Fiction Page 9
THE URBAN DEAD
Lawrence R. Dagstine
…And it was written that one day the dead would walk the earth.
These were true words spoken by the late Saint John the Divine, and far from it that the pages of Revelation be any biblical children's tale. This was no game. This was real.
Nowhere was safe: not the streets, not the subways, not the bus terminals, not even the movie theaters. The world's greatest scientific minds couldn't even understand what was happening. Was it a curse from God? Was it a side effect of some chemical weapon? Was it an acid cloud containing some strange cosmic element or new force of nature?
What was it? What caused this to happen?
The city was dead. Undead actually. Hundreds upon thousands of them walked the streets, as if an assemblage of ghouls (grayish-white complexion, tattered clothes, lifeless eyes and such), spread out and wavering, were dressed for some citywide Halloween party. The media called it "hell on earth". They were right.
In the drill-head area of some secret tunnel, beneath the Brooklyn-bound subway line known as the L, terrified technicians and construction workers were wrestling with heat-jammed coolant controls, while a member of the National Guard screamed frantically, "I see them! It's gonna blow! Come on!"
Kyle McDonald was no stranger to situations like this. Looking around he spotted the main coolant valve. A tunnel worker was wrestling in vain with the pressure wheel. A metal hatch at the other end of the tunnel, which at one point contained ten of these creatures, or zombies, as most called them, flew open. These ten in particular seemed to be lab-rats, held captive for some part of the U.S. government's research. But not even an underground subzero prison cylinder could hold them. "Perhaps they weren't meant to be studied," quoted the tunnel worker. "Just look for yourself, the anger and hunger in their eyes!" Kyle took notice of this, but disagreed with the man. These weren't the kind of zombies that went around eating peoples' brains. These were the kind that fed on you like vampires, and absorbed the living essence out of you.
"Up into the subways¾the L!" a scientist cried out from a nearby balcony. "We'll be safe there!" The scientist was more confused than concerned. The only possible answer for their escape was that they found a way to eat through the wiring and were somehow smarter and instinctive when together in large numbers.
Finally, an alarm sounded. Kyle went over and moved the man by the wheel gently aside. "Let me have a go at that. It'll be down soon enough. Go and join the others." He gripped the metal wheel and heaved steadily, muscles bulging under the cotton of his military fatigues. Slowly, very slowly, the wheel began to turn. And before he or anyone else knew it, the zombies walked straight into an impenetrable, emergency wall.
The scientist on the balcony took notice of Kyle's actions. "Bravo!" he smiled. "Now that's what I call impasse."
Kyle looked up at him, a small, pretentious sort of man, probably with a Harvard degree. "No, that's what I call sheer luck." He threw his rifle over his shoulder and began walking away down the tunnel.
"Wait!" The scientist slid down the ladder and stopped him. "Before you rejoin your unit¾"
"Who said I was rejoining them? The Army Reserve doesn't pay me enough to endure this kind of shit. I'm going solo."
"You mean you're neglecting your duties? But you can be court-marshaled for that."
"Well, if the MPs come looking for me tell them I'm in Williamsburg. I have to stay alive just a little while longer. I owe it to someone."
The scientist crossed his brows. "Who?"
"Another science major," Kyle said. "Someone like yourself."
He continued his walk, not looking back once.
Meanwhile, at that very same moment, a professor was standing in an auditorium at Wisconsin State University, reciting theological passages and profound dogma from his thesis on religion's counterculture to over a thousand students. This was a part of the United States which, lucky enough, wasn't contaminated by the dregs of undead socialism. Professor Telby Wilkins was a great commentator on the issue, as well as being a renowned writer of religious ideologies and understanding the meaning of the afterlife. He was most famous for writing his own philosophical sequel to Milton's Paradise Lost.
Wilkins was a tall man, about six foot four, trim and wiry, middle-aged, with graying sideburns and a long bristly beard. Definitely a writer, that much you could tell. And definitely a worldly fellow, a well-traveled man of sorts. He was glad that so many young minds, interesting young minds, could make it to his reading. "I'd like to thank all of you for coming to my presentation today," he said. "The school will be honoring me tonight by hosting a discussion of today's topics in the library for three hours. I hope all of you can make it." He looked to his left, just behind the stage's big bright red curtains. Two men, both wearing military uniforms, were standing there waiting for him to finish. Of course he didn't know what this was all about.
