During 2018, Not a Pipe Publishing has accepted Kamila Shamsie's challenge to only publish women for one year. Beyond the eight (eight!) novels we'll be publishing, we'd also like to promote even more women's voices, so we'll be publishing short fiction here. If you would like to submit, check out the information HERE. The deadline for submitting to the anthology has passed, but you can still submit and maybe have your story published this year!
While I eagerly await the release of McLennan's conclusion to The Supernormal Legacy, Emerge, I happily devoured this smart, exciting tale of a zombie outbreak. I'm not usually one for zombie stories - too many heebie jeebies - but this story fully captured my attention. Set years after a viral outbreak that makes people mad, we see a zombie-ravaged Portland and two employees trying their best to save the people they can. -Sydney Culpepper, Assistant Submissions Editor
Zombie Apocalypse Rescue Agency
by LeeAnn McLennan
“Oh man.” Lark punched the red button to silence the alarm echoing through the office. She hated the bleeping noise almost more than the ever lurking zombies. “We got another shiver requesting a pickup.”
Lark managed to hide most of her sneer but her co-worker, Tony, frowned at her while reaching for olive green Kevlar coverall sporting the logo identifying them as employees of the Zombie Apocalypse Rescue Agency, ZARA, for short.
“Don’t call them shivers.” Tony zipped up his coverall and began pulling out his weapons from his locker.
Lark shrugged into her own coverall, made of a slick bite-repelling fabric. “Why not? It’s what they want, to get picked up so they can sit in a bunker and shiver in fear.” She checked her own weapons. “They’ve had enough of waiting for the zombie freaks to die off or disappear or whatever sad belief they follow. So they call us. We pick them up, take them to a safe bunker, they hide out, all safe and sound, but shivering.”
“They pay the company a large sum of money for our services.” If it was possible to look prim while checking his automatic, Tony did.
Lark strapped on her gun belt and added a gun to each holster. She missed Jake, her old partner, but Jake got himself munched a few runs ago when they'd gone out to pick up a local TV star. Jake had gotten flirty with the barely legal girl and didn’t see the cluster of zombies, maybe an old fan club, converging on them. Lark managed to get the shivering starlet into the armored truck but the last she’d seen of Jake was his legs twitching as the brain eaters chomped on him.
Lark hoped Jake was dead. She didn’t relish giving her old friend a head shot should they meet again. She’d do it, of course, but she would feel bad.
“Ready?” Tony was done with his weapons check, loaded for bear, and waited by the door. Lark tucked a knife in her boot and followed Tony out of the control room. Jack and Ryan, their replacements, passed them going in.
Big Bessie sat in the garage with all the other armored trucks. Modified from the design used for armored vans, ZARA’s trucks had solid, steel plated exteriors, with guns mounted on top, front, sides, and back. The driver sat in the front cab, the gunner sat in the back – a steel wall with a door set between the driver’s and passenger’s seats separated the front from the back. During pickup runs the gunner locked himself in the back. Once they got to the shiver, the driver retrieved and handed the shiver off to the gunner. The shiver and the gunner stayed locked in the back until they got back to HQ. If the driver was compromised, the gunner and the shiver could hold out in the back of the truck until help came. Lark had only needed to do that once; she still had nightmares about spending three hours with a hysterical middle-aged trust fund guy. The shiver had yelled and threatened to sue the company for failing to provide better service. After an hour, Lark was ready to shove the guy outside to take his chances. Only the camera recording the van stopped her. The punishment for deliberately endangering a client was to get put on foot patrol around the boundaries of North Portland, now called Z-town, where the zombies were the heaviest.
When she was the shooter on a pickup run, Lark controlled the many guns bristling around the exterior using a system modified from old game controllers. She could pop off zombies from all sides without ever leaving the safety of Big Bessie. Just like playing first person shooter games as a teenager.
Usually the sight of Big Bessie made Lark feel safe and smug, but lately…no, she wasn’t turning into a shiver, not her. She reached inside her unzipped coverall and pulled out a quarter, a currency useless now except for wishing wells or coin tosses. “Heads, I’m shooter.”
Tony gave an irritated jerk of his head. He didn’t approve of Lark’s method of determining who drove and who shot. Tony preferred they alternate between roles, but that was boring to Lark.
“Ha!” Lark grinned when the quarter landed heads up. Tony just sighed and got into the driver’s side.
