But the dead can't die, and when a ruthless psychopath decides to raise an army of the undead and unleash them on the settlements, the survival of the human race is far from certain.
For Chris Collins, facing a charge of murder, for Joe Thursday, ousted as head of the Corporation and running for his life, for Ruby Collins, suffering from amnesia and wandering the zombie-infested streets of Los Angeles, the clock is ticking.
An unstoppable force is headed their way, menacing, gruesome and eternally hungry.
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The Dead Can't Die
In all of her fifteen years, Ruby Collins had never known a world without zombies. And she couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t existed to kill them. Destroy, not kill, she reminded herself, you can’t kill what’s already dead. And these creatures were definitely dead. The fact that they were still walking made a mockery of nature. They were as dead as disco, her Uncle Joe always said, and although she didn’t know what ‘disco’ was exactly, she understood where he was coming from.
Take the three Zs facing her now, for example. The larger of the two males was missing his lower jaw and had a gaping hole in his chest that exposed his rib bones and the black heart pulsing within like some malignant tumor. The other man looked to have suffered first degree burns over much of his upper body and had a face that looked like medium rare hamburger. The woman was missing one of her arms, from the elbow down. Her head had an odd, lopsided cant, as though it had been crushed in a vice. Yet, here the three of them were, shuffling relentlessly towards her like the survivors of a high-speed car wreck.
“Ruby?” the voice crackled in her earpiece.
“We’re pulling back.”
“Copy that, give me five minutes.”
The Zs were just feet from her now. She knew that some of these things were capable of moving at speed when the need arose, but that didn’t worry her unduly. She was more than a match for the likes of them. She reached behind her and got a grip on the handle of the sword sheathed across her back – a 14th century Katana she’d liberated from the Japanese American Museum in Little Tokyo. The steel whispered as it slid from its holster. She brought the slightly curved blade up in front of her and sent it flashing through the air in a series on elaborate arcs that turned it into a ghostly imprint. The Zs moved in, incapable of fear, motivated only by their perpetual hunger. Ruby stepped towards them and swung the blade in a sweep that bit into the rotten flesh of the female Z’s neck, severing its head. Using her momentum she twisted with balletic grace and drove the sword upward using both hands. The blade penetrated the brain cavity of the larger male Z, emerging from the top of his head. Whatever bizarre biology kept him ticking was instantly shut off. As Ruby withdrew the sword, he collapsed to the ground like a deflated balloon. The other Z approached from behind. Ruby sensed him coming and kicked out, the flat of her boot catching him in the pelvis and sending him clattering to the cold, hard floor of the alley. As he struggled to rise, Ruby stepped up and swung the blade. It caught him just above the ear and loped off the top of his skull, spilling his blackened brain matter to the concrete.
Ruby flashed the blade through the air in an ornamental flourish to clear it of gore. She was just about to sheath the weapon when she heard a crash behind her. She turned and looked along the filthy expanse of the alley. The path, flanked on either side by high buildings, was cluttered with debris and litter, but clear of anything else - living or undead. She cocked her head, focused her acute hearing and listened - nothing but the wind, the distant report of a rifle, the crackle of an ancient sheet of plastic being fluttered by the breeze. She smelled them though, that putrid blend of carrion and sewage. The scent seemed close yet distant and for a moment that confused her. Then she tilted her head upward towards the wedge of blue sky visible between the buildings and realized where it was coming from.
“Ruby?” The voice in her earpiece said again.
“Wait. Out.” Ruby barked back. This needed to be investigated.
She replaced her sword in its scabbard and crossed the alley towards a steel fire escape. The first step made a loud clunk as she placed her boot down on it. It made her jump, and for a moment she had a strong urge to back down, to walk away, to head for the Humvee and back to camp. What did she have to gain by following a scent towards a possible ambush, to dozens, maybe even hundreds of Zs lying in wait - and her armed only with a sword?
Except, she couldn’t. She couldn’t back down. She needed to see where this led. She had a feeling it might be important.