In finishing, and very hectic and nervous over the appearance of these two military figures, he read from the last chapter of his thesis: "As you may have noticed, the angels are a short-tempered race, and spent almost as much time fighting each other as in planning the conquest of our race. This brutal temperament was the cause of the rebellion, which devastated the heavens and reduced the loyal members of the angelic hierarchies to a mere handful, leaving the others totally dependent on the Fallen One or human sin. In closing, why do you think they came to earth in the first place?" None of the students had a clue, but they still looked at him in admiration. "Because they knew that even they were fallible. Thank you." Earsplitting claps could be heard throughout the auditorium, and the students eventually cleared the area in pairs.
Professor Wilkins was about to leave the stage himself when the soldiers approached him. "Telby Wilkins?"
"Yes, that is I." Wilkins suddenly found it hard to swallow. "Can I help you with anything?"
"We're with the National Guard. We've been sent to retrieve you." How odd, and it seemed as if there was no getting out of this.
"By who?" asked Wilkins.
"We cannot release that information to you, sir," the first soldier said. "We just have orders to take you with us. A chopper is waiting on campus."
"A chopper!" Wilkins dropped his thesis, pages flying across the stage in a splash. "I don't understand. What is the meaning of this?"
"Please sir, just come with us." The soldier clamped his hand around Wilkin's arm.
"Whatever for?" Wilkins pulled back. He wasn't becoming hostile, but rather a bit panicky. "Where are you taking me?"
"New York," said the second soldier. "We must take you to the rendezvous point by 0:600."
"New York! As in New York City¾Manhattan Island?" Wilkins felt his heart drop way down into the bottom of his stomach. "New York is a death trap. It's crawling with zombies. The Pentagon won't permit any civilians in or out because of it. Now who sent you?"
"We have a military court order¾"
"Screw your court order! I asked who sent you?" Wilkins was becoming very impatient; which wasn't such a great idea around two armed men.
Finally one of the soldiers anted up a name. "Kyle McDonald." The first soldier gave him a kick for giving it up without authorization. But then perhaps if Wilkins knew who wanted him so badly, there would be more cooperation in his coming along with the two men.
"Kyle McDonald?" Wilkins wasn't surprised, not in the least. "Now what could that dirty rotten scoundrel want with me? Anything involving him usually ends up to be a big old farce."
"Please sir, come with us."
"Very well." It wasn't as if he had a choice. And like the two soldiers had said, there was a chopper parked outside right on campus. "But after I'm done with McDonald, your own superiors shall hear about this. I am a civilian you know. I have rights too."
The two soldiers led Wilkins out through the back of the faculty building and into the chopper. Off to the East Coast they headed…off to meet with Kyle McDonald.
Kyle stood by the window of an abandoned warehouse in a once very heavily populated district of Williamsburg, puffing on one Pall Mall after the other. The area by his feet was littered with butts, and a half-a-carton rest near his arm on the windowsill. In the distance he could see the subway station and the bridge, past that the highway. Down in the streets were hundreds of those things, walking around in a limp manner, probably in search of food, something like souls to munch on. Kyle shook his head. He stood there with a sawed-off shotgun tucked under his arm as he puffed away, only four floors above certain death. How depressing. How could this new embodiment of a city be so cruel and take its toll on humanity like this? He looked around to make sure the place had been properly boarded up. He sat down on a crate¾an unmistakable excuse for a chair. A rat scurried across the tip of his combat boot. He sat there in silence, but it seemed more in wait. He was a nervous wreck, it just didn't show. Kyle wouldn't let such a weakness show. Physical hazards were the daily grist of life to him. He had come to accept it.
He looked up at the far wall, a sort of closet or storage chamber without doors and noticed the arsenal he had prepared for himself and his men. Rifles, handguns, grenades, rocket launchers, C-4, and three cases stacked on top of each other filled with ammo. He was always prepared for the worst. And these were just some of the items he had stolen from the Army Reserve's ammo dumps.