Lark climbed into the back via the door between the passenger’s and driver’s seats. She settled into the gunner’s seat, zipped up her coverall, and pulled up the gun controller system to run the standard pre-run systems diagnostics.
While the diagnostics ran, Lark leaned through the still open door. “Hey Tony, who’s our shiver?”
Tony switched on Big Bessie’s ignition to warm up the truck. “Our customer is named Bailey Johnson.” Tony peered at his monitor as the coordinates for their destination came up. “Uh, okay, that’s unusual. He lives in Buckman.”
In the act of buckling in, Lark stopped and stared at the monitor certain Tony had made a mistake, an unprecedented event to be sure but there was always a first time. But the blinking red dot signaling their pickup was firmly in the Buckman neighborhood.
“That doesn’t make any sense.” Lark closed her eyes tight then opened them wide. “No one in that neighborhood has the money to buy ZARA”
The company’s services were crazy expensive; only the filthy rich could manage the cost, though some people managed to negotiate the service into their job contracts in lieu of bonuses. Most pickups were in the fortified neighborhoods in the ‘burbs or in some of the fancy protected condos along the waterfront.
Ten years ago, the zombies started showing up, seemingly out of nowhere. One day there were a few zombies shuffling around; most people thought it was a typical Portland event – a zombie walk or something. That is, until the creatures started munching on people. Then it got real, real fast.
Even then it took a few years before the creatures became a true national menace. Some scientists studied them and declared that even though zombies were dangerous because they wanted to chomp your brains – earning them the nickname brain munchers – it was actually quite rare for the virus that made them to be transferred. People infected with it usually died.
The term ‘zombies’ wasn’t even the correct name since the creatures weren’t really back from the dead; the virus simply gave them the characteristics usually associated with zombies. People still called them zombies, though. Zombies were treated sort of like violent meth heads – best to be avoided but not about to take over. Some labs on the East Coast devoted their time to studying them, looking for a cure.
At least, that’s how it started. In the past few years the virus had gotten stronger. Now if you got bit it was a 9 out of 10 chance you’d Z’out. So people started taking precautions. If you were lucky enough to sell armored trucks, guns, ammo, you got rich overnight. Knowing how to zombie-proof a house became a top profession. Most companies enforced a work-from home policy. Delivery services blossomed overnight and delivery people were acclaimed for their bravery or stupidity, depending who you asked. People became less and less willing to go out to concerts, movie theatres, anywhere there might be crowds hiding zombies. Most events were held via Internet streaming now.
Lark hadn’t been across the Willamette River to the eastside of Portland in about eight years. She still missed the cozy craftsman home she’d grown up in but it wasn’t fortified. And, anyway, her mother had been killed in the kitchen by a neighbor who’d Z’ed out in front them, so Lark didn’t want to go back.
For some reason, in Portland the brain munchers proliferated the eastside across the river from downtown. No one knew why, or if they did, they hadn’t told Lark. All she knew was no one went across the river unless they had a good reason. And most people didn’t have a good reason. Only two of the seven bridges spanning the Willamette remained – the Marquam and the Burnside Bridges. Luckily the Burnside would take them near enough to the Buckman neighborhood, but it was still riskier than a west side pickup. Lark had heard the industrial area just across the bridge was majorly infested. Thank goodness zombies couldn’t swim.
None of those facts changed how unusual it was to get a pickup on the eastside of Portland. Lark hadn’t heard of one in years and that pickup had been a disaster – ending with the pickup guys and the shiver all getting Z’ed out.
“Well damn.” Lark reached for the helmet she didn’t always bother wearing when she was the gunner on a run. “I guess we’d better get this over with.”
Tony had already fastened his helmet with its fitted collar around his neck. He hadn’t lowered the face plate and Lark could see the sweat on his upper lip. “Ready?”
Lark nodded and reached for the heavy door between the front cab and the back of the truck. She hesitated before saying the benediction she used to give Jake when he drove while Lark literally rode shotgun. “Safe driving, clear roads.”
Tony put his hand on his face shield, his eyes meeting Lark’s in the mirror. “Good shooting.” Tony flipped his face shield down as Lark secured the door, locking herself in the back. She shifted in her seat as Big Bessie started moving out of the underground garage, up the five levels to the heavily guarded entrance of the downtown high-rise/underground bunker that was ZARA’s headquarters. All employees lived and worked in the well protected building which included a dining and shopping district spanning several floors.
