THE FAST AND THE DEAD - FIRST DRAFT
by Gordon S. McLeod
He’d never have thought it could be so hard to outrun something so slow. They couldn’t even maintain a regular walking pace, for crying out loud! But he had to keep moving fast. In the past half hour he hadn’t been able to slow below a rapid walk, and his legs and chest were beginning to protest. That old movie’s gag about cardio being rule #1 didn’t feel so much like a joke right now.
He risked a look around. He was making his way through a drab city block. Grime covered every surface that hadn’t been washed clean by rain; stains that could be rust or worse discolored concrete walls and walks. Barred windows faced outward defiantly, many with broken glass letting hot air gust in. In most cases the glass was broken from outside. In some, it had broken outward from within.
The only vehicles on the streets were rusted out hulks. He saw nothing moving, which filled him with great relief and awful dread; there were no immediate threats. He would stand out like a beacon as soon as he moved.
He considered his options carefully. Hiding, trying to wait it out was futile. They were slow but they’d arrive in the area soon enough, and then whatever it was that drew them to him would give him away. He didn’t know what it was. A smell? Heat? The sound of his breathing, of his heart beating? Whatever it was, hiding was unreliable. He knew that. If you were very lucky, you might get away with it for a little while, but sooner or later you’d slip up in some way you’d probably never know about, and then you were done for.
That left moving on. He felt horribly vulnerable in the streets. They were broad, and he’d have no problems at all getting away from a few, but if they massed up in any numbers he was as good as dead.
He looked at the buildings around him. They were too tall, too uneven. No way to travel across the roofs, at least not in this part of the city. That was a shame; in some places it could be done, he knew, and they’d be unable to follow for any length of time.
Even better would be to find a vehicle. Even a bicycle would be better than being on foot, at least while he was in the city. He wasn’t going to hold his breath though, and he put the possibility out of his mind.
He took a deep breath. The air was tinged with filth and corruption, some from the recent troubles, some not yet worn away by time after the days before. The smell of the lake lay under it all, faint this far inland—the lake. Water. They couldn’t swim. Water wouldn’t actually stop them, they could wander as long as they liked across the bottom, but if they couldn’t reach up to the surface, they couldn’t get to you. If he could only get to a boat …
He scanned the streets, doorways, windows and alleys around himself. Still no sign, but it wouldn’t last. He couldn’t sit still for long, not here. Not in the middle of this death trap.
Skin crawling with the feeling of exposure, he trotted down the street. He wanted to run, but his energy was flagging already and he couldn’t afford to burn it all right away. It’d be gone too soon as it was.
Brick and glass facades faced him from either side of the street. Trees still grew in many places, while others had long since been broken down. Old power lines lay lifeless on the streets and walks in places, but he paid them no mind; it’d been years since they carried any charge. Colorful urban graffiti was still visible on many of the old brick walls under newer layers of dirt, soot and in places, blood.
A loud growl came out of nowhere. Whirling around, heart pounding his blood like a drum, he whirled around—but the street was empty. He realized with a pang that he was hungry; very hungry. It had been hours since he’d had anything to eat or drink, and he’d been moving fast for a long time in the heat.
A shop with a painted green brick facade boasted a sign that read ‘Little Nepal Restaurant.’ Like everything else around, it was quiet as the grave, large picture windows dark and barred, the glass intact, the door locked. There’d been nothing edible in there for a long time.
He hurried on, keeping an eye on the signs he passed as he went. Hunger would leave him a little weak and very uncomfortable. Water would have to be found much sooner.
An intersection brought him a promising looking old coffee shop; like the restaurant he’d passed, all the windows were unbroken and one of them, a smallish window higher off the ground, was unbarred. He hoped this meant that the place had gone unlooted. It was just barely possible he might find something of use inside.
The trick would be getting to the window. It looked like it could be part of a second floor to the place. A small fenced off area below the window looked like it could once have been a street patio. The fence was iron, rusted now. Not nearly high enough to provide access to the window. It might offer access to the broken old ‘Coffee Place’ sign above the street level windows. If the sign would hold his weight for just a few seconds, he should be able to reach the window and get in.
He’d have to break the glass first though. A pair of long-empty newspaper vending machines were chained to a rusted no parking sign a few feet from the fence. They were too big and heavy to throw. He was about to try one of the few remaining scattered white plastic chairs within the fenced enclosure when he saw a crumbled area of curb at the corner.
“Perfect,” he muttered to himself, surprised at how dry his throat felt. His tongue was drying too. Hefting a chunk of broken concrete, he reared back and let it fly at the second story window. It sailed through with a loud crash and tinkle that made him wince and cast anxious looks up and down each street; the intersection was a four-way crossing and until just how had been silent.
No reaction. No movement. He almost wished they would show up. He’d spent hours trying to get away from them but now that he had, he couldn’t help feeling like he was in the calm before one hell of a storm.
He relentlessly shoved the thoughts aside and braced a hand against the coffee shop’s stained wall, climbed up onto the low rusty iron fence. He stared up at the sign above him and winced again. It projected out from the wall well enough, and would give him plenty of hand-holds, but it was as old as everything else on these streets. Even when it was new it was never intended to hold a man’s weight. He wasn’t the biggest guy in the world, about 5’8”, 150 lbs, but he was going to have to get off the sign and up and over to the window pretty fast. He was no athlete.
He also didn’t have time to second-guess. Either it would work or it wouldn’t. He shoved those doubts away too.
He balanced himself as well as he could on the very narrow fence, keeping a hand on the wall, and leaped as high as he could. His arms flailed a bit as he tried to catch the sign, scrabbling at the plastic, and then he was down. His leg flared in pain as he landed wrong; he bit off a cry of pain and surprise.
More surprise than pain, thankfully. He looked around quickly; still nothing. A few quick test steps told him he’d be able to walk, though running would be pushing it.
“Wonderful,” he muttered. “Just what I needed.” He looked back up at the sign again. There wasn’t much option really; this was the best prospect he’d seen all day.
He climbed back up again and leaped, a little more awkwardly than before. His hand slammed into the sign, breaking the plastic, but it held. He gripped tight and managed to swing himself up enough to grab the top of the sign with his other hand. His weight was too much for it; he heard it creaking and groaning as the flimsy backing of the sign began to twist and pull.
Hand over hand he made his way across the Coffee portion of the sign to his left; the window was above the big ‘C’. He needed more leverage; he swung his legs to and managed to snag one of them on top of the ‘f’. The groaning protest of the sign got louder; something popped within, but it kept on holding.
He was sweating, making his grip on the plastic sign more difficult; he shot a hand out to grab the window sill and caught it. Squeezing the sill tight, he managed to grab it with his other hand, keeping his injured leg on the sign, his good leg against the wall. Arms groaning in protest, he pulled himself up as though doing a chin-up and groaned. The inside of the sill was covered in broken glass.
His arms were getting dangerously sore, but he took a hand off the sill and punched as much of the broken glass still in the frame inward as he could. He then quickly and carefully brushed the glass off the inner sill; he still managed to get a small cut, ruby blood welling up from the side of his hand. It wasn’t bad. “Won’t be bad until they smell it, anyway,” he muttered as he pulled his way inside. Talking to himself was becoming a habit.
He was in a small office, probably belonged to some manager of the coffee place downstairs. It was musty, smelled like a place that’d been sealed for months. Stale air, and—and there was a corpse laying on its side against the far wall, far past putrid, desiccated with age, most flesh gone, empty eye sockets seeming to stare right at him. He paled and fought the urge to scream, started edging his way to the office door.
Every instinct that told people to be frightened of dead bodies kicked in and screamed at him. As he edged towards the door, nothing happened. The body stayed where it was. There was no movement, no scrabbling of fingers against the floor. It was just a body laying still.
He stepped into the hallway and paused for breath. Quickly finding a stairway that lead up and down, he descended to the first floor. The coffee shop may not have been looted, but it wasn’t spared all damage. It looked like rats and other small animals had been at work. He ignored the counter and headed for the back of the store. Any restaurant needed to have a large cold-room, and that was where he was likely to find what he needed.
The door to the large refrigerated room swung open, though not easily. The hinges were corroding and the floor was a mess with scattered droppings and other bits he didn’t care to examine too closely. Stepping in, he noted the room was about the same temperature as the rest of the building; the power had been off for a long time.
The cold-room had been sealed better than the rest of the place and been spared the ravages of infestation by vermin. He ignored the boxes of napkins and cutlery and such, and searched until he found several boxes of bottled water. Sighing in relief, he drank several down without hesitation, the water feeling cool and refreshing even though he knew perfectly well it was room temperature.
His most pressing need taken care of, he quickly but methodically went through the rest of the stores. There was little he could use; mostly ingredients for making doughnuts and other baked goods. There were packages of sprinkles; he stuffed his pockets with those. They were pretty much pure sugar, but they’d given him energy and something for his stomach to work on if he couldn’t find better.
After about 10 minutes he started feeling antsy again. He’d been in one place far too long. There’d been no sign of movement outside, but he didn’t want to chance becoming trapped. Grabbing a large plastic bag from a box of them, he filled it with more water bottles and cautiously crept out of the cold-room, keeping his eyes on the large barred windows.
No movement on the street he was facing. Keeping low moving slow, he peeked around the counter to view the side with the fenced enclosure, where he’d climbed up to enter the building. He sucked in a breath; on the other side of the street, shambling aimlessly, hair in crazy disarray, clothes ill-fitting and terribly stained, flesh rotting; it looked much like the body upstairs, only this one was up and walking.
Some people shied away from calling them zombies. He’d heard all kinds of terms; ghouls, deadels, rotters, walkers, the living dead, the restless dead, even the living-impaired. He didn’t care what they were called, as long as it was from a distance. He bit his lip.
If he went outside now it would likely spot him. And then it’d start that incessant moaning. If there were others in the area, and he was sure there must be by now, they’d home in on it and he was screwed if he was still anywhere near. On the other hand, it was just the one. They weren’t exactly difficult to outrun once they were in a decayed state like this one.
Other options. The stairway that had brought him down from the second floor had also gone up. He could try the roofs. This wasn’t a great area for roof-hopping but he’d passed beyond the area of real skyscrapers. He might be able to get some additional distance, and a better look at the state of the roads. Decided, he hefted his prize and carefully retreated to the stairwell and began to climb.