There was a war going on, and even though he didn't want to be a part of it, the Army forced him to get caught in the middle of it. And when he refused to join along, or try to go AWOL once before, he was quickly captured and reprimanded; his superiors found no problem in pulling rank.
Suddenly he could hear the sound of whirling blades, a helicopter making its descent on the roof of the warehouse. His guest had arrived.
There came a knock at the door behind him, and he jumped from his seat and went to unlock it. "Who is it? You know the password." Of course he wanted to make sure it was them coming down the stairs from the roof, not some of those things coming up the stairs from the street; although he had boarded up the windows and doors on the lower levels too.
A deep throaty voice said, "Apocalypse now."
Kyle started smiling, mumbling under his breath as he removed the latch, "I love the smell of wet napalm in the morning." He let two soldiers and one civilian into (well, what he considered anyway) his stronghold.
"This is appalling, McDonald!" said the civilian, whom he knew quite well.
"I knew you'd say that. You're still the same old stubborn bastard. Ever since Cal-U, ever since the first year's outbreak, ever since you butt in and pushed up my draft."
"And what's that supposed to mean?"
"Some things never change. Not even your attitude, no matter how intellectual you are."
"My attitude? What are you talking about?" asked Wilkins.
"Do you hear an echo?" asked Kyle, a touch of sarcasm evident in his voice. "I know I don't."
"Oh, so now I have an attitude problem. Two of your men come almost 3000 miles to take me away, and now I'm the one with the problem."
"Ah, I see you've met Rogers and Smith," said Kyle, as if everything was all right. "I pick only the finest. Get to know them, you'll be here a while. And as for silly dispositions, I think yours ought to change. It's always been your dilemma, perhaps soon your downfall. That darn attitude. I guess that's why your wife chooses to fuck a piece of latex over you."
The fifty-year old professor came over and punched Kyle in the face, knocking him flat on his back. "You son of a bitch!" Rogers and Smith ran and grabbed him. "There are certain dead people who deserve to be respected."
Kyle got up and felt his lip. It was bleeding. He rushed over to Wilkins and put the shotgun under his chin. "Telby, get this straight¾I am only seconds away from pulling this trigger. Don't piss me off."
"Then leave my wife out of this," said Wilkins. "Martha has been dead for over three years now."
"What?" Kyle backed up.
"You forget, she was a teacher in the New York public school system."
"And she fell victim like the rest." Rogers and Smith let go of his arms. "I don't see no other reason why you should detain me. Now if you please, I'll be going."
As soon as he reached the door Kyle said, "I wouldn't if I were you." Wilkins halted. "I mean if you want to leave so bad so be it. You might be able to get to the street by climbing down from the roof, unless you know how to fly a helicopter."
"Now what are you playing at?" asked Wilkins, turning around to face him.
"No games," Kyle said. "True, I did bring you here to belittle you some. There are a few students who may worship your knowledge, but when I was your pupil you did nothing but taunt me. I even had a scholarship, and was preparing for a career in the Army's weapons division. So go¾be my guest. I'll bet Rogers and Smith here that you don't even make it up the block."
"Yo Kyle, leave me out of this bet," Rogers said with irony. "Let the man be foolish if he wants to."
Kyle stepped in again. "You know, over the years I've found it to be worse at night. There just seem to be more of them, and in larger numbers…almost like a pack of wolves sniffing out their prey. In the daytime you may find fifteen or twenty heads wandering around within a three block radius, but when the wind picks up and the sun starts to set¾beware!"
"At night is when you have the least survival rate," said Smith, who was standing to Rogers left. "Mobs of them come out…and out of the weirdest places. A subway station, trash bins, the sewers, and about everywhere else you can think of. They're like a great big old disease."
Wilkins heeded their words and stepped away from the door. "So what now?"
"Stay with us," said Kyle. "Live to see tomorrow. Do you know how to use a gun?"
"I never picked a weapon up in my life, so how would I know now?" Kyle went over to his closet and took out one of his finest barettas and tossed it to Wilkins. "Nice throw."
