the numbness and seeped down into her chest. She was hurled up and back and might have suffered a deal more damage had the sofa not ended up beneath her. She shook her head, but the lights dancing before her eyes only grabbed partners from the crowd and danced faster.
For the second time that night, she found herself gazing into the sad, puppy-dog eyes of frightened little Katy.
“Maybe I should carry the book, Montana,” she said with great seriousness and concern.
Montana tapped herself on the temple, blinking rapidly, trying to get both eyes to focus on the same thing at the same time. “Maybe you should at that, Katy,” she said.
The book weighed less than Montana expected; Katy had little trouble carrying it once it was secured in the backpack and the latter settled on her shoulders. Maybe whatever mojo powered the book also gave it antigravity or some such. Tes would know—where was Tes when she needed her?
The eerie silence pervading the apartment tower endured. Beyond the windows, darkness struggled against the growing red glare from the enormous funeral pyre of the downtown district.
Montana remained on alert, but there wasn’t a whisper of contact until they were ready to head out. Montana spun at a faint footfall in the hallway, snapping the magnum out of its holster, leveling it at the cyclopean apparition that peered through the door with a single, green eye.
“Montana!” it said, in a hoarse, angry whisper, glaring at her around the scope of the rifle.
“Dickie!” she said, in stark surprise. “What are you doing here?”
“Checking up on your ass, as usual,” he said, lowering the weapon. “I couldn’t raise you on comm, so I followed the trail of body parts.” His eyes flicked around the apartment, settled on Katy. “What’s with the kid?”
“Found her here with the Fu . . . the Double-F,” Montana said, resting a light, hesitant hand on the backpack.
“That’s the Football?” Dickie was incredulous.
“It’s even better than that,” she said. “You’re never going to believe this shit.”
“Try me,” he said.
Montana laid it out for him, straight up.
“I don’t believe that shit, Montana,” he said when she was done. “You hurt your head when you fell, that’s all. You were tripping.”
“I was?” Montana bridled. “Okay, smart guy—come over here and put your hand on the book.” She gestured to the backpack like it was a sink dispose-all running full tilt.
Eyes shifting like the proverbial cornered rat, Dickie appealed to expediency.
“If you say it’s the Football,” he said, “it’s the Football. We need to get the fuck out of here di di mau. Zippy’s starting to move away from Tes’ fireworks, so the streets are filling up faster than I can divert ’em.”
“If you’re asking me out, Dickie,” Montana batted her eyes, “stop beating around the bush and just ask me out!”
Ronin and Pilgrim D tumbled into the idling evac osprey to find Dickie, Montana, and a young girl there already. Comm contact with Tesla had been re-established eventually; she and Fred were RTB—returning to base—in one of her infamous warwagons, a monstrous armored contraption of steel and horsepower.
Turbines roaring, the osprey sprang into the night sky, impatient, it seemed, to be aloft. Jarring its way through layers of air tormented by the heat of the burning city, jostling its cargo of soft, water-balloon life forms, the warplane sought calmer skies closer to the stars.
Montana sat, cold as stone, eyes hard, staring through the bulkhead in front of her. The young girl, bundled in a survival blanket, held a large, black cloth backpack on her lap.
Ronin and D looked at each other, then at Dickie.
“What’s with the kid?” Ronin asked.
Dickie shrugged, helpless to adequately summarize the situation.
“Montana found her in the target building,” he said after a moment. “In the exact apartment we were sent to check out. She was there with her mother.”
“What?” Ronin and D blurted as one.
Dickie nodded. “Droolers attacked, mother got bit, turned. The kid killed her somehow; I haven’t gotten all the details yet. But whatever she did attracted a shitload of reekers. She, well,” Dickie coughed, cleared his throat, looked at the toes of his boots. “According to Montana, she somehow killed two or three of those, too.”
The expressions on the faces of Pilgrim D and Ronin would never be duplicated.
“What the hell were they doing in the city? They couldn’t have been there since the Outbreak!” D protested. Dickie turned his palms up, pointing with his eyebrows at Montana and the kid.
“Ask her. Her name’s Katy Lynne.”
“Hey, uh, Katy Lynne?” Ronin began, in the tentative yet condescending tone of an adult who has few interactions with children. Katy Lynne’s eyes shifted to him.
“Do you know why your mother took you into that city?”