Old movies always showed abandoned buildings as virtual deathtraps, rotten and collapsing, debris strewn everywhere. This old coffee joint wasn’t living up to the image, he thought. It was nothing more than dusty. Linoleum stairs climbed their way upward, and if they creaked once or twice, it was possible they had in the years before catastrophe as well.
He’d seen other buildings that did more to live up to the image, to be sure. Open windows, holes in a roof, a missing door; if a place had any way at all for the elements to intrude, they intruded with fierce destructive purpose. There were many buildings in such states now, but there were plenty that had been left relatively good shape, and some of those had escaped further damage for now. The elements would still win, but it would take a lot longer.
Another flight of steps awaited him at the third floor, along with a sign proclaiming roof access. The door awaiting him led outside to the promised roof, from which he could see a good stretch of road in all directions.
The lone zombie had made it mostly through the intersection. A living person would’ve been some distance away by now; it was slowed even more than most zombies by what looked like a broken ankle. He moved from corner to corner of the building, checking up and down each street, moving quietly; there was nothing else in sight. He did see what looked like a rooftop path in roughly the direction he’d been moving in though, and it would carry him away from the zombie limping his way along the other route. It wouldn’t last for long, but he’d feel far less exposed than he would down on the street. He’d be forced to head back down soon enough, but there was no reason not to take advantage of the height and sight lines while he could.
There was no gap between the building he was on and the next, so he simply climbed over a low wall and was on his way. It was the same for several more buildings, then he found himself scaling a drain pipe as he came to a building that was one storey higher than the others.
This building had not fared as well as the coffee shop had. A large hole in the roof showed plenty of ruin within; he tread carefully, not just to avoid falling in but to avoid making noise. He was safe enough while he was up on the roofs, but if there were zombies within the buildings he passed over and they became aware of him, their frustrated moans could summon others. The streets could become unpassable awfully fast.
He saw no movement within, and had to climb up to the roof of the next building as well. He leaned out over the street and looked onward; taller buildings were becoming the norm. He’d covered most of the block though and could still see a lot further down.
The road ran generally downhill toward the lake. He had about another 3 blocks ahead of him before a T intersection cut off the visibility he’d gained, and over those 3 blocks he couldn’t see a single zombie. “It’s about time SOMETHING went right,” he muttered.
He turned his attention back to his task. He had to go painfully up another storey on the next building and then down two to the building beyond that, bringing him to the end of the block and facing his inevitable descent to street level.
He looked about for any way to cross without going down, but there was nothing; in years gone by, there could have been power cables he could try to cross, but if they’d existed in this location they were gone now. Worse, he was at the height he’d started at, three storeys up, and this building didn’t look like it featured roof access.
He was doing his careful rounds of street inspections when he realized that for the past few minutes he’d not been hearing the silence he normally heard. He shivered as the low moaning tide broke over him, and he looked up and down the streets, stretching out to see as far as possible.
Movement, out on the street crossing the one he was following. It was coming his way. Shading his eyes from the late afternoon sun let him make out a familiar sight; a single figure, too distant to note any details, running for madly his or her life. Behind the figure, still some distance back, a slow, unevenly moving tide of hunger.
As his eyes soaked in the details, he felt his body go rigid with terror; a few hours was not enough to forget that earlier that very day, that lost, terrified fleeing figure had been himself. Another one thrown into the grinder for sport, he thought. The idea was sharp, hot, painful and horrifying. That was the reason he was here, the reason he was fighting for his life, for escape.
Over a decade ago the first reports had come in; the dead weren’t staying dead. Not all of the dead, of course. Talk shows, blogs, Twitter, Google+, all the major media outlets had buzzed with speculation over the cause, but the original source was always kept murky, elusively out of reach. Mainstream news sources had reported merely widespread incidents of violence, but as it spread faster and faster, with more people dying and then refusing to stay dead, the truth became impossible to hide.
People reacted as they always did when something terrible and frightening is going on. They clustered together. Safety in numbers and all that. The cities became refuges, havens from the craziness outside.
That lasted all of a day. Maybe not even.
They’d underestimated the danger. They’d believed you had to be bitten to turn. People entering the security zones were screened for bites, any bites, human or otherwise since nobody knew whether animals were affected. But people who’d been scratched, they were let in. And they turned.
Less than 24 hours after the security zones were populated, they were all but consumed. People inside turned sometimes within a couple of hours of their injuries; others almost a day later. But those few who turned fast were enough. The plague had spread fast and hard through those concentrations of humanity, and it didn’t matter that security zones hadn’t been completely filled. People were panicky, crowding outside the zones to get in, and so when they realized their danger and tried to get away, they couldn’t do it fast enough.
He’d been one of the lucky ones. He’d been outside the cities, been on the road. He’d heard some of the early reports, had known something was going on, but not how bad it was. He was saved by his music collection, his digital library that meant he hadn’t had to put up with news or commercials. If he’d had the radio on, he might’ve crowded into a city himself, but he hadn’t.
The figure was closer now, enough to get a read on the growing exhaustion of the movement, but still not on any real detail. He found himself moving, good leg swinging over the lip of the roof, his hands taking hold of the edge securely. No no no no nonononono, his brain tried to tell him, but his deeper mind knew what it was like to be that person, couldn’t let that person go it alone, didn’t want to be going it alone himself any more.
Down the side of the building he went at a pace that had his conscious brain screaming, but he couldn’t seem to stop or even slow his limbs. Every scuff, scrape and bruise he suffered as he descended using window frames and eaves as handholds warned him off. It’s painful down there, it’s scary down there, YOU DON’T WANT TO BE DOWN THERE, but he couldn’t shut off the part of himself that did.
He was halfway down when he fell, the impact jarring his bad leg again and momentarily knocking the wind out of him. By then the low murmur of the oncoming horde was driving into his mind. He had to get moving. Had to.
He regained his feet but couldn’t immediately spot the runner. The zombies were close enough that he could just barely distinguish individuals from the mass. There weren’t any disruptions in their line that would mark a mass feeding; they couldn’t have gotten whoever it was.
A part of him quailed at the coldness of the reasoning behind that thought; he’d seen scenes like this before on internet news bites. He’d never been this close to it, not in person. Even that morning he’d been too busy running for his life to look at the approaching hordes, to wonder about how to get away. He’d just run, and eventually distance had paid off.
That wasn’t going to work twice, he knew. Not when he was still tired, and injured to boot.
A flash of motion caught the corner of his eye. His head whipped around just in time to see the runner flying past. Male or female, he didn’t have time to see, but slim, certainly, and dark-haired. He could’ve sworn he or she was wearing long pajamas; a real possibility. When they came for you to throw you into the grinder, they didn’t offer you time to get changed. They came, they grabbed you, that’s it.
He grunted with effort as he swung his legs to follow; the additional knock to his leg had stiffened his ankle but good, and it was definitely slowing him down. “Hey!” he called out. “Wait!”
It was a ridiculous request; nobody in their right mind would turn and wait with a hungry pack of zombies behind, but when you have a hungry pack of zombies behind you, you tend not to be in your right mind.
The figure didn’t stop, but did turn her head. Her large eyes widened, the panicked look intensified, and she redoubled her sprint down the street.
Should’ve expected that one, a dry voice in his mind told him. He tried real hard not to think about how close the pack must be, focused on following after her instead, one painful step at a time.
She was making a bee-line down the center of the street, straying from the path only to dodge or jump over debris, and she was making good time; she was pulling far ahead of the pack, and ahead of him as well. The sound of their footsteps pounding the cracked old pavement gave him something to listen to other than the constant low, droning moan from the creatures behind.
They were a block past the coffee shop in the direction he’d originally come from when she broke from the center of the road. She dashed up to the doors of a large old building with windows all round. She flung herself at the door and wrestled with it fruitlessly.
The road seemed to be taking on a life of its own, trying to trip him up and leave him for the horde behind him. Debris shifted under his feet, cables snagged at his ankle, with a particular fondness for the stiff one, and over it all, the moaning never stopped. His only relief came from the distance at which it came from; he was gradually pulling ahead. As long as that stayed true, the road could do what it wanted with his feet.
Ahead, the woman was screaming, a furious sound, and wrenching at the doors. Something must’ve given, as it flew open and without hesitation, she vanished inside as if the doorway had eaten her in one gulp.
The moan seemed to well up behind him as she vanished into the building. He risked a quick glance back and immediately wished he hadn’t; he hadn’t pulled as far ahead as he’d thought. He whipped his head back around to face front and pumped his legs as fast as he could go, teeth clenched, ankle on a slow burn.
He was halfway to the building the woman had vanished into. His eyes were fixed on the doors, which she’d left open. Foolish, he thought. And deadly. He was no more than 30 seconds from making the doors when she reappeared suddenly, shotgun in hand. His eyes widened as she raised the barrel, but then she grimaced and lowered it, gesturing him in. “C’mon, get in!” He didn’t have to be told twice.
The roar of the gun as she fired past him was deafening, but he didn’t let that stop him. She slammed the doors and was still jamming the barrel of the shotgun through the handles when the pounding began.
He kept moving into the room; it was a tavern of some sort, or a bar, or pub. His eyes moved automatically to the windows; most were broken, but were covered with makeshift bars, nailed up table tops and other altogether too flimsy-looking barricades. “We can’t stay here, this place won’t last the hour.”
“Help me find something better to brace the door with.” Her voice was tight with strain but not out of breath, he noticed.
He opened his mouth to argue but shut it with a snap; an hour was better than a minute. His eyes scanned the room. Dining tables and chairs, none much better than what were already in use. Then several large pool tables caught his eye. “Think one of these will do it?”
Her footsteps announced her joining him. “Yeah, let’s move, get it into position. Your leg okay?”
“Let’s just get this thing in place, then I’ll worry about my leg.”
She cast an askance glance at him, what he imagined must usually be a skewering experience, but the glassy-eyed shock on her face robbed it of its power. That must be how I’ve looked all day.
They wrestled the table as quickly as possible across the floor, knocking aside chairs and bar stools that got in the way. They tipped it up on a narrow end, blocking the doors to their full height, and then for good measure secured it with a second pool table jammed behind it lengthwise.
“That’ll hold ‘em until they start bashing in the windows, anyway,” he said.
That was when the banging on the windows began, naturally.
He bit off a curse and ran to the least-blocked window he could see. “Well, that’s great. Looks like the whole ex-population of the city is out there. They’re spilling past the door, they’ll have this place surrounded in no time.”