Lark heard Tony radioing the guards and telling them to expect an authorized exit. Lark switched on the three monitors; one showing the back of Tony’s head in the cab, one showing alternating exterior views, and the last one showing nothing of interest…yet. All too soon that monitor would show the weird zombie heat signature indicating where to shoot.
Lark felt Big Bessie rumble over the metal grating near the exit gate. She watched the monitors as the guard waved them out into the deserted streets. Rain gleamed off the pavement; it was nighttime, only a few diehards would be outside trying to prove how badass they were – no cowering inside away from the dark streets for them. That is, until one of their buddies got munched. That usually converted them to escapism inside. Occasionally, the experience had the opposite effect – turning the witness into a vigilante who spent nights offing zombies; usually getting offed instead sooner or later.
In Lark’s opinion, most people should just make the best of life while waiting for the frequently promised cure. Not that she really believed in a cure. No, Lark believed in Big Bessie and her guns, that was pretty much it.
Lark felt the truck lurch. She automatically checked the heat sig monitor before Tony radioed back. “Bunch of zombies. Gear up.”
Lark wrapped her hands around the gun controller, “Yeah, ok. On it.”
Lark felt so freaking powerful as she blasted the brain munchers into bloody bits, though a tiny part whispered that it would be more visceral to make the kill shots in the open air. She steadfastly ignored the voice; she was safer inside Big Bessie. And the goal was the pickup, not killing zombies. That was someone else’s job.
“Heading over the Burnside Bridge.” Tony announced.
Lark shifted in her seat, her shoulders tightening, anticipating many zombies ahead.
Tony exchanged words with the ever-present bridge guards. One of them said. “Man, that sucks. We’re hearing reports it’s getting worse over there. You know we’ll have to test you when you come back.”
Lark mentally seconded Tony’s surprised, “What?” The test was a quick skin prick, like the TB test. It only took twenty seconds to confirm non-zombie status but it was a long-ass twenty seconds. Lark didn’t know things had gotten so bad that the bridge guards were administering the test. As employees of ZARA, they were always tested after a shiver run so she was used to it, the cold prick, the waiting, the relief...so far. Still, it was unsettling knowing the bridge guards found it necessary for all eastside excursions now.
As Big Bessie rolled across the Burnside Bridge, Lark found herself wishing she was driving so she could see the terrain with her own eyes, not through the monitors. She remembered how pretty the city had looked at night…before. Light from buildings and bridges reflecting off the water; people walking and biking through the streets; cars with windows open taking people to dinner or the movies, somewhere fun and carefree. On second thought, she was glad the monitors didn’t show great detail. She liked her memories better.
“We’re over.” Tony’s announcement made Lark’s stomach twist. “Over the bridge, turning right on MLK. Not much activity but stay alert.”
Lark snorted. Like she was napping back here. She scanned the area with the heat sig monitor while keeping an eye on the exterior cameras. Tony was right, not many zombies showed on the heat sig scan. And those that did shambled along in the direction Tony drove. Lark blasted them, proving to Tony she was vigilant.
Big Bessie maneuvered past abandoned cars, around huge potholes, over a fallen telephone pole. The old Subaru dealership where she’d bought her first new car was torn all to hell – cars with busted windows rusting in the rain.
Lark leaned back, stretching her already stiff arms, when Big Bessie slammed to a stop. Lark was thrown forward, the straps of her seat belt biting into her chest, whacking her head on the wall in front of her.
“Tony, what the hell?”
“Shut up and look.” Tony’s voice shook, freaking Lark out more than the sudden stop.
Lark jerked the heat sig monitor closer and stared at it. “Holy hell, there must be hundreds of them.” Ahead of them on MLK the heat sig was a solid mass of teeming red. It looked like they were all moving in fits and starts down MLK in the direction of Stark. Pretty much right in the path Big Bessie needed to go. The pickup destination was up Stark about fifteen blocks, near the Lone Fir Cemetery around 20th.
Lark’s mind shrank away from the idea of busting through the seething mob, even in Big Bessie with her guns blasting away front, back, and sideways. To get through all of that mess they needed a convoy of Big Bessies.
If it was like this all the way to the shiver’s place then Lark actually felt some sympathy for the poor soul.