“To hide the book,” she said without hesitation, quite matter-of-factly. Her eyes, devoid of guile, gazed into his. “She said no one in their right fucking mind would be shit-brain stupid enough to come looking for it there.”
D snorted, then became intensely interested in his toes.
“Huh,” Ronin said, “I think I might have liked your mother. How did you two stay safe with all the zombies around?”
“Oh, Mom read the book at them, and they stayed away. But when she got sick, she couldn’t read it anymore, and they came.”
Just like that: Mom took out the trash. Mom washed the dishes. Mom read the book—and the zombies went away.
“That book?” Ronin nodded at the volume in her lap, so out of proportion to her petite frame.
Katy Lynne nodded, smiling and proud.
The kid killed her somehow . . .
“Yeeeeeah,” Dickie said by way of addendum, “don’t touch the book inside the backpack. In fact, don’t even touch that. Red was real clear about the not touching.”
Silence, such as it was in the compartment between the osprey’s thundering engines, hung unmolested for a moment.
“What the fuck is going on, Montana?” Ronin asked at last, his voice tight, husky with confusion and a kind of mounting, nebulous dread. D made vague, helpless “Yeah!” motions with his hands, incredulous.
She did not look at them; whatever had her attention was Siren-like. Ronin swore in that moment he could feel it, like the lingering stench of a reeker.
“I don’t know,” Montana said, echoing Katy Lynne’s matter-of-fact tone. “But we are going to find out. You can count on that.”
Bucking through the last layers of turbulence, the osprey soared into clear air, winging its way toward home.
Montana chewed on her anger and fought against the inescapable logic of one confounding thought:
If they’d told us the truth, we wouldn’t have believed them.
Right now, she wasn’t sure what she believed, but she knew what she had seen. Dickie was wrong. She’d been stunned before, even been out on her feet in mid axe-swing once or twice. She knew the difference between reality and being punch-drunk.
Zombies, as real and rank as road kill, had dissolved before her eyes, as if they had been made of flash paper. Only faster. With no flash. However the book functioned, it was a weapon like nothing she had ever seen.
Imagine what Echelon Zed could do with that thing.
Imagine what I could do with it . . .
The thought floated through her mind as if it had actually originated there and not . . . elsewhere. In her mind’s eye, she saw an image of herself, an epic panorama: Montana at the head of the avenging legions of humanity, looming like Moses over the unliving, the book in her hands, droolers crumbling before her by the millions.
That’s bullshit, Montana, and you know it!
That thought hit her loud and clear right between the ears: it made no attempt at subtlety or disguise. It was as if someone else had just shouted between her ears. She started from her self-induced trance and banged her head against the hard plastic liner over the inner bulkhead.
Dickie stared at her, quizzical and concerned; she smiled at him, rubbed the tender spot at the crown of her head. She settled into her harness once again.
Whatever the book was, whatever machinations revolved around it, she wanted in. If it involved a bigger, better way to kill zombies, she wanted in. If she was going to risk her ass and the asses of her team, she wanted in.
In a world where the living were in short supply, it was considered bad form to kill your fellow breathers. But Montana was willing to make exceptions in unusual circumstances.
It was raining panthers and wolves when the osprey arrived at base; debarking from the warplane was an adventure in getting soaked to the bone in the howling tornado created by the aircraft’s turbines.
A security team—DM3 as far as Montana could tell, not Zed—met the VTOL and hustled away Katy Lynne and the book. Montana resisted the urge to force her presence on the detail, to make a statement and be a pain in the ass from the git-go. But the rest of the team would have insisted on accompanying her, spoiling for a fight on their own.
“Clean up, get some chow, chill,” she told them, “I’m going to see Peg.”
“We wanna go with you, Mommy!” Ronin said, in a bad imitation of Katy Lynne.
“Oh, no you don’t,” Montana told them. “If I get into trouble, I don’t want you slackers getting nailed along with me. If they throw me in the stockade, you’ll hear about it, I’m sure. Otherwise, I’ll fill you in later.”
She walked away from further protests, and no one had the nads to fall in step behind her.
Margaret Todd, Commander of NADReC’s Southeastern District—known affectionately and otherwise as Old Peg—pointed her stump at Montana like the barrel of a blunderbuss.
“Take a step back, missy. Put your ass in that chair and mind your tongue. Or I’ll take that fancy little hatchet away from you and hack it out!”