"Nice catch," Kyle laughed.
Wilkins began to raise the weapon upward, up to the back of Kyle's head but from a distance. Rogers and Smith pulled out their own guns and aimed them at Wilkin's. "Put the weapon down, sir."
"It's all right," said Kyle, waving his hand in the air. The other two soldiers placed their weapons back in their holsters. "It's not loaded yet." He then gave Wilkins a dirty look and tossed him a clip for the gun.
"Let's forget this trivial nonsense," said Wilkins, quite irate. "Other than having me brought here so you could embarrass me in front of others and tell me what a horrible instructor I was, what do you really need me for?"
"These creatures were somehow brought back from the dead," Kyle started off, "and if there is anyone who knows more about the afterlife or the dead it's you. I think you are the missing link, the solution to this city's problem."
"And what do you expect me to do, whip up a cure overnight?" Now it was Wilkins who was becoming slight sarcastic. "Even with the proper knowledge or weapons, four men don't stand a chance against a city of over 500,000 or more of these things."
"True," said Kyle. "Did you know the only way to kill a zombie is to shoot it in the head? Once brain function ceases, they fall flat on their face. Sort of reminds me of those old horror flicks I used to watch as a kid. Talented science fiction writers used to write those movies. Who knew thirty years later science fiction would turn into science fact."
Suddenly, noises were starting to gather outside the warehouse. Kyle cut the conversation short and ran to the window. Hundreds of zombies were gathered around, breaking windows and clawing at the walls. "Shit, they're trying to get in," he said worriedly. "The sound of the helicopter landing must have attracted them."
"What do we do now?" asked Wilkins.
"Defend ourselves," said Kyle, "what else." He nodded over to Rogers and Smith. "I want the two of you to man the halls. Wilkins and I will take this floor and try and pop a few from the windows." The two soldiers exited out one door while Kyle pulled Wilkins by the wrist through another.
"Wait! I don't know anything about fighting zombies! I don't want to know!"
"Well, if you want to survive I think you should learn." They kept moving onward.
They must have reached one of the lofts on the other side when they both heard glass break. Kyle gave his old teacher a portent sigh. "They're in."
Just beside the loft in one of the corridors was a motioning shadow, making a ghastly noise. It was surely one of those things. Had to be. Kyle and Wilkins took a step back. The shambling figure advanced towards them. It was the hands¾then the lifeless eyes¾ that Kyle noticed first…terrible, misshapen, twisted claws covered with rotten flesh. He started bucking shots from his sawed-off, and even Wilkins joined in, by firing a shot or two (but of course he missed). The face was a ghastly livid gray, the brows arched and with savage. If the feet were as distorted as the hands, thought Kyle, it would account for the creature's awkward shuffling gait.
More curious than frightened, Wilkins took a step towards the creature, who snarled and lashed out at him with a diseased-looking hand. Hastily the professor jumped back.
"Don't move," Kyle muttered. "Don't antagonize him. They hate when humans do that. Perhaps some reflex to the living."
"But he is of the living," said Wilkins realistically. "Well, formerly anyway. He was once like us, had a job, a place to live, wife and kids, and now that he's no longer one of us, this is the end result of his life span. This is his eternity, and I'm sure that not even he is aware of it."
"Well, that's all good but we still have to get past him. I guess the knowledge you just shared is one of the reasons why I failed your class." Kyle gave the professor a slight grin. "But it's also helpful in finding a solution. If there's one thing I remember it's your afterlife theory."
But it looked as if not even that theory would help them now.
Kyle McDonald and Professor Wilkins stood motionless as the zombie confronted them, its head swinging to and fro. Suddenly the creature screeched…
Kyle edged towards it. The zombie snarled…
"Nothing to be frightened of, Telby," said Kyle soothingly. "It's only when they are in large numbers that you have to worry."
Seeing that Wilkins' attention seemed to be fixed on the zombie, Kyle began edging around to one side, his finger on the trigger of his shotgun. The zombie still screeched furiously, following him around with its lifeless eyes. Kyle raised his rifle, and snapped his finger once to keep the creature's attention. Wilkins glanced quickly at him, and Kyle signaled with his eyes that the professor should move aside. Wilkins nodded back almost imperceptibly, and then the final shotgun blast came. The zombie's head was sent flying from its shoulders.