She worked her way upward, one step at a time with her sense of foreboding growing and the stench of them tart and acrid in her nostrils. She reached the first landing and used her sleeve to clear a patch in the grime on the windowpane. It was dark within but she could make out a chaos of overturned bales and boxes and long-dead machinery. There may have been Zs here but her nose told her that most of them were on the higher floors. She continued on, passing the second and third floors. As she approached the forth - two from the top - she was suddenly certain that this was where they were hiding. She considered, briefly, calling in the strike team, but decided against it. She’d come this far, she wasn’t going to sissy out now. She needed to be sure first. She cast a look from the landing to the concrete four floors below – a fall wouldn’t kill her but even she, with her extraordinary abilities, was likely to sustain injury if she fell or had to jump. Still, that was preferable to a bite…
Stop that, she told herself, you’re not getting bitten, not today.
One of the glass panes was cracked. She sidled up to it and peered in. There were no boxes on this floor, no bales or machinery. Instead, her keen vision could make them out in the dark, hundreds upon hundreds of them, apparently asleep, covering every inch of floor space.
The sight of them, packed together like knots of kindling surprised her. Ruby wasn’t aware that the Zs even needed to sleep. In fact, she was sure that they didn’t. So what was this then?
She thought again about calling in the strike team but decided against it. This building was a death trap. A squad of seven soldiers, even heavily armed ones, walking into a maze like this, was not going to be walking out. They needed more men, flamethrowers, C2. They needed to bring the whole rotten structure down with the Zs inside. And she needed to get the hell out of here before the Zs woke up.
She was just about to head down the stairs when something, some niggling urge, told her to take one last look. That was when she saw the child.
Ruby blinked and, for a moment, was quite sure that she was hallucinating, but there he was - a frail blond boy, clutching a filthy teddy bear to his chest. What on earth was he doing here? Was he a Z? He certainly didn’t look like one. At least, there were no visible signs of damage on him. Ruby looked longingly down the stairs and silently cursed herself for taking that last peek. But now that she knew the child was there, she couldn’t leave. She was going to have to go in.
She checked the window. It was the sliding type, but when she got a hand on the frame and pushed upward it stubbornly refused to budge. She tried again. Nothing, it was jammed firmly shut. Breaking the pane wasn’t an option, she’d wake every Z in the place. She was going to have to get in on one of the other floors. She had one last look through the cracked pane. The child was still there, standing immobile among the corpselike figures asleep on the floor.
Up or down? Ruby decided to work her way to the roof. Perhaps she’d find an open door there. If not she’d enter on the uppermost floor and work her way down. As quietly as she could, she ascended the staircase. On the top landing she unsheathed her sword and vaulted from the stairs onto the flat expanse of the rooftop. She scanned right and left - clear. The elevator housing stood at the center of the roof. There was a metal door set into it, held open by a breezeblock. Ruby could see into the blackened space that marked the stairwell beyond. The smell coming from it was rank. It jangled in her brain, triggering every warning bell wired there. Run, the warning flashed. Get out! Run!
Ruby edged forward. At the periphery of her vision she spotted a mess of blackened bones and half-liquefied flesh huddled in the corner of the roof. She kept moving. She almost hoped for the sound of Sergeant Tremlett in her ear, but the earpiece remained defiantly silence.
Ruby reached the door and took one last look around. In the distance, the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles basked in the late morning sun, backdropped by a sky the color of faded denim. They looked like a detachment of dead sentinels watching over a civilization long since fallen. She turned back towards the door, fetched a deep breath and then slid into the stairwell.
Darkness closed around her like the gaping mouth of a corpse and the stench assaulted her nasal passages and brought water springing from her eyes. She waited until the panic subsided and her breathing stilled. Then she took a step downward and followed it with another and then another. The old building clicked and yawned around her and there were other sounds too. She imagined them to be the moans of the Zs stirring from their slumber. More than likely it was the sound of her own breathing, harsh in her ears.