Not a likely scenario, all things considered. Peg had been chewed up—so to speak—rather severely in pursuit of The Cause, but somehow she’d made it through. Besides one hand, she’d lost a leg and taken some burns from home-made mustard gas, yet here she was, as mean and ornery as any shade east of the Miss.
By way of response, Montana reared back, wound up and hurled the axe at the wall behind Peg’s head. A rash act, had Peg not chosen to locate her office in the gym of a reclaimed high school. The axe whupped through the air and buried itself in the wood of the folded bleachers. The springs and hardware behind the varnished wood rattled in metallic protest.
“Feel better?” Peg smirked, regarding Montana with her good eye.
“We just want to know what’s going on!”
“Cut the goddamned head-games, Margaret!” Montana yelled, the palms of her hands slamming down on Peg’s desk like simultaneous rifle shots.
Margaret? Oh, shit: she really is worked up!
Under her desk, Peg’s foot nudged a small pedal. She wondered, in a dispassionate way, if the anesthetic gas canister concealed in the commemorative desk set would beat Montana’s draw.
“Excuse me, ladies. May I interrupt?”
The voice was quiet, cultured, and redolent of New England.
And it came from less than two yards behind the exasperated Montana.
Startled, she rounded on the tall thin man in, of all things, a tailored grey suit.
Montana’s gut went cold, and her hand fell of its own accord to the butt of her magnum.
No way. No way in hell this sonofabitch snuck up on me. Not across forty feet of open gym floor—he’s wearing loafers for shit’s sake!
She found herself stepping back and turning again, so that she could keep both Peg and the interloper in her field of vision—a gunfighter’s instinct.
Peg’s normal pallor had blanched to something positively corpse-like. At the same time, she looked like she was considering taking off her prosthetic leg and beating the man to death with it.
“Oh no!” she howled, shaking her stump at the intruder, while a mystified Montana looked on. “Oh, no, no, no, my boy! You are not taking her away from me!”
“Call it a loan, Margaret,” the fellow said, his accent giving the name that distinct New England lilt: “Ma’g’ret.” He smiled at Peg, the warm greeting of an old school chum.
When he turned toward Montana, she noted that only his mouth smiled: his eyes were neither hostile nor threatening, merely unreadable.
She was not comforted.
He took a step toward her, and extended his hand.
“Sean Lana, Echelon Zed. Pleased to meet you, Montana.”
An iceberg dropped into the pit of her stomach, and Montana found herself tensing to fight or flee.
It was hard to separate the facts from the myths of Echelon Zed, and most wrackers agreed that this was no coincidence. In post-Outbreak North America, Zed had the kind of carte blanche clout that the obsolete DHS only dreamed of in its heyday. Whatever else one might choose to believe or disbelieve, one thing was indisputable: In the war against ARKV and the unliving menace, Echelon Zed pulled everybody’s strings.
She released his hand, unaware that she had taken it, perforce removing her hand from the vicinity of her firearm.
“Um, sure,” she muttered, still leery.
“Please?” He motioned to one of the chairs in front of Peg’s desk, and as she moved to sit—what else was she going to do, shoot her way out of a non-situation?—he folded his lanky frame into the other.
Peg was still fuming. “I’m not going to sit still for this, Lana—I’ll take this straight to Command!”
The ultra-spook tugged at the point of his well-trimmed white beard. A single amber teardrop swung from the lobe of one ear, dancing when he pulled his whiskers. “Peg, you know it has to be this way. You don’t want the alternative, do you?”
That did not sound good—not good at all.
“What’s this ‘alternative,’ Lana?” Montana asked, her voice colder and sharper than her khukuri.
His eyebrows knit in evident distaste, but he continued as if he were describing her new health benefits.
“I summarily execute you, your team, and the child Katy Lynne. All in the interests of homeland security, of course.”
Montana was on her feet, the Desert Eagle drawn, leveling it at Lana’s face. Unperturbed, the New Englander made a complex motion with his right hand.
Where the magnum had been, she was suddenly holding a large and disgusting representative of the local rodent population. It writhed in her grip, emitting a shrill chittering. She dropped the thing out of pure, reflexive revulsion.
And her magnum clanged to the floor at her feet.
“Cut that shit out, Lana!” Peg yelled. “That thing could have gone off.”
He turned a mild expression on Peg and raised his hands in surrender. “Point taken. It was reckless.” He turned his attention back to Montana. “You see, Montana, I could as easily have frozen you in place with a word, had I preferred. Or rendered you unconscious. Or killed you. Do you believe that?” He sat back and steepled his fingers, as if he expected her to take some time considering the question.