The woman stood, breathing heavily, eyes closed. “No chance of a service tunnel out the basement huh?”
“What? Do they have stuff like that?” He was distracted by the pounding, ripping and clawing sounds of the zombies as they beat at the windows.
“Just something I saw in a movie once,” she said. “We’ll have to look upstairs, see if we can get to the roof.”
“More climbing. Better and better,” he groused, but followed her to the stairs. He was a lot slower than she was. “How’d you know there was a gun here?”
“Didn’t,” she said. “Saw it hanging above the bar when I ran in.” She led the way upstairs. The upper floor was set up for finer dining, but not for roof access that he could see.
“Check the back rooms,” she suggested, racing for the rear of the establishment. The staccato beating from downstairs was changing subtly as the door and windows weakened under the relentless pounding.
Kitchen, office, change room, washrooms, but no other stairs. They met up back at the dining room. “Nothing! We’re stuck.” Her focused resolve seemed on the verge of crumbling. He was eyeing the second floor windows anxiously. “What is it?” she asked.
“Maybe we can’t get up to the roof from in here,” he started.
“You can’t be seri—”
“What’s the worst that can happen? We climb out, fall down, and get torn to shreds and eaten. Our other choice is to stay here and get torn to shreds and eaten.”
She stared at him, mouth agape, face pale. For the first time since he’d seen her, it was obvious that she had just been thrown into this situation a short time before. “I … Okay.” And with that the windows were open and they were clawing for handholds above.
It took a few moments for the zombies below to recognize they were there, and when they did the racket was incredible. He didn’t dare turn his head to look as he climbed, but with that much noise they had to be pulling every zombie for miles around to this spot.
He couldn’t look, but he focused his mind on visualizing what that must look like. The effort took his mind off his hands and arms, which were fighting a desperate battle to keep him against the wall, and they weren’t equipped to win it easily. Finally he got himself high enough from the window to brace himself with his good leg against the window frame, and he risked a glance at his fellow survivor.
He’d only thought she was pale before. Now she was a sheet, and sweat-soaked to boot. Not good with heights, he thought, though it wasn’t the best time to ask.
She was slow-going but making it. He found her watching his every move, duplicating his handholds one window over.
The roof had a bit of an overhang, and they’d just reached it. This was the part he’d been dreading. He closed his eyes, gritted his teeth, held on desperately to a handhold no deeper than a fingertip with his left hand and reached up and back with his right, hooking the overhang.
She watched this, mouth hanging open, eyes wide. “You’re crazy. I can’t do that. I’ll fall off.”
“You’ll fall off eventually if you stay there, too.” Speaking was an effort; his teeth were still clenched as he tried to work up the strength to force his fingers off the handhold and onto the overhang. His arms were losing strength fast.
He saw her glance down where the ravening horde awaited, their moans filling the air. She somehow managed to turn paler. She closed her eyes, just as he had, dug in with one hand and snagged the overhang with the other. Rather than stopping there though, she let go and had the roof with both hands, and was up before he could say a word.
He was about to try to duplicate her feat when her hand clamped around his wrist. “C’mon!” she called. His fingers let go his handhold almost without his conscious control and he grabbed for the overhang.
With her help, he managed to get himself topside. “That’s two times you’ve saved me,” he panted.
“And you’ve saved me once. Let’s not bother counting, huh? Our competition is against those things, not each other.”
They were out of immediate danger, but it didn’t feel as reassuring as he’d expected. The streets in all directions were crawling with more and more of them as slower ones caught up to the mass, and faster ones from farther out began arriving.
“I’ve never seen so many at once, not even on TV,” he said with a shiver. “I don’t know where we’re going to be going from here.”
“What?” He blinked his confusion.
“My name. Call me Claire.” She was studiously avoiding looking at the sea of figures below.
“Oh. Right. I’m Ben. Ben Neales.” She was a bit younger than him, and he was in his early 30s. She looked older. Everyone who got tossed in here did; there’s nothing like the stress of being hunted by a city’s worth of zombies to add a few years. He wondered how he looked now; he must be a sorry sight for anyone watching on TV.
Cameras were scattered around most of the city, though it was hard to tell where they were most of the time. Before the fall, cameras had gotten really tiny so you never really knew these days. Once in a while you’d see larger, older models, but just cause they weren’t there didn’t mean there weren’t newer, smaller ones.
Watching people who’d been thrown in was a guilty secret for most people in the region, at least those who had the power to run a TV or knew someone who did. Nobody liked to admit they watched, but they did it anyway.
“Nice to meet you, Ben.” She laughed. “Nice to meet anyone who’s not dead on his feet.”
“I’m not sure I’d go that far. I am pretty wiped out.” He smiled; today of all days it was good to have something to smile about. “So Claire, any ideas on where to go from here?”
“Look around, I guess. Get our bearings. This place looks familiar, or it did from the ground. The Winchester, it’s called. I think I’ve seen … others … other survivors make it to this area before.”
He nodded. He was tempted to ask what she’d done to get thrown in here, but he didn’t really have to. It didn’t really matter. After governments had collapsed, everything fell to chaos, and unless you knew the right people in the right positions these days, there was pretty much just one punishment for any conceivable crime, real or imaginary. Exile into the wastes, entertainment for the remaining masses.
He’d never seen anyone get away, but there were stories that came and went of people thrown out who made it to other cities. He supposed it was possible. If you could make it out far enough from the cities, there were fewer zombies, but also fewer people who could help you out. It’d be difficult. Extremely difficult. He had to believe it was possible though.
“I was thinking of heading down to the water. Find a boat. Get away that way. It’ll be tough, but maybe it’ll be a bit easier together.”
Claire nodded. “You had me at ‘away.’”
They lucked out about as much as you can when every street around you is flooded with an ever-increasing number of hungry zombies. The roofs were linked and the block was fairly large, with only some narrow alleys between a few of the buildings. They were able to remain safely out of reach while scouting the area and had made it just over halfway around the block when Claire’s eyes widened in recognition.
“What is it?” Ben asked.
“Bikes. I saw that shop across the street a few weeks ago, I recognize the sign. A … ‘contestant’ like us was trying to get into this building we’re standing on.”
“What good are bikes going to do us? The streets are thick with the dead, if we try to ride through them we’re toast, no matter how fast we’re going.”
“Not if they have some of the latest enclosed models.”
Enclosed motorcycles had been one of the last innovations in bike technology before the fall. They were self-balancing, fully enclosed and almost like 2-wheeled car in most respects.
Ben frowned, but more out of thoughtfulness than disapproval. “There’s no guarantee there will be any in there.”
“No, but I’m fresh out of other ideas. Besides, even if there aren’t, all the commotion is on the other side of the block. The crowd isn’t as heavy here.”
Ben was about to object on the basis of gaining access to the building when he stopped, the objection cut short by the sight of a door leading inward. “At least getting back indoors will be easier than it was to get out.” He nodded toward the door; Claire visibly brightened with the relief that brought her.
He checked the door; unlocked. “Let’s find our way down quick. I’d like to get out again as quick as possible.”
“No argument here.”
They moved quietly down the stairs to the interior of the building, tense and alert. Ben wished they knew if the building had been closed off or not. If it had, there was little chance they’d be bothered by the things in the street, but there could be some risen inside and trapped. He’d seen that played out just enough times on the shows over the years to make him jumpy.
The building was two storeys tall; they descended to ground-level, eyes and especially ears alert for any sign of something out of place. They moved as quietly as they could, but Ben’s ankle was bad enough to hobble him somewhat. He ignored it as best he could; they should be so lucky as to find a place safe enough for a bad ankle to be a cause of major concern.
They landed in a short L-shaped hallway in what looked like the administrative area. “The showroom must be toward the front of the building.” Claire’s voice was a breathy whisper he had to strain to hear, and it was a good thing he did; Ben heard a soft thump coming from somewhere ahead of them, deeper into the administrative offices. He grabbed her arm, eyes wide in the gloom.
“Hold up,” he whispered just as low. Together they held still as statues.
-thump- -drag- -thump-
A block of ice quickly grew in Ben’s gut. As one, they walked as quickly and quietly as they could. They couldn’t hide; they had nothing to destroy it with. They had to get out.
They rounded the corner and saw the showroom ahead, but a sign dragged Ben’s eyes to attention. “Service bay,” he whispered. He hesitated at the door, then quickly pulled it open. It was creaky enough to make him cringe, certain the whole mass of them outside were about to descend on them in moments, but they plowed through. A quick stop and listen turned up nothing. He was sure the one in the offices was still on its way, but they’d gained enough distance that they couldn’t hear it, or any others that might be in the area.
Claire was checking out the service area. It was a large, multi-bay room with space for 4 cars, and two of the bays were occupied. No doubt the owners had been too busy or too dead to return for their vehicles. Their loss is our gain, Ben thought, not to mention our lives.
He looked over at the two cars in the bays. “We’ll take one of these. We’ll have to hope whatever they were in for was fixed, but they should have gas at least.”
“How’re we going to get the keys?”
He looked her over again; it was hard to tell in the semi-dark, but she could’ve been young enough that she couldn’t legally drive a decade before, when the end came. He shot a glance at the service window and limped closer. Sure enough, there was a key rack back there, with labeled keys still hanging, waiting for owners who no longer cared about cars.
-thump- -drag- -thump-
Ben froze, and Claire’s expression hardened. He wasn’t sure which way the sound was coming from. He ducked behind the counter and grabbed both sets of keys rather than wait to find out. He rejoined her, and they crowded to the service bay doors with their windows to try and read anything on the keys that would identify the cars.
A low, hungry moan told screamed at him that time was up. They ran to the nearest car, a midrange sedan that would’ve been entirely uninspiring in the old world but now inspired visions of solid metal and glass between them and oncoming death.
The doors were unlocked; they scrambled in. Hands shaking, Ben tried each key in the ignition in turn as shadows began to move in the murky darkness behind them.
“The doors! The doors are closed!”
“Do YOU want to get out and open them?” He asked, finally slotting the key in and turning it. Mercifully, the engine started; it was loud, very loud, especially by the standards of the time immediately pre-fall. “Why couldn’t this have been an electric? Even a hybrid?”
He jammed it into reverse and backed further into the room. A solid, meaty thump told him all he wanted to know about how close they were. Claire locked her door; there’d never been a known instance of a zombie being able to open a door that didn’t swing freely, but this would be a lousy time to learn they were more capable than people assumed.