Eventually she reached the landing on the fourth floor. A pair of double doors separated it from the room beyond, the dormitory, as she now thought of it. One of the doors stood slightly ajar allowing a sliver of pale light to escape. Ruby walked towards it and peered through. The room was large, with a high ceiling that was crisscrossed by exposed plumbing. The boy was standing in the middle of the floor among a sea of bodies, his back towards Ruby. The light from the window formed a halo around him giving him an almost angelic appearance. She tried to focus on him, to make out some detail, but the light made it impossible.
If she was going to do this, she needed get moving. She’d have to make her way across the floor as quickly as possible, grab the child from behind and place her hand over his mouth to cut off any cries. Then she’d bring him down the stairs and find an exit on the ground floor.
And if he’s a Z, a warning voice chimed. He isn’t, she told herself, but if he is, I’ll kill him, simple as that.
She was going to need both hands to do this, so she slid the sword back into its sheath, then pushed at the door, eliciting a faint creak that sounded thunderous in her ears. The child showed no reaction. Neither did the Zs - they continued their slumber unabated. She convinced herself that she could hear the faint whisper of their collective breathing. Did Zs even breathe? She wasn’t sure.
She stepped into the room, stepped in among them. There was no clear path, they lay entwined and interwoven, like some demonic tapestry. Ruby was forced to focus on her footwork while she worked her way in the general direction of the boy. She was perhaps ten feet from him when she looked up. What she saw felt like a jolt of ice water injected directly into her veins. The back of the boy’s blond head was black with congealed blood, his back was severely flayed exposing the vertebrae in his neck. A sizeable chunk of flesh had been ripped from his lower torso, surely removing organs as well as flesh. Another chunk had been torn from his buttocks.
Ruby felt panic well in her and stilled it. The boy hadn’t responded to her presence. She could back out, get out of here…
“Ruby. Come in.” Tremlett’s static laced voice burst from the earpiece. She hadn’t noticed that it had slipped from her ear and now lay, suspended by its wire, against her shoulder.
“Ruby? You there?”
She reached for the earpiece and ripped it from the receiver cutting Tremlett off in mid-sentence but it was too late. The Zs were stirring, undulating like a black and evil tide, some of them already staggering to their feet. One of them grabbed at her combat boot, unbalancing her. She felt herself being pulled to the ground, saw them rising all around her.
Ruby felt pressure on her ankle as one of them sank its teeth into her boot. That snapped her into action. She came down hard with her other foot and heard the thing’s skull crack beneath it. She made a move for the sword but realized it was too late for that. Filthy, clawed hands were already reaching for her, and even more of them were rising from their sleep. She’d gotten herself caught in a melee, a cardinal sin that very few survived.
She heard footfalls on the fire escape and looked towards the window. There were shapes moving quickly past out there, alerted to prey, looking for a way in. She caught a glimpse of something else too, the exposed piping on the ceiling. Ruby realized that it was her only chance. She bunched her calf muscles and leapt from a standing position, easily traveling the fifteen feet and getting a handhold. She swung her feet up and out of reach while the Zs milled below her, grasping at the air, their insane humming filling the room, the stench of them thick and nauseating.
They couldn’t get to her, but Ruby still needed to get out of the room, which gave her two options, neither of them good. She already knew that they were on the fire escape, but the inner stairwell was likely to be even more clogged with the things. She’d have to try for the window. She scurried along the piping while hungry eyes followed her every move and grasping hands reached for her. She was maybe ten feet from the window when the bracing in front of her snapped and the pipe suddenly angled steeply downward. Ruby reacted immediately, changing position so that she straddled the pipe then vaulting into a crouch, gaining her balance, and running forward. She felt the bracket behind her give way, felt the whole network of pipes coming down. She threw herself at the window, twisting in midair and hitting it shoulder first. The rotten frame gave way under the impact and she crashed through the glass, felt it nick at her cheek. Her momentum carried her across the fire escape and over the banister. At the last moment she snaked out a hand and caught the metal frame. As she hung there, one of the creatures clambered down the stairs towards her. Ruby released her grip and let herself fall. She caught the banister on the third floor and vaulted over it onto the landing, unsheathing her sword as she did.