The air—no, the fabric of space itself—in the corridor of the apartment building undulating like a living creature . . .
A zombie, reduced to ash and powder, without apparent cause . . .
“Yes. I do. Are you threatening me?”
He shook his head with a wry smile. “No. I don’t really think it will be necessary. Just some theatrics to underscore the gravity of this conversation. You see, Montana, I’m about to offer you, and your team, the opportunity to participate in a whole new dimension of the struggle against ARKV.”
Lana locked eyes with her. “The organization behind Echelon Zed. And other . . . interests. You see, Montana, we want you on the fast track.”
The organization behind . . . Other interests . . .
It took her only a few breaths to process the data she had absorbed over the last twenty-four hours and make a decision.
“What are we talking about here, anyway,” she asked, her tone and expression sarcastic, “slimy green alien monsters?”
To her utter astonishment and abiding consternation, Lana nodded, solemn, his face the picture of sincerity. He added, “Three hundred feet tall, with tentacles for lips.”
Montana wasn’t sure how she knew, but she was unshakably convinced that Lana was telling her the truth; as weird as this shit was, it wasn’t some kind of elaborate Zed deception or manipulation.
In a way, her amnesia aided her in assimilating the unbelievable news that there were in fact evil alien races bent on conquering the Earth, just like Hollywood always insisted. Was it so hard to believe in extra-terrestrials and extra-dimensionals, when all you’ve ever known is a world wherein the dead walk and eat the living?
Aliens who landed in saucers or cylinders or whatever the configuration of the month was, she could get her head around; she could even deal with beaming down.
But things that “filtered down from the stars” or “navigated the interstellar abyss on membranous, aether-resisting, bat-like wings” or “plunged from world to world when the stars were right” gave her the absolute creeps.
And colors that people could see but that didn’t exist in the electromagnetic spectrum? C’mon . . .
ARKV had been a horrible, unpredictable, unrepeatable catastrophe; the Outsiders hadn’t planned it, but once it started to burn through the human population, they made good use of the collapse of civilization. Their cult, the Nameless Cult of the Old Ones, currently enjoyed record membership throughout the world, with estimated North American numbers at disturbing levels.
That thinking, breathing human beings would promote the interests of the unliving over those of humanity horrified and repulsed Montana more than anything else. The human vassals of the Old Ones routinely fostered infestations and outbreaks, and actively sought to hinder and cripple the efforts of any who resisted their masters, in particular Echelon Zed.
The “Z” in Zed, she came to learn, predated the Outbreak, and referred to the terminal or Omega position of the letter and not to the “z” in zombies. In other words, it was shorthand for The End, as in The End of the World. Zed had been active behind the global scenes for decades and was the true origin of the urban legends of men in black and elaborate shadow conspiracies.
Zed came out of the closet, so to speak, with the Outbreak and now enjoyed the notoriety with wrackers that the CIA and NSA once enjoyed among American grunts in Southeast Asia. It played in the majors, without question, and for all the bad press, it got down in the trenches, and it killed more than its fair share of droolers by anyone’s count.
Montana sighed, shook herself, ran a hand through her hair.
Well, time to go break the news to the kids:
Santa Claus didn’t exist, but there sure as shit was a monster under the bed.
“You gotta be fuckin’ kiddin’ me,” was the best Ronin could do, and even that lacked conviction. “I can’t even pronounce the names. They sound like you’re gargling with peanut butter.” He looked a little green around the gills, like a man whose cosmology had either been confirmed or debunked in a nanosecond and who hadn’t quite figured out whether that was good or bad.
Tesla sat with a faraway look in her eyes, a beatific expression on her face. The kind of expression the Norse goddess Frejya wore, when she first glimpsed the golden necklace Brisingamen.
Aliens! How cool!
D, on the other hand, was intense and excited about the information that had just been revealed.
Dickie stared at his boots and smoked.
Montana had decided she ought to be the one to bring the full story, and the offer, to her team. On her way from Peg’s office to the team bivvy, she realized the absurdity of worrying whether they would believe her or not. The dead walked and ate the living. And you can’t even consider the possibility that there might in fact be supernatural aliens from beyond time and space working to extirpate the human race? For real, ‘cruit?