Slow pounding began on the back of the car as Ben stopped and put it in drive. Claire snapped her seatbelt in, staring at the large doors ahead. Ben took a deep breath. “This is really gonna suck,” he said, then jammed his foot on the gas.
The car started forward, and as he’d feared, it wasn’t a roaring burst of acceleration. They slammed into the door with enough force to break through, but the impact triggered the front airbags.
Everything went black.
The pounding and rocking of the car brought him back, dazed, from unconsciousness. The first thing that his mind seized on was the fine powder over everything. He stared uncomprehendingly at the deflated airbag in front of him. A loud bang to his left grabbed him, and he nearly jumped out of his skin at the sight of yellowing, putrid-looking eyes in a gooey, rot-darkened face staring at him through the glass.
Reacting purely on adrenaline, he slammed his foot on the gas pedal; the car was halfway through the bent and buckled garage door, almost to the dealership’s back alley parking area. With a screech of metal that would’ve woken the dead, had they not already awakened, he jolted the car free of the door and turned sharply to point toward the road. Behind him followed not one but a half dozen of the things, pouring into the light of the late afternoon to join the beginnings of a crowd as the engine’s roar and crashing exit from the bay drew the attention of zombies slowly making their way to the main body of the horde.
Beside him Claire began to stir to consciousness. He looked up the path ahead; there were only a handful coming their way off the street and into the lot. He hit the gas again, less energetically; working cars weren’t a dime a dozen these days.
“Up inland, or down to the water?” He was pretty sure that’s what he said, but his head was still a touch fuzzy from the impact.
“Boat. Try for a boat. With a car we can try to leave the city if we can’t find anything.” Her voice was a little thick; she was still clearing her head too, apparently.
She was right; the inhabited, semi-normal part of the city amounted to little more than 4 square blocks of the downtown core. People crammed into the tallest buildings that over the years had been painstakingly fortified and turned into living spaces. There were even rooftop gardens extending across the city for blocks around the core; fertile soil was the second-most most valuable commodity that existed in the city. Those gardens, with the aid of hydroponics, were enough to keep people fed.
Clean water was the first. Not a lot could be spared for the purpose of hydroponics. It had too many uses. “Water it is then.”
He neither slowed nor stopped for the zombies as they got in the way of the newest source of noise in the area; he avoided them if he could, but if he couldn’t, he left them broken in his wake.
The first couple of minutes were tense and quiet. The sheer number of them was staggering. They couldn’t hear the commotion over the sound of the car, even after they opened the windows, but every walker they passed was headed in the same direction, toward the monstrous horde.
“I’ve never seen anything this big before.” Those they passed were turning to the car, but they sped past as quickly as they could; Ben didn’t check to see if they kept following them or turned back to their interrupted journey.
They were getting closer to the city center and the going was getting slower. Even at the farthest outskirts of the city toward what used to be suburbia the roads weren’t exactly clear. This close to the center of the chaos of the end, they had to go slowly to drive around wrecks, avoid fallen street lights, power poles or other debris, sometimes even turn aside entirely to find different, unblocked routes. There were plenty of roads that were intentionally barricaded to prevent or at least slow down exactly the sort of giant cluster they were leaving behind them.
They were several blocks out from the city core when Ben brought the car to a stop. “Have you seen any? It’s been a while since I last saw one.”
“No. And we’ve gone too far for them to have left on account of us back there,” Claire said.
“I knew the roads were bad out here but I didn’t know they were this bad.” Ben’s face was white with worry.
“Do you think …”
Ben bit his lip. “We may have to abandon the car.” He sighed. “The roads are getting impassable the farther we go, and so covered with crap that we’ll make too much noise while we crawl along. It’d be faster and quieter on foot.”
“There has to be another way! Can’t we backtrack, cut out to the side, then head back down to the lake when we’re not cutting so close to the Core?”
“There aren’t many places to get boats out that way, and the Core runs close to the water—” He stopped talking at the sight of movement further down the road. “Damn. Looks like a few of them.” He looked at her questioningly. She was squinting further down. With a sigh, she turned to him.
“Let’s turn around. If we can,” she looked at the crumbled debris around them. This area looked like it had been bombed. They both knew there were parts of the old city where that was literally true. “Road’s blocked further ahead anyway. Head back up and away and we’ll figure out what to do then.”
He started the awkward process of turning; the rubble and wrecks of other cars left him little room to maneuver. They felt a jolt as Ben backed the end of the car into the side of another vehicle, but both started violently at the gnashing moans that came after. They craned their necks; Claire blanched. “There’s one in the car. It looks like it’s buckled in,” she said quietly.
“Buckled in? But how would a … Oh.” He shivered. That ex-person must have been in the car and belted in when he or she — it was hard to tell now — died, and still buckled in for the rising.
He started off again at the best speed he could manage, being very careful about every other car he passed. That was sure to draw more in and he couldn’t take being that close to the center of another horde again so soon. Or ever again, for that matter.
He started paying more attention to the windows of cars as they passed them; the number of corpses in them was disquieting. It was impossible to tell if they were just unfortunates who’d never been properly tended to, or if they were risen and ready to kill.
A feeling began to settle over Ben, a drifting accumulation like grave dust. He needed to just get out. Out of the city, away from the core, away from this craziness. “There was a major highway back this way wasn’t there? How badly do you think it’s clogged?”
“I wouldn’t bother, they were all pretty choked up with wrecks.” Her voice was as tight as his thoughts felt.
They drove for a half hour by the car’s clock, though it felt like hours. The sun was getting too low in the sky for Ben’s liking. It was going to make navigation difficult without using the headlights, and increased the chances they’d attract unwanted attention if he turned the headlights on. Even the running lights were iffy.
“Hey,” he said suddenly. “Did we miss a turn back there?” He wasn’t looking at street signs; there were so few intact that there was little point.
“I have no idea. Where are you trying to get to?”
“I was trying to head back west so we could get north. I remember the streets in that area better. Or at least I thought I did,” he said.
“Do you really want to risk running right back into that mob?” Her voice was low but incredulous.
“No, but still, I’m not seeing ANY open paths to the west, no matter how far we—” he slowed the car. Now north was blocked. “I’m so confused.” He turned east.
The roads were a bit better here, fewer cars strewn to the sides. Instead they all seemed to be blocking side-streets, forming one relatively clear path. They could go forward or back, but couldn’t turn aside.
This continued for several blocks, Ben and Claire both keeping their eyes peeled for any sign of an alternate route anywhere without success. Finally they came to what had been a major intersection, with the northbound route unblocked—but now the path further east was closed off.
“This had to have been intentional,” he growled. He tried to relax; time and time again he’d seen what happened to people who let the stress get to them. He stretched and worked his bad ankle. Could be worse; they could still be on foot.
“Let’s just keep going, the sun’s almost down. Maybe it was part of the containment plans?”
“Maybe… I never heard of any long paths like this though, just streets blocked off all grid-like to try and keep them from moving around or grouping up at all.” They continued north a short way before they were again shunted onto a different path; an on-ramp to a major highway running across the city. It had been a toll route once upon a time. A string of lights lit a strip of pavement across the ramp where once cameras and sensors had detected cars ramping onto the highway and photographing their plates. “The lights are still lit.”
“Why would anyone bother keeping power going out here? What a waste,” Claire groused.
He started forward again, rolling up the ramp. The cameras were all in place, as far as he could tell. “No way to know if those cameras are still working,” he said. At the top of the ramp they found the route east blocked once more, while the west was clear.
“This’ll take us back closer to the Core.” Claire didn’t sound especially overjoyed.
“Yeah. No thanks. I’m tired of being railroaded.” He eyed the line of wrecked cars. Most of them were rusted piles of junk after years of exposure. “We can probably push our way through that. There must not have been enough cars on this part of the road to block all 4 lanes heavily. This is going to make some noise though.”
Claire nodded in agreement, going more alert.
None of the cars used in the barricade had been occupied, he noticed, or at least none still were. He picked a spot where the only wreck in the way had been a smaller car. He aimed theirs at it.
Ben ran into the eroded hulk slowly, raising an ear-piercing grinding squeal as the metal undercarriage of the wreck broke and dragged across the pavement. Once he’d gotten it pushed out of their way, he drove around it and headed off down the highway and away from the Core.
They’d gone about fifty meters when their tires blew.
“Oh no. Oh crap.” Ben started sweating. After all that noise, it couldn’t be long until they had company.
“The highway’s raised here, it’ll take a long time for anything to get to us,” Claire said. There was an edge to her tone that suggested she was reassuring herself as much as him.
He let the car roll to a stop and let his head hit the steering wheel, then just sat there. Claire sat and looked at him a moment. “What…”
Ben got out and walked around behind the car. There, stretched across the width of the road, difficult to see from the car in the growing twilight, a long chain of tire spikes like the police used to use. “Where’s a tank when you need one?” Ben asked. Claire didn’t respond, instead moving over to the edge of the highway and peering down to the road below.
“There’s a few starting to gather, but they can’t get up here.” She looked almost … relaxed. Or maybe resigned. He joined her at the edge and looked down and out in all directions. There weren’t nearly as many here. He judged there probably wouldn’t be another huge horde. He also planned to be far away before he could verify whether he was right or wrong.
He sighed and looked at the car. The tires were shredded, and service stations weren’t of much use these days. “Driving like this will destroy the wheels fast,” he said.
“Maybe, but we can’t stay here all night. They’re slow, but they’ll get here eventually.”
He looked back at the chain of tire spikes. There was no rust, he noticed, no worn-away paint to speak of. They’d been put down relatively recently.
“You’re right,” he said. “Let’s go. We’ll keep going till the wheels won’t go anymore.”
They’d gone about a kilometer, roughly a third of the way to the next exit, when they started spotting cars on the road again. They were in as good condition as the ones used for barricades had been; they hadn’t seen a living passenger for many years and the weather had taken its toll.
The wheels made a horrible amount of noise as they ground along the road, but the highway was still raised, and remained so for some time if Ben remembered correctly, so he tried not to worry about it. It wasn’t easy; if this day had taught him anything it was that silence really was golden.
Another loud, painful kilometer later, they stopped. They still had almost a kilometer left to go, but no more road to get there; instead there was just a great sea of ruined cars blocking their way. “Well,” he said, a lump in his throat as he peered into the growing darkness. “I guess we walk.”