"Thank goodness you know how to handle one of those," said Wilkins, his heartbeat slowing down moderately. He was referring to the shotgun.
"Yeah, well I should thank you. You were the one that pushed up my draft to get me out of your class, so basic training came a little earlier than expected. Come on, let's find Rogers and Smith."
The door to the halls leading to the back staircase was flung open and a sleepy, short- tempered soldier clattered down the corridor. He was walking in a strange wobbling sort of manner, but Kyle kept at ease because he could see it was Smith approaching from the distance.
Wilkins pointed at him. "Your man is sick. He needs help."
The soldier peered through the darkness at the two writhing figures. "Hey, you. Shut up, just shut up. Because if you don't shut up, I'll shut you up!" Kyle and Wilkins kept gawking at him…then they gawked at each other. They had no idea what he was talking about. He just kept wobbling closer and closer, and mumbling on nonsensically.
"Your friend needs medical attention," Wilkins said. "He's become quite demented over something."
Kyle was confused. "Yeah, but what?"
Finally Smith arrived in front of them and collapsed at their feet a mumbling, bloody mess. "Smith!" Kyle knelt beside him. "What happened?"
At first there was no reply, but then Smith, barely able to speak, muttered, "They got Rogers. I left him back at the top of the third floor staircase. There were just too many of them."
"Smith don't die on me, please," begged Kyle. "How many is too many?"
"Two-dozen, maybe more." Smith coughed up a mess of blood. "They got Rogers, but he was still alive when I left him. If you're smart…if you're smart, Ky¾" He began to weaken. "Go to the chopper. Get out of here while you still can. There's too many of them…"
A moment later there was silence.
"He's dead, Kyle." Wilkins tried pulling him off the body. "I suggest we get out of here while we still can."
Kyle shook his head.
They ran down the corridor to the staircase where both soldiers had been positioned. Dire moans and scratching sounds surrounded them from every corner. On the floor was a body, covered. Wilkins urged Kyle to forget about it, but he pushed his old professor aside. He ripped the blanket off the writhing form and stepped back, gaping in horror. A metamorphosis had taken place. The figure under the blanket was no longer human (or alive); the face was sprouting with patches of decomposed flesh, and the teeth were yellow and the eyes white.
Rogers was not exactly dead after all, just on his way there. The recessive mutation had continued after Smith had left him behind, probably while he was unconscious and it looked almost complete; no doubt Smith would be succumbing to the same fate as he did; you didn't have to be a rocket scientist to realize that.
Kyle looked on horrified and powerless as his friend, now a terrifying figure got up off the floor and leaped on him. They fell back against a nearby wall, Kyle's neck being chewed off and the very essence of his soul being drawn out of him.
Wilkins tried to get the soldier off of him, but he too was thrown against a wall. Roaring and snarling, the zombie hurled Kyle to the ground and throttled the life out of him with powerful claws. Imagine that, a zombie dressed in military fatigues and killing his own friend.
Before Kyle nodded off, he threw his shotgun across the floor. It stopped at Wilkins' feet. The professor picked it up. Letting Kyle's lifeless body sit there, the zombie of Rogers straightened up and smiled wickedly at Wilkins. He then screeched and advanced towards him. Wilkins backed away, thankful for the protection of the weapon and fired two shots into his stomach. Rogers staggered back. He was dazed and hurt, but by no means out of action. How do you kill something that is already dead? Of course, by firing a bullet into its head!
He stood moaning, swinging his head to and fro, just like the first zombie. Then he charged again. Wilkins let out the final shot; the one that hit him straight between the eyes and the big husky zombie of a man fell dead on the floor.
Wilkins gave a sigh of relief, but it was far from over. Awful moans still surrounded him. He sparked his lighter to see what was happening. A nightmarish sight. At least twenty decomposed faces were standing there in the darkness, looking down at him. "Oh no."
There was nothing he could do but cry, cry and beg for mercy as they all jumped out at him and tore away at his skin.