And that was how it went: denial, and then, presented with the apparent contradiction, reconsideration.
Or in D’s case, complete, utter, and instantaneous acceptance.
“I’ve read this shit! I’ve read this shit!” he kept gushing, to anyone foolish enough to catch his eye. A feverish and unholy light burned in his face. “Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Bob Howard! Oh, holy shit! You mean it’s all real?” For a moment, it looked like he might faint.
“So it would seem,” Montana said, unimpressed. Her own reading, at least what she could remember of it, had consisted of NADReC combat manuals. “Lana says that we’ll have more than our fill of classroom time, to get the full four-one-one on this squid-faced asshole and his posse, but bottom line, what’s in the books is the way it really is. Just the names have been changed, and all that shit.”
Sucking in a deep breath, D put his head between his legs. His voice was strangled in that position and added to the menace of his words: “Oh man, we are so boned!”
Astonished and a little bemused, she realized D was on the verge of hyperventilating.
“Someone replace you with a ‘cruit while I wasn’t looking, D?” Montana snapped, more alarmed than vexed. D, rattled? “Grow a sack, boot. You just volunteered as Information Officer for the team. You bone up on this shit: I want you to raise hell anytime anything these Zed assholes tells us contradicts what’s in the books. Copy?”
D straightened, working hard to regain his composure, and nodded. “Copy, boss. But it’s gonna get hairy. I mean real hairy.”
“You want out, D?” The sudden measured tone and gentleness of her voice landed harder than a face slap. She swept her eyes over the rest of them. “Anyone? Who wants out?”
She sighed, softened.
“I know, I know: I’m scared too, guys. I’m on the thin edge of shitting my pants right now—I’ve never felt this afraid, no matter how bad it got out in the Zuck. But if there’s a chance I can help these geeks find a remedy for this situation, if there’s a chance to kick Old Green Dick in the gillhooleys, well, I have to be all in, or I can’t look at myself in the mirror.”
She stopped, self-conscious.
In the distance, somewhere in the cavernous bowels of the empty transients’ quarters, “The Girl from Ipanema” became audible and distinct in the abrupt silence.
Ronin snorted. “Well,” he said, rising, “as Dickie says, there’s yer sign. How can you argue with that?” he waved in the general direction of the music.
Montana waited. One breath. Two breaths.
“All right,” she said, smiling with grim satisfaction. “Thanks. Let’s mount up. Next stop: Logan Airport.”
As the rest of the team began collecting their gear, Montana crossed to Dickie, who still sat with his head hung low. As she approached, Montana herd him sniffle; one work-roughened finger wiped at the corner of his eye.
Concerned, even shocked, Montana reached out.
“Dickie? Are you . . . crying?”
His head popped up, that shit-eating grin stretched from ear to ear. “Mom always wanted me to go to University!” he crowed. And then winked.
A little distance away, the team paused at what sounded like a gunshot, but when it was not repeated, they returned to their preparations.
The sleek Gulfstream, a true thoroughbred, had belonged to a celebrity or CEO or other such useless parasite before the Outbreak; now it served the will and convenience of Echelon Zed.
Montana, coffee in hand—real coffee, not “rinse-tant”!—returned to her plush seat, rejoining the verbal tennis match between Ronin and Lana that had flared up intermittently since they left the runway.
Ronin, who before the Outbreak had not invested a great deal of faith in the government, was naturally skeptical of anything that hinted of government conspiracies, shadow governments, new world orders, and the like. The subsequent dismantling of civilization at the hands of the risen dead tended to endorse that skepticism, at least as far as Ronin was concerned. He was certain he could trip Lana up, expose the operative’s true agenda and that of Echelon Zed, if he just kept poking.
“No,” Lana was saying, with the air of someone who has counted the repetitions, “I’ve told you: it doesn’t work like that. Echelon Zed, on its own, has very little authority. We borrow ours, so to speak, from other agencies, other organizations. Much of it comes from DM3, in fact.”
Ronin scowled at the dapper New Englander. Lana’s open, transparent, full-disclosure attitude only fueled the wracker’s suspicions and his circular logic.
Of course that’s what you’d say . . . That’s what you want us to believe . . .
Montana hoped Lana was as patient as he thought he was good looking.
She tuned them out as Ronin began his rebuttal, opening her e-reader: Lana had given one to each of them, with a brief explanation.