The road was quiet when they left the car. Ben did a cursory check of the vehicle’s interior, finding nothing much of interest; a few coins, a pack of gum, scattered trash in the center console storage.
Claire checked the mass of cars ahead of them, giving as many as she could a quick glance; many were too dirty to see through easily, but those she paid more attention to. She didn’t spot any trapped bodies, but did notice how tightly the cars were packed in, and how many had open doors.
“I guess back then when these were abandoned they got trapped, tried to leave the cars behind and make it on foot,” she said quietly.
“Let’s hope we have better luck.”
Their options were limited. They could hike back the way they’d come and hope for the best, but that would lead them back to the Core eventually. Probably not the best way to go. They could try to get off the highway, but that didn’t seem likely until they got closer to ground level. It was a long drop onto a hard surface covered with who knew what.
They took the only reasonable option open to them. They started picking their path through the sea of cars, imagining all the while the chaos of years gone past as people sat in locked traffic, frantic with panic, finally leaving vehicles and homes behind to escape on foot, at risk from people both living and dead. For a while, it was said, the living had been the bigger threat.
Ben realized with a sinking feeling that in this part of the world at least, that was certainly now true for them.
Their slow progress had lasted long enough that it was well and truly dark. “I’m so glad there’s a moon tonight,” Claire commented. Without it they’d have been truly sunk. With the effective end of civilization had come the end of light pollution. The number of stars visible in the night sky was breathtaking, but did nothing to light the way when the moon was new, or covered by clouds.
They stuck to the edge of the highway, keeping hands on the raised side for guidance and keeping an eye on the closest cars. The moon lit their way, but not terribly well; it was a crescent, only a few nights away from leaving them in the dark. They couldn’t see into the more distant cars well enough to check what was inside.
They’d been picking their way carefully through for at least an hour by Ben’s best count when Claire spotted one. “Psst! There,” she said, pointing. She seemed to have better night vision than he did; he couldn’t see what she meant.
“There!” Her voice was barely more than a whisper, but even that seemed suddenly loud. He sighted along her arm and moved forward a bit; several cars ahead, maybe the top of a head slumped to the side of a headrest. He couldn’t see well enough to be sure.
They froze in place, unwilling to take another step. Ben bit his lip. “We could go around,” he said in a low, whispery voice. “If it’s risen, at least we won’t be within reach.” Most of the cars on the road were in bad enough shape that the glass had long since broken, if it had survived the rioting unbroken in the first place.
Claire’s face was pensive in the moonlight, staring at the ground under them. It looked more like ground than road. The years of disuse had cracked and broken the blacktop to pieces and blown dust and dirt and seeds in enough quantity that there were stretches that looked more like wild lawn gone to seed than like an elevated highway. “I don’t think we have a choice. It’s gonna make a racket if it notices us.”
“Me neither, but if there’s one here, there’ll be more later. Guess nobody cleared the cars of ‘em. With the noise we made getting here I’m not real worried about them moaning themselves hoarse, at least not till we’re closer to the ground. Might even do us some good to have a distraction that can’t move.”
“I guess … as long as it doesn’t pull more up onto the road with us.”
They picked their way carefully to the other side of the road, making as little noise as possible. That ended up being more noise than either of them would have preferred; the remains of cars were packed in close in places, and bumping and brushing them was impossible to avoid. At times this would even cause bits of them to break off and fall to the ground. That wasn’t so bad in places where enough dirt had built up and things were overgrown, but on bare asphalt Ben found himself cringing.
As they made their way slowly along the other side of the highway, Ben thought wistfully of flashlights and other modern conveniences, like matches, that once had been taken for granted. It didn’t take much to spawn such thoughts; after they third time bashing your knee on an unseen car fender such thoughts and memories came easily to mind.
At least he hadn’t cut himself. If matches and flashlights were rare these days, antibiotics were priceless even in well stocked enclaves, let alone out in the wilds. Zombie movies used to make a big deal about one scratch being enough to doom the poor unfortunate victim. The reality was that that one scratch didn’t have to come from a zombie to be potentially fatal.
Next to him, Claire froze again and her posture, tense and almost humming with tell-tale fight-or-flight adrenaline, told him all he needed to know about what prompted it. He quickly scanned the windows of the cars within sight, but once again he couldn’t see it. Wordlessly, she pointed.
He moved ahead a few steps, eyes fixed where she’d been pointing, and he froze as well. It was close. He kicked himself for having missed it.
He held still, barely allowing himself to breathe. It wasn’t moving at all, but he didn’t know if that mattered. They didn’t breathe, their hearts didn’t pump, they had none of the life processes that would cause involuntary movement in a person.
He looked back at Claire; their eyes met in the dim moonlight, mirroring anxiousness. They were too close to the last one to cross back over, but this one was even closer.
Ben closed his eyes, and with an apologetic shrug, he started edging forward again. Based on everything he’d seen, if it were risen, they were already too close. Hiding was pointless. So was sitting still. He shot glances at it as he kept his eye on where he was going. Fortunately it was one car out into the road, not in a car right on the shoulder; there was a car between it and him. He didn’t have to worry about it suddenly reaching for him, even though the windows of the car it sat in were all broken out. Or in, he thought.
It was slumped in the passenger side seat, hair all a disarray. As he drew abreast of its position, he tried to get a better look. As the years dragged onward, the survivors had found there were ways to tell the difference between an old body and an old zombie. It was the more recent zombies you had to be really careful about; they were really hard to distinguish.
There were few known living creatures that could stomach snacking on zombie flesh, and that included the majority of scavengers, vermin and even most bacteria that would normally contribute to the decomposition of an animal or human corpse. There were a few that were hardy enough to do it, but so few that the decomposition of zombies was much slower and far less complete than a typical body.
For a body that had presumably been strapped into a car for the last 10 years, that should make telling whether it was risen pretty easy. If it was a skeleton, it was safe. If it still looked like a fleshy corpse, then either it hadn’t been there for 10 years or they were in for more noise and more risk.
He drew abreast of its position and glanced back over, almost sighing audibly with relief; the face was a bare white skull, and what was visible of the body looked thin enough to be in similar condition.
“It’s dead then,” he heard from just behind him.
“Yeah. Lucky for all of us,” he said, including the unnamed victim in the car in the sentiment.
They progressed cautiously, passing several more of the truly dead. One feature stood out among all the bodies they saw; many of them had been visibly shot through the forehead, others had damaged facial bones; enough of them that they began to think someone had intentionally come through and put down all of the trapped zombies many years ago.
It had to have been some time ago; zombie flesh didn’t suddenly become more appetizing just because the zombie had been dispatched, but afterward they did fall apart more easily. Neither Ben nor Claire knew why, nor did either care very much at that moment; they were just grateful they could make some progress, even if it would lead them to ground level and into danger again.
When the highway did finally give them the chance to descent, they faced a choice. They’d reached the next off-ramp, this one unblocked and leading down and into a section of the old city some distance from the Core.
“Do we go down now, or stay up here?” Ben put the question to words. They’d relaxed a little on the silence since realizing all of the dead had been put down long ago, but were still keeping their words to a minimum.
Claire frowned in thought. “How long does it go on like this? How far is it elevated?”
“Goes on a few more exits I think. It’s been a while since I drove it,” he added with a sardonic smile.
“Some of the zombies … the dead could be stuck up here with us.”
“True,” he agreed. “But odds are probably not a whole lot of ‘em, and we know for sure there are a lot of ‘em down there, especially so close to the city core.” Ideally he’d prefer to stay above the ground until they were entirely clear of developed areas, but unfortunately the highway just wasn’t built that way. It’d be back on the ground eventually.
In the end, caution won, and eventually turned out to be quite a few hours with their slow pace and poor sight. The moon was high in the sky and well on its way down again when they finally reached the point where the highway came back down to earth. To their enormous relief, there were no dead in sight.
They hopped over the barrier in a part of town Ben didn’t recognize. It looked like mostly smallish individual homes with the odd apartment building as far as they could see. “This is good,” Ben said. “Low population density.”
“It could be good,” Claire corrected. “They’re slow and mostly don’t travel great distances but that doesn’t mean they’ve all stayed in the same spots all these years.”
It was true, Ben reflected. It was still a pretty good idea to avoid major population centers, and this was still close enough to being one that they had to be very careful, but zombies did move around enough for dispersion to have happened over the last decade. They might run into more than they assumed. They might run into none.
They had departed the highway near an overpass without ramps. Moving as quietly as they could, they made it to the other road. This one had few cars on it, and looked as though they’d spent the last 10 years rusting in place.
“Have you ever seen anyone get this far away before?” Claire’s expression was hard to read in the dark but her voice was weary but with a nervous edge. Ben was flagging as well.
“No. There’ve only been a few who got away without getting caught, and coverage mostly ends long before you get out here.”
She started carefully inspecting every car they passed. Her inspections were visual only after she touched a rear view mirror and barely managed to catch it when it crumbled off the car. The loud sharp sound of breaking glass would definitely bring them bad luck.
Ben watched her going over each car for a while before his curiosity got the better of him. “What’re you looking for?”
“Anything we can use if and when we run into more of those things,” she said, not taking her eyes off the interior of the car she was next to. “They’ve all been looted though I think.”
He checked his belt. The plastic bag filled with water bottles and food was still tied there, a reassuring weight on his good leg. “That’s reassuring in a way. It means people still pass through now and then, or did at one time at least.”
Something caught his eye then, and he jerked his head around before even realizing what it was he’d seen. A light?
He scanned up and down the rows of buildings along the road they were following down to the water. Where … There. The tiniest spark of a light, a red blip in the night. He pointed it out.
They moved closer. They’d covered about three quarters of the distance to the light when they were able to make out the source through the gloom. It was an old security camera that had been outfitted with a makeshift cover to conceal it, only now the cover was showing its age and falling apart.
A noise from behind them startled Claire; she covered her mouth and turned with a muffled gasp. A figure stumbled into the street some distance further up the road. As they watched, it turned their way.
Ben’s stomach turned to ice. Individually they weren’t a threat—but they had no weapons to use against it either, and they couldn’t see reliably. They couldn’t move much faster than it could either, for fear of injury, and because of the injury he already had. He grabbed Claire’s arm and together they moved as quickly as they could away down the street.
They were just coming to a major intersection, about 4 or 5 away from the water when off to their left, more movement. More sound. And then to their right.
Ben swallowed, but dared not speak. They kept moving; Claire threw an arm around his shoulders and almost dragged him in their efforts to go faster.
They half-ran, half-hobbled through an intersection, nearly tripping as they tried to keep an eye on every direction at once. They could hear more of the dead close by, too many sources to count, but not enough to be visible. Ben almost wished they were visible; it was somehow worse when you couldn’t see them, couldn’t tell if they were going to mass up and trap you.
“We … have to … get off the street,” Ben managed between gasps as his ankle protested their rapid pace. “We’re too exposed!”
Clair didn’t reply; she was busy searching the building facades as they passed. He was about to say something further when they both stopped short as movement ahead caught their eye. Two of the dead, ahead of them. Both were coming their way, but were too far ahead to be aware of them. One dragged itself along the ground; it was a safe bet it had a problem with its legs, if it still had legs. The other was upright and walking, but leaning so heavily against the wall of a building Ben momentarily felt sorry for it; he could relate.
They stared ahead for a moment, minds racing. The sounds behind them prompted a look; the first they’d spotted was still on their trail. Ben recognized it by the long tattered remnants of a duster it was wearing. It wasn’t closing in fast, but they couldn’t just stand around and wait for it to catch up. He couldn’t tell if the others they’d heard were coming or not.
They could try to keep going ahead on the street; the crawler wouldn’t be much threat to them as long as they stayed out of range of its hands and mouth, and one walker wasn’t that difficult to avoid. They’d be gambling that those were the only two, though, and the stakes were awfully high. There wasn’t much point in going back; there was precious little of value, and nowhere to get to.
That left going in.
The buildings around them were taller, though not the skyscrapers of the Core. They ranged from 5 to 8 storeys, Ben figured. Most of the windows and doors were broken in. That could mean they’d been looted, or it could mean the dead had been busy. There was no way to tell from out here. 5 to 8 storeys left a lot of room inside for the dead to wait.
They looked at each other, and after a moment’s hesitation they ducked inside the nearest building.
They ducked inside and Ben immediately felt the walls of the room closing in; he almost wanted to rush back out again. He closed his eyes for a moment and tried to calm down.
Claire was feeling it too; he could tell by her voice. “Across or up?” she asked, voice brittle with tension. He interpreted that to mean ‘try to find another surface exit on the other side of the building, or head up to the roofs again.’
“Across. Our last trip up wasn’t fun.”
They had to move slow; it was even darker inside than out, which didn’t make either of them feel a lot better about being inside again. They were in a large open area inside what might have been an office building or hotel once. Broad stairs leading up to the next floor faced them, and a long reception desk stood abandoned. The street-facing windows were floor to ceiling, so the room wasn’t completely dark, though it was awfully close. “Stick to this room, there must be an exit on the other side too.” He was able to make out Claire’s nod.
The long hours under the night sky had sharpened their night vision to about the best it was going to reach, but even so they found themselves with a hand on the reception desk for guidance. The floor wasn’t exactly empty; broken glass, dirt and debris were everywhere, and there were even patches of grass growing in places, just like the road ways outside.
They’d gone most of the length of the reception desk when Claire jerked her hand away from it with a grunt of surprise. “Ugh!”
Ben winced at the exclamation; her voice had been low, but compared to the near silence it seemed loud. “What is it?”
She picked something up off the desk. “Food. Or the dish it was eaten from at least.” She sniffed at it. “Beef stew, maybe. And it’s still slimy… it surprised me.”
“Still slimy?” That had to mean it had been eaten very recently, within hours, not days, weeks or years.
“A little… seems pretty dried out, but not completely. Someone was here recently.”
Several thoughts flashed through Ben’s mind all at once. The lit camera light; the presence of people in an area of town that seemed long abandoned; the apparent presence of canned food, for there was no other possible way to get beef stew or anything similar these days that he knew of.
“Stew. I haven’t eaten all day. You don’t suppose there’s any more around, do you?” Ben was irrational even to suggest they stop when they knew there were dead in the area and following them, but neither of them had eaten all day, and eventually they wouldn’t be able to keep moving if they didn’t eat. He still had his condiments from the coffee shop, but he didn’t have much and it wouldn’t do much for them.
He couldn’t see Claire’s face very well in the shadows of the building’s interior, but he thought she was biting her lip. “We need to eat something more than ketchup and relish.” She looked back to the broken door they’d entered through; nothing had followed them inside yet.
Ben was checking out the reception desk. He climbed on top, a little clumsily thanks to his ankle, and down again to the other side. A few seconds of searching in the dark turned up a new find. “There’s more dishes here,” he said, a note of hope in his voice. “Maybe they keep the food near by?”
There was a dark hallway deeper into the building behind the desk. Claire eyed it. “Yes,” she finally replied. “I think we need to check it out, at least a quick check.”
He started his own quick check of the rest of the space behind the desk. They needed not just food, but something solid and heavy they could use to protect themselves if and when the dead got close. There was lots of trash and debris, but nothing with enough heft to be useful. He regretted the earlier loss of the shotgun Claire had had at the pub when they’d met.
He was about to give up entirely when his hand closed around the handle of an old solid metal wrench. It was a big one, and plenty heavy. It was also awkward, and while big for a wrench, using it would require being closer to the dead than he wanted to get. But it felt reassuring in his hand, and was far better than nothing.
“Okay,” he said, showing her the find. “No more than a couple of minutes though. Those things are still behind us, and we need to keep it that way.”
She wasted no time replying, instead ducking into the dark hallway silently. He followed behind her, moving as quietly as his limp would allow. He was the only source of sound, which both bothered and reassured him; if there were any dead inside, they weren’t near enough for them to hear at least.
They hadn’t gone more than maybe 10 feet down the hallway when they found the door to another room in the blackness. It was open, and Claire was already inside when Ben reached it. “Here,” she whispered. She shoved a bunch of what felt like cans into his hands.
“Hang on, wait, wait,” he said. “I need to be able to use the wrench if I have to.”
“Pass me your bag then,” she said, and he did. She stuffed as many cans in as she could, working blind, without even knowing what was in them. She’d found stacks of them inside an old refrigerator that hadn’t seen power in ages.
She was grabbing a few last cans when they heard the snap-tinkle of breaking glass back the way they’d come.
Ben froze; by the sound, Claire did the same. They moved back into the black hall; Ben kept a hip firmly against what must have been a kitchen counter so he wouldn’t run into anything. Once there they could see the lighter grey patch that marked the end of the hall; they practically ran for it.
As soon as he was back in the larger, more open space, Ben dumped the bag and its contents on the reception desk and looked around frantically for the source of the noise. It was the same one they’d seen before, duster and all, and it was making a bee-line for them. Sunken eyes stared dully at him, jaw hanging loosely. He hefted the wrench in his hand, half to get a good grip on it and half to stop his hand from shaking too badly. It’s just one zombie, he told himself. It helped. It’s just one. It’s just one.
It was less than halfway across the space between them and the door, and it was a big room. “Through or around?”
He scooped up the bag again, managing to keep any cans from falling out in the process. Clutching it tight, he moved at as quick a pace as he could straight to the other side of the room, keeping behind the reception desk. Claire was right behind him.
The dead thing came as close to lunging across the desk as a zombie can when they crossed paths, making them jerk back involuntarily into the shelves that lined the wall on the other side, away from it; it ended up more as a fall against the other side of the desk though, and Ben was elated when it lost its footing and collapsed to the ground. They pressed on, leaving the building the way they’d gone in.
The street looked safe enough when Ben did a hurried check. He couldn’t see anything that wanted to eat them alive anywhere within the nearest fifty meters or so, anyway. They advanced up the street a short distance, wary eyes open for more of the dead.
He spotted what he took to be the two he’d seen before, the crawler and the walker, but they were some distance away up a side street and facing the wrong direction to spot them. He was watching them and hoping it would stay that way when Claire grabbed his shoulder and bodily turned him, pointing.
He followed her outstretched arm and finger, puzzled until he spotted it; a subtle red glow in a dark corner. As they got closer they were able to make out what looked like a crude covering that had slipped out of place. The glow came from behind it. “Another camera?”
Ben frowned. “Two still working, this far out?”
There wasn’t much they could do about it; they kept walking. They maintained an easy pace. Ben’s ankle was swollen and painful and he kept his weight off it as best he could with Claire’s help. They couldn’t take it too easy though, as the zombie Ben had started calling Duster in his head was still behind them. Not close behind, but they couldn’t stop.
They’d made it several more blocks when Claire again pointed. This time when Ben followed her arm he found himself staring at an old fire escape.
“Really? After all this time, this close to the lake?”
“We have to stop, and we can’t do it down here. You can’t go much farther like this, and I’m getting awfully tired. Adrenaline only goes so far.”
She was right; he was exhausted. They both were. They had to chance the old and probably rusty fire escape.
As soon as he grabbed the first rail of the fire escape’s ladder, he expected a spontaneous swarm of the dead to appear. The instant he put weight on it the whole thing creaked and groaned with an ear-piercing loudness.
Having no other choice, they double-timed it upwards, every step they climbed bringing more noise and causing the structure to rattle and vibrate until Ben was convinced it would soon tear itself off the wall entirely.
The awful metal stairs ended at the top floor, but a short ladder section brought them the rest of the way to the roof. They forced themselves through a quick perimeter check to make sure they were alone, then collapsed near the ladder.
“That was much easier than the last ascent, at least,” Ben commented.
Claire nodded. “Loud though. How long do you think we’ll be stuck up here?”
Ben was about to reply when sleep came crashing down on him.
The sky was bright and the sun high enough that it must’ve been about 10am by the time he woke up again. The first thing he was aware of was the dull, gaping ache in his belly; he hadn’t had a chance to eat yet. The next was the dull, roaring background sound of the dead.
His eyes snapped open and he looked around, expecting to find them surrounded, but it was just the two of them.
“We’re okay, for now,” Claire said. She looked much better after some sleep, and she’d eaten as well. She tossed him a half-eaten can of something that smelled incredibly good with hunger as a sauce. “Lucky for us, a few of these cans are pull-tops. We’ll have to get a can opener somewhere for the rest.”
“How many dead are there?” Ben asked as he started scooping stew out of the can with his fingers. It wasn’t elegant, but they weren’t in an elegant world, he thought.