“The Founder of the organization that would eventually become Echelon Zed,” he told them, “was a writer in the 1930s named Howard Phillips Lovecraft, who was known for his strange horror fiction. What was never public knowledge is that Lovecraft was a gifted and powerful mystic and occultist. He founded an organization dedicated to keeping humanity and our world safe from those who would destroy and enslave it from Outside.”
“If I join,” Ronin asked, “do I have to talk like somebody shoved an encyclopedia up my ass, too?”
Lana chuckled. “It’s kind of traditional. The Founder enjoyed a rich vocabulary, and we sometimes get carried away.”
Rich vocabulary indeed. If it hadn’t been for the dictionary app in the e-reader, Montana wouldn’t have understood half the words this cat Lovecraft used.
The e-reader, keyed to her thumbprint and retinal pattern and loaded with a nasty little self-destruct system to keep the contents secure, contained Lovecraft’s fiction as well as the factual reports the fiction had been based on. By fictionalizing his encounters with the Outside, Lovecraft had hoped to subconsciously condition his readers to that unutterable reality and also attract the attention of others with similar experiences and intentions.
He had succeeded in both respects, although not to the extent he wished in the former. While his stories drew to him a cadre of people who would form the forerunner of Echelon Zed, he did not succeed in lifting the veil of secrecy and denial from humanity at large.
The e-reader also included a number of selections from the specialized Echelon Zed archives; as she clicked through the table of contents, something caught her eye.
The Dunwich Horror: A Tactical Analysis
Well now, she thought, settling deeper into the overstuffed seat. Tactics I know. This woo-woo shit, not so much.
Sean Lana’s feelings about his face-to-face debriefings with the Founder were mixed.
On the one hand, he relished the honor of being interviewed in person by the Great Man.
On the other, the intense cold, the incessant hammering of the compressors, the reek of ammonia and chlorine, and that other smell—elusive and disturbing—combined to make the visits tortuous for him, despite a lifetime of New England winters.
The Founder was not unaware of Lana’s discomfiture, but his condition required the utmost concentration on any given task, lest his faculties . . . wander.
At last, the Founder turned over the final page—disdaining digital media, he insisted on paper—tidied the pile of foolscap as he called it, and sat back to regard Sean with dark, brooding eyes, made darker by the unnatural pallor of the thin, pinched features.
Sean’s breath plumed in the frigid air; the Founder’s did not.
Lana cleared his throat and dove in.
“I’m concerned that this concentration of so many sensitive and talented people in such an intimate group cannot be coincidental. We should treat it as a potential threat until we understand it better.”
A small movement of the Founder’s hand dismissed the worry.
“I wouldn’t fret over it.” The voice was a rasp, a whisper. “Such things are not without precedent. Talent seeks its own.”
Sean dipped his head in a quick bow, conceding the point. That particular hand-gesture meant “Case closed; no appeal.”
“Other concerns?” The sound of an autumn breeze sweeping dry leaves through a graveyard.
Sean took a breath and a moment, reviewing the project status in his mind. After a brief consideration, he shook his head.
“Nothing else at this juncture, Founder. As soon as the team’s indoctrination is complete, they’re off to New York City to support Malone in Red Hook.”
A slight nod, a languid blink; the Founder was aware of the situation vis-à-vis Red Hook.
“Seismic monitors and ground microphones are registering a slow but steady increase in the hill noises out around Dunwich,” Lovecraft said. “The Outside is stirring, becoming restless, reacting to our search for the book. That, and something more . . .”
“We expected some kind of knee-jerk reaction when we ramped up our search for the Utero,” Lana said, “but you’re sensing something else? Something more?”
“It’s still hazy,” the Founder said. “I’ll see what I can do later tonight to gain more clarity.”
“Can I be of assistance in any way, sir?”
Lovecraft smiled a wan thanks. “I appreciate the offer, Mr. Lana, but what I must do tonight requires privacy. Thank you, nonetheless.”
Another small movement of the Founder’s hand indicated that the meeting was over. Sean gave another brief bow of his head, then rose and turned to the door.
“Mr. Lana.” Rasp. Whisper.
Sean turned back to his boss, his direct superior, the one man who carried the burden of rescuing the harried remnants of the human race from extinction.
“The Book of Dust and Ashes?”
“Cataloged, warded, and sealed in the vault, Founder.”
“And the girl, Katy Lynne?”
“She’ll be staying here until we’ve made arrangement for fosterage, and then we’ll enroll her in an advanced curriculum at one of our satellite campuses.”