As the food started hitting his stomach, he felt immeasurably better and he almost relaxed. “Looks like there was a bit of a crowd overnight, but we’ve been quiet long enough that they’ve been drifting away. There’s still too many out in the open for my taste. If you ask me, we’ll be here a while longer.”
He finished off the stew and turned his attention to his ankle. It was still horribly sore, and the color was ugly, but the swelling had gone down overnight. He pulled himself to a fully-upright sitting position and groaned. Sleeping out in the open, in the cold, and on a gravel roof made for very sore muscles.
“I’d tell you to walk off the stiffness, but …” She glanced at his ankle in concern.
“Might as well try. Gotta see if I can put weight on it anyway.” He stood awkwardly and hobbled a few steps. He grinned, though it was more of a grimace. “You ever see that old zombie flick where they acted their way through a street full of zombies? Maybe this walk’ll fool ‘em.” He lurched and limped to the far side of the roof and back.
“How is it?” she asked.
“Hurts, but not as bad now. I can make it.” He’d seen the water when he got to the far side. They were only a couple blocks away. “I’m not letting this ankle stop me when we’re this close. I’ve gotten this far on it. I can rest it when we’re on the water.”
For all his protestations that he was okay, they ended up staying put for some time anyway. The crowd of the dead that had gathered after the racket they’d made took hours to disperse enough that they could even think about moving on.
“We’re only a couple of blocks away, the street will be safe enough.” Ben awkwardly paced the edge of the roof, partly to make sure he could move when he had to, and partly because he was anxious to get going.
“And how do we get down to it? We made it through the night because we were up here after all the noise the fire escape made. If we go down on it, we’ll be right where they’re gathering!” They’d been having the same argument for a few hours.
Ben threw his hands up in dismay. “Fine then, we don’t go down that way.” He glanced over the side he was on; there was another building abutting the one the were on in the direction they wanted to go, but it was a couple of storeys down to its roof. Claire could make it easily enough but it would be difficult for him. His eyes followed a drain pipe that dropped straight down the wall. “We’ll go down here. Once we’re on the next roof we’ll figure out where to go next.”
Claire frowned, inspecting the route. “Better than the fire escape, I guess. Are you going to be able to manage it?”
“The pipe runs down next to windows, that’ll give me a way to brace myself with my working foot. Won’t be easy … but it’ll be easier than climbing up out of that pub was.”
By early afternoon the risk of moving was outweighed by the pressure of waiting so long that they were moving by night again, or stuck in the open on the roof. Neither option sounded appealing. Claire grabbed the plastic bag containing their food and water to let Ben focus on getting himself down safely. “We’ll have to try and find something better to keep this stuff in. The cans are too heavy, the plastic is wearing. It’s going to break soon.”
Ben nodded. “Should’ve grabbed a few more bags while I was there, but I didn’t expect to be carrying cans in the thing. We’ll make do as best we can, I guess.”
As predicted, it wasn’t easy, nor was it silent. Ben made it down safely though, and from there it was a relatively painless crossing of several roofs at the same level to get them to the end of the first block. The small amount of noise they’d made in their descent hadn’t drawn any extra dead back to the area that they could see.
The smell of the water was getting stronger, strong enough at times to clear the air of the smell of the death they’d been so used to they hadn’t even thought of before. The unexpected relief lifted their spirits and cleared away some of the tension, too.
A little bit of the tension rolled back over Ben as he stared down at the broad street between them and the final block. There were no big groups or clusters, and they were unaware of the watchers above on the rooftops, but there were still about two dozen or so of the dead down there as best Ben could judge. One of them caught his eye; it was Duster. He’d settled into a half-sitting, half-fallen position against the building across the street from them, staring up the street vacantly, unmoving.
Ben looked up the street in that same direction. The numbers did thin out that way before too long, and the roofs didn’t look too difficult to navigate …
“Hey, you still awake?” Claire passed him a bottle of water.
“Yeah. Just thinking ‘bout how to get across there. Or rather how we don’t have to get across there.”
She followed his gaze and nodded. “I’m getting awfully sick of rooftop life, but it’s better than being dinner.” Her voice was a touch resigned as she said that. They were both sore today, not just him. Neither of them had been professional athletes before their banishment, and yesterday had been a grueling experience that wasn’t over yet.
“I haven’t been out to this part of the city much. Before the end, I mean. I know there’re docks around but I don’t know what we’ll find there, or where the best ones are.” He drained half his bottle. “Boats may have sank years ago, or floated free, or been moved.”
“We’ll find something. Maybe like we did with the car. Check inside. There must be boathouses, places people kept them when they weren’t in the water.”
“We can hope. Worth a shot, if we don’t find anything more convenient.” His tone was eloquent in its expression of how likely he thought it was for anything to be convenient these days.
They finished their bottles and stashed the empties back in the bag in case they found clean water elsewhere to fill them with. That done, they reluctantly moved on, trying not to sound too much like the dead they were avoiding as aching muscles protested.
Ben kept an eye on the street as they progressed up the block. They were traveling across the roofs of a series of low single-storey buildings that gave him a very good view, but made him very nervous. He wasn’t at all sure how good a zombie’s vision or hearing was, or from how far away they could otherwise scent, or sense you, or however they found you. His arms and legs weren’t looking forward to the next climb upwards, but the rest of him definitely was.
While he was keeping an eye out though, he found himself noticing other details that had escaped him from higher elevations. Just little things, like a certain order to the chaos of the debris, an arranged quality to the abandoned cars. “Claire.”
She stopped. They backed away from the edge of the roof aways to make themselves less visible to the dead below. “What is it?”
“Is it just me, or do all of these shops have cleared entrances?”
She squinted down at the street, looking more carefully at the scene below. “Yeah. What do you think it means?”
“I’m thinking of the highway, the moved cars.” Those had been very obviously placed for a specific reason. Maybe these had too, though the reason was apparently different.
“Now that you mention it … And it’s more than that. There are no zombies stuck in any of the cars on these streets. None in any of the cars we’ve passed that I’ve seen. I haven’t seen a single set of remains in a vehicle anywhere.”
“Let’s get to higher ground.” He hadn’t picked up on the bodies or lack thereof, but it was true as far as he could recall. It made him uneasy, walking into a situation they didn’t understand. Things were chaotic enough as it was.
He tried to shake the feeling off, concentrating on crossing the next several roofs to the next two-storey building. The climb was painful, but every exertion got them further from the street and he felt that much better for it.
Once up higher, they took another look around. “It really does look like someone’s moved cars to clear paths around here. None of the streets are blocked off, everything’s accessible. All the buildings too.” It wasn’t like everything had been cleaned or maintained. The roads themselves were just as bad as in the Core, maybe even worse; the pavement was broken, shattered by age and the elements, and that was where it was visible at all.
This far out from the city the effects of time were becoming even more obvious. More dirt had blown in and settled over the streets, the roofs, every available surface. Grass was growing in patches everywhere, and even some larger plants. They’d found several saplings as they crossed the roofs on their way to this vantage point.
They’d seen it before on the highway, but the pattern of it here reinforced the uncomfortable feeling Ben got. “The roads look like they’re still being used. Not much, but enough to keep as many plants from growing, at least down the center.”
“You think someone lives out here?” Claire sounded more tired than surprised at the thought.
“I don’t know what else to think. But they’ve never shown anything like that on the broadcasts, have they?”
“No, they’ve always told us we’re the only survivors anywhere near here.” Which meant that if Ben was right, the leaders of the Core were either ignorant or liars, and of more immediate import, that they might have more to be cautious of than the dead out here.
“Could it be activity from the city this far out? We did walk most of the distance. If they’re using cars …”
“Could be,” Ben conceded. “I’m no expert on all the comings and goings there. I was in maintenance, mostly internal stuff, in the living quarters. The towers, mostly. Didn’t get out beyond the safe zones too often. Not ‘till now anyway.”
Claire nodded. “Me neither. I’m an … was an Aggi.” Agriculturalists, or Aggies, spent a lot of time tending the rooftop gardens that fed the population of the city. “Mostly fertilizer mixing/application, and harvesting.”
He nodded. She’d have gotten out into the overrun areas even less often than he had, and he’d never been more than maybe 20 meters from a safe zone until yesterday.
“We should keep moving,” he finally admitted, regretting the words as soon as he got under way.
The block they were traversing was long, but eventually they came to another street to cross. They anxiously examined the route.
“There’s still too many of them,” Claire groaned.
“I think we can make it.” Ben was sure of it. It was true, there were at least 5 in the immediate area he could see, but they were facing the wrong way to see them, and they were just far enough out that they should be able to make it across and out of sight. Then they’d have to find a way up. One problem at a time, he figured.
Claire stared indecisively at the scene, which actually helped; several of the dead shuffled along their aimless way and put more distance between themselves and the living onlookers.
“Okay,” she said at last. And with that they started down, slowly and as quietly as possible.
Ben led the way, and surprised himself with how quickly he reached the ground. Once there he stood still and silent, waiting for Claire. She was making good progress herself, though she still held the bag with what supplies they had left. She was moving a bit cautiously so as to keep it from rustling and giving them away, but it was awkward for her. As Ben watched, she had to catch it with one hand while bracing herself on window ledges to keep it from swinging too far with her movements.
She was about halfway down, between the first and second storeys when it DID swing out too far and suddenly slipped off her belt. She couldn’t stop a soft gasp, and Ben gasped himself. Frantically, he reached out for the bag as it fell towards him. He managed to snag one of the plastic handle holes and stop it, but his heart skipped a beat as it rustled and clunked with the sudden stop.
Frantically they both looked around at the nearby dead, barely daring to breathe. No reaction from most … but one, the nearest one, paused where it was shuffling away. They watched with mounting dread as it stood still, giving no sign what it was about. Ben felt like his heart was about to pound through his ribcage, it was beating so hard.
The sigh they let out when it started walking off again was long and heartfelt. Claire barely breathed the whole rest of the way down to the ground; Ben helped her down as she got near, and with another quick look at the zombies to make sure none had turned their way, they crept across the street and into the cover of a thankfully-empty alley they guessed would lead them to the back and a route up to the roofs.
They kept their pace slow and careful. As they got close to the rear area, Claire nodded for him to keep to the other side of the alley; they’d overlap their fields of view as they approached, the better to ensure they weren’t walking into a crowd of the dead.