“Excellent,” the Founder nodded, his voice like sandpaper on old bone. “I look forward to seeing her around the University, watching her progress. I’m pleased, Sean—good work.”
Sean acknowledged the compliment with yet another nod and departed without further conversation.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft, the first, last, and former, adjusted a dial on his desktop. The pounding of the huge refrigeration units increased, and he nodded to himself in satisfaction. A display verified the additional decrease in temperature; Lovecraft’s skin could not feel it.
The Master of the Eternal Lodge, the being who held the Threshold on this side against his counterpart Yog-Sothoth on the other, adjusted his starched collar, and turned to the next order of business.
In the hushed ride up to Miskatonic University in the crypt-like elevator, Lana gasped suddenly and sagged against the wall of the cab, hands at his temples, agony searing the inside of his skull and wrenching a sick moan from his throat.
The attacks had started the night before, not long after he had scratched himself accidentally on the ancient grimoire retrieved by Montana’s team. At first, he had thought it only a severe static electrical discharge but later found an inch-long scratch at the base of his right thumb, the skin discolored and the flesh around the wound swollen and febrile.
Mildly alarmed, he hastened to the University infirmary. Olden books of black magic were often protected by subtle traps: concealed needles and blades coated with nameless poisons from ancient times; invisible dermal toxins painted on corners where a thumb might rub when turning a page and, of course, the ubiquitous, traditional curse.
And there was always the grinning, daemoniac specter of ARKV. Although rare, infection from incidental contact with hot fluids was not unknown.
The resident University physician was another of Lovecraft’s inner circle, so Lana was able to disclose the full details of how the wound had been acquired, rather than having to hedge his explanations.
“Considering where that book has been,” Dr. Danforth said, “your concern is merited, but I don’t think you have anything to worry about. It’s not ARKV—we’d certainly know that by now. I’m more worried about the everyday bacteria in an abandoned city. If the swelling doesn’t come down by midday tomorrow, come and see us again.”
Now Lana, cradling his throbbing hand, blinded by the pain behind his eyes, thought he might revisit the infirmary a little sooner.
You don’t need the infirmary.
As the thought drifted into his mind, the agony between his temples eased, and his vision began to clear. His hand ceased to throb and began to tingle almost pleasantly. Lana straightened, took a breath, and brushed at his clothing with his uninjured hand, as if rising from an inadvertent fall.
You just need to sleep . . .
The elevator coasted to a stop; when the doors opened, Sean Lana turned left, toward his rooms and a well-deserved night’s sleep.
In the small hours of the morning, Sean Lana’s eyes opened, and he rose from bed.
He went to his private workstation and logged onto the secure Echelon Zed network. He did not use his normal username and password, but entered parameters that opened an unseen, unsuspected hole in the internal data defenses of the covert organization.
With swift precision, he located and deleted the record of his visit to the infirmary earlier that evening.
He logged off, returning to bed and dreamless sleep. In the morning, he would remember nothing; his intrusion would go undetected.
Beyond the farthest horizon of our universe, the Mortal Continuum, is That Which Is Not—that placeless, unhallowed nonexistence that some among us call the Outside.
It is beyond imagining: limitless abysses of inexplicably colored twilight and bafflingly disordered sound, crowded with indescribably angled masses of alien-hued substance, some organic, others inorganic: prisms, labyrinths, clusters of cubes and planes, and Cyclopean buildings; groups of bubbles, octopi, centipedes, living Hindu idols, and intricate Arabesques roused into a kind of ophidian animation.
A shrieking, roaring confusion of sound permeates the abysses, past all sane, human analysis as to pitch, timbre, or rhythm.
Within those nested, immeasurable, intermeshed infinities, a mote of awareness—for lack of a better analogy—stirred, awakened by an irritating intrusion from the mortal world. That Which Is Aware unfolded That’s many senses, multi-partite thought matrices expanding like interlocking fullerenes, enveloping and apprehending the intruding energy, parsing its message.
Something had changed; the delicate balance of powers had shifted: a pawn had been taken; a potent queen was now in play.
That considered for a moment—how long is a moment when there is no time?—and reached out with a talon as immense as a galactic cluster and as minuscule and delicate as a tick’s big toe.
That Which Is Aware nudged a rook into the path of the advancing queen and settled Thatself to await the outcome of the encounter.