They slowed further, keeping their backs to the walls; Ben saw what looked like it could’ve been an old parking area. There were a few rusted hulks that may have been cars at one time. Beyond the lot there was a smaller building, probably a house, partially collapsed. He saw no movement, nothing that looked like a person, a zombie, even a corpse. Claire’s face was intent, showing no sign she’d seen anything distressing either.
They paused at the end of the alley; everything seemed clear, so they eased out into the back lot and double-checked. Nothing moving. And as he’d hoped, there was a fire escape. The sight cheered him, though he found himself wishing fervently that this one was quieter than the last.
Claire blanched a bit at the sight of it, and he nodded. “We’ll take it REALLY slow on that thing, see if we can avoid the noise this time,” he whispered. Relucantly, she nodded. She started toward the fire escape. He was about to follow after when sudden movement caught his eye.
Turning back to the alley, he watched with horror as one of the dead—he thought it was the one that had stopped—turned into the alley from the street beyond, slack-jawed and with a face that was half rotted away. It fixated on him, advancing in slow, methodical silence.
He broke into as much of a run as he could. “It followed us!” he whispered.
Wincing at the noise, they rushed up the fire escape. “This is going to be bad,” Claire groaned. It rattled and clanked as they climbed the short ladder at the bottom and then rushed up the stairs that traversed the bulk of the height. The building was 3 storeys tall.
Halfway up, Ben paused and looked down. The thing had reached the bottom of the fire escape and was pawing ineffectually at the rungs above its head. He was turning his attention back to the climb when something clamped around his injured ankle, stopping him in his tracks.
He yanked his leg up hard against the clamping pressure to no avail; all he got for his effort was screaming pain as his efforts aggravated the injury. He looked down to find a zombie had lunged through an empty window at him from inside the building as he passed, and it awkwardly writhed through the frame as it tried to get at him.
He yelled out and took a good grip on the rusty fire escape, stamping down on the grabbing hand. His terror mounted as it kept its grip; of course he knew the dead felt no pain, so there would be no instinctive release of the grip. He kept slamming his foot down and finally the fingers weakened; he pulled free of its grip just as it pulled itself halfway out the window and onto the metal stairs.
He stumbled backwards and felt more hands grab him by the shoulders. He struggled at first before recognizing Claire. Together they half-climbed, half-stumbled their way to the top. “Gotta … stay away from … fire escapes,” Ben gasped as they pulled themselves onto the roof. They lay still, just breathing.
It took a minute for Ben to realize the creaking, clanking sound of the fire escape hadn’t died down. Claire dragged herself to her feet; he followed, and they peered down.
The zombie that had snagged his ankle hadn’t given up; it’d followed them up and was fruitlessly trying to reach them, unable to climb the short ladder that led to the roof top from the top floor. In the distance they saw more of the dead in the streets; it wouldn’t be long before there was another horde to contend with.
“Great, what do we do now? We can’t leave it there!” Claire’s face was contorted and stressed.
“We …” He broke off and took a deep breath. “Actually, why not? We should leave it there!”
“What? Are you crazy? It’ll be like yesterday all over again! It’ll just keep bringing more!” Her face was white, her voice a little unsteady.
“It’ll keep bringing them here. Let’s not be here. If we’re not here, the more of them it attracts, the better for us!” He looked down at it; it was an old one, dried out and rough, movements stiff and jerky. Every time it moved, the fire escape rattled. He wondered whether it might collapse completely if the thing stayed there agitating it long enough.
“You’re crazy, Ben. But so is this whole situation. Okay, fine, let’s get out of here.” The idea was winning through to her, he could see it in her body language. A tiny touch of the stress drained visibly from her.
They stopped just long enough to eat a few quick bites and drink a half-bottle of water each, and then they were on the move again.
To his great relief the entire block was the same height; no scaling up and down building exteriors this time, not until they had to get back to street level. The straight shot across the buildings allowed them to make good time, and they found themselves scanning the streets for a way across once more.
The distant creaking of the fire escape could still be faintly heard from this distance, and it had done its job and called away whatever dead might have been hanging around this part of the street. He grinned tightly, trying not to grimace. “Nice clean empty street. Now we just gotta get down to it.”
Claire snorted at the word “clean,” then paused and stared out into the distance. He followed her gaze. The water was finally visible, just one short block away. It was bright blue under the blazing sun, and—
“Is there something out there? What’s that bobbing in the water?”
Claire narrowed her eyes, shading them with her hand. “I … I think there is something out there, yeah. A boat maybe?” The hope in her voice was infectious.
They were just about to start an awkward and slow climb down using only windows as handholds when Ben caught something else moving. It was closer, and moving on the road. It looked for all the world like one of the utility vans the crews used when they had to move beyond the most central core areas of the city. “What…?”
Claire had seen it too, and the sound of an engine reached them. It was quiet but audible, and moving away at a decent clip given how bad the roads were out here. They looked at each other in confusion. “Was that one of ours … theirs?”
“It looked kind of like one of our work vans, but I never heard of anyone working this far out.” They sat listening for almost a minute, but the pressure to move forced them down while the streets were still empty. By the time they reached the ground, the sound of the van was long gone. So was the sound of the fire escape.
A glance back up the street the way they’d come showed some dead activity; a small aimless crowd of the dead who had lost their focus when the noise stopped. “I wonder what happened to it,” he said as they started across the road.
“Fell, maybe, or just sat down like they do sometimes I guess,” Claire commented. Her voice was far away; she was staring fixedly at the water and the bobbing shape in it. He turned back and they rushed down the last of the roads between them and the water.
The coast was clear. Literally clear, Ben thought. The grown-over road ran parallel to the coast with a strip of what must’ve been grass long since gone wild in between. The remains of a running path cut through the long grasses, with young strong maple trees growing at even intervals that spoke of their having been planted before the fall. Old park benches faced the water. There were no buildings, no docks to be seen anywhere up or down the coast.
A small motorboat floated lazily out a short distance from shore. An anchor line dropped off the back into the water. It was a welcome and very tempting sight.
Their footsteps faltered and slowed as they crossed the overgrown street.
The van was long gone, but the path it’d taken couldn’t have been more clear. There was only two sets of tracks. It had come out from somewhere, parked right in this area, driven off in the same direction. Then it passed through again in the other direction, without stopping. The dirt it had kicked up and displaced told that story plain enough. What it didn’t say anything about was why, or why right then, that same day.
Claire walked right up to the edge of the water and stood, staring at the boat. Ben trailed behind, trying to put his finger on the source of his unease. There was nothing around them but long-overgrown grass and trees and benches that were falling apart. The water was blue, and if not exactly clear, was at least shallow enough that they could reach the boat without swimming.
A can of gas was sitting in the boat, visible from shore. Sunlight glinted off the glass of the boat’s windscreen. He snapped his fingers. “That’s it!”
“What’s it?” Claire looked as if it was starting to bother her too, but hadn’t yet seen what was right in front of them.
“It’s clean. It’s as if it’s new. It’s right in front of us. Why? And how? It can’t have been here long. It looks like it was left here specifically for us.”
She frowned, nodding, and turned back the way they’d come, or started to. “What’s this?” She jogged back to a particularly thick bunch of grass where a small non-descript light gray box sat. Ben painfully limped over to join her. “It’s a camera. Another one.”
It looked like any of a thousand security cameras you’d see in any store, or would have in the world before. This one had been hastily installed and was pointed right at the boat. It wasn’t even secured to the ground; a cable ran loose into the grass where they found some sort of power pack.
Ben’s head was reeling; he couldn’t believe it. “It’s the damn shows. They’ve been watching us the whole way, the whole time.” They must’ve gotten intrigued when they survived the massive horde the previous day. Beating impossible odds always drew attention on the broadcasts.
“We got popular. They had to expand their coverage. They herded us into that funnel last night, and now this. I hope it was entertaining; I’m done being the star of the show. Let’s get out of here.” He said that last right into the camera.
“Can we trust it? I’ve never seen anyone just sail off into freedom before.” She was eyeing the boat apprehensively now. An ending nobody had ever seen before, or … what?
“Do you want to try going back through all that?” Ben was already wading into the water, splashing loudly as he limped. Too loudly, he thought.
“Ben!” Claire cried out, running and splashing in after him. He saw it; matted, stringy hair emerging from the water maybe 20 meters off to the side. The dead didn’t breathe; they could walk anywhere there was land, whether or not it was covered by water.
Another, and another became visible. They were farther out where it was deeper, attracted closer in by Ben’s careless noise.
They tried to run, but the water was thigh-high. Claire put on some speed and reached the boat, scrambling in while Ben struggled to keep up. “Get it started!” he yelled. The dead were converging on them, more and more approaching from either side.
The first one grabbed his arm just as he was reaching out for the side of the boat, the water up past his waist. He jerked his arm away, nearly pulling the thing onto him, its mouth gaping open. He stumbled back, shoving it away. More were crowding in close.
Desperately he surged toward the boat, gripping the sides and pulling himself halfway over. Cold, wet hands grabbed at his legs and shoes; he kicked and shoved, trying to use them to get in to safety faster. One of the hands got a solid grasp on his good ankle.
Claire slammed an oar into the thing’s head, knocking it away. It didn’t let go, but Ben pulled himself free. “I couldn’t make sense of that thing!” Claire screamed.
He wasted no time replying, clawing his way to the engine while Claire beat the oncoming dead back like so many weeds in a field.
The water was thick with them. Franticly he primed the motor, jabbed what he thought must be the starter, and it roared to life. Claire stumbled and nearly fell as the boat began moving slowly ahead. Claire shoved the second oar at him as they moved, and together they shoved and bashed any that got too close.
Ben steered them into deeper waters; they were picking up speed but too slowly to stay where they could be reached. From below they began to feel heavy impacts; more of the dead, still in the deeper waters, unseen but still coming for them. The heavy impacts gave way to softer scraping. “They’re reaching up for us,” Ben said with a shiver. Dead fingers outstretched from the deep.
Finally the water was too deep and anything below couldn’t reach them. Looking over the side, they could see them though. Pale, lifeless faces, staring up hungrily, slowly following them.
“Where to from here?” Ben had been thinking an island. Now he wasn’t so sure.
“I don’t care,” Claire said, staring back at the ruins of the once-great city. Pinpricks of light glinted off the buildings as the afternoon wore on. Broken glass? Or camera lenses? Even in death, the city had a million eyes. “Anywhere but here.”
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