“What do you think?” Lark asked Tony. They didn’t have the option of turning back; it was against company policy. They had to get to the shiver – it was a matter of doing it alone or waiting for reinforcements. No one had ever called for backup; Lark really didn’t want to be the first but then, to her knowledge, no one had ever faced this many zombies at once. Still, it sucked; she’d never hear the end of it back at the tower.
“I’ll call HQ. At least they can find out how deep the infestation is.” Headquarters had wider range scanners than the trucks. “See if there’s a better route.”
“Good plan,. Get on it.” Lark focused on the heat sig monitor, any moment expecting the hoard to turn on Big Bessie, but the mass kept moving towards Stark. It looked like more zombies were joining the slow march. Lark had never seen brain eaters organize like this. She really hoped the creatures weren’t getting smart.
Tony spoke up, sounding a little bit calmer. “OK, they’re running a wide scan.” ZARA had set up sensors all around Portland, partnering with some of the security companies. “Looks like the zombies are mostly heading up Stark. Not sure why. It looks like we can detour around the main group if we head up MLK to Hawthorne.” He paused as if listening. “And come in down 20th. HQ says we’ll have to go through some clumps but not like this. They don’t think we need any reinforcements. Ready?”
Tony didn’t wait for Lark’s reply before backing up and roaring down MLK. Lark tightened her seatbelt with one hand while watching the monitors. The truck leapt into the air, dropping back the ground hard enough to jar Lark to her teeth.
“Hang on, just had to drive over a few.” Tony said. “Get ready, more coming up.”
Lark rolled her eyes. She knew there were zombies coming their way; they popped up on the monitor. She aimed the guns and blew them to pieces. The rapid rat-tat of her guns relaxed her. She was back in control.
Big Bessie barreled up the ramp from MLK to Hawthorne, Lark popping off zombies as quickly as possible. In her hearts of hearts she was glad she couldn’t make out their faces. One of her recurring nightmares was of offing a friend or family member. After all, she had no clue what happened to her junkie father. She figured if she had to shoot her dad or worse, her old partner Jake, she’d rather not know. One less zombie was the point; it wasn’t like she could help her Dad if the old guy had been Z’ed.
Lark swayed with Big Bessie as Tony swerved onto 20th. For the moment it was quiet. Lark tensed. This was usually when things tipped over into crazy. Quiet before the storm, kinda thing. The chest strap of her seatbelt cut into her chest and she realized she was straining forward as if she could see through the steel door. She gave a half laugh and leaned back. She wasn’t the one in this truck who should fret. Tony was more vulnerable; no matter how glass was treated it was never going to be stronger than steel.
She settled back, checking the monitors – still clear, completely clear, crazy unusual. Normally a run was a steady series of popping off zombies in ones and twos. This run was feast or famine. Lark chuckled at her gruesome joke.
“Tony, how ya doing up there?” Lark didn’t want Tony to get too relaxed. Though Tony was wound pretty tight, so it might be an improvement.
“Yeah, I’m good. Weird run, huh?”
“Too right. Stay sharp.”
Tony just grunted in response. Big Bessie rumbled up 20th, slowing as they neared Belmont. “Lark, do you see this?”
Lark nodded even though Tony couldn’t see her. She wasn’t sure she could speak – the spit in her mouth had dried up. According to her monitors, 20th from Belmont to Stark was teeming with zombies. “Holy crap.” Lark managed, gripping the gun controller.
Tony’s voice shook through the radio. “I’m going up Belmont and come in from the east – keep an eye on the monitors.”
“Yeah.” Lark didn’t need to be told twice, though Tony probably would tell her again.
Big Bessie started moving again. Lark understood what Tony was attempting. He was assuming the zombies were only massing from the direction of the waterfront. It was a decent plan – a lot of zombies lurked down around the old warehouses.
Lark barely had time to really ponder what the hell would make the zombies behave this way when a scattering of heat sigs appeared on the screen. The zombies were coming down 28th on a collision course with Big Bessie.
“Incoming. I’m taking them out.” Lark advised Tony. She aimed, fired the driver’s side guns as they passed 28th. More blips showed up on the screen and Lark kept up a constant rat-tat of gunfire. Tony turned onto 33rd. More zombies, more shooting. They turned onto Belmont. More zombies. Lark kept shooting. They were about eight blocks from the shiver’s place.
For a moment Lark thought Tony’s gamble had worked – there were only a few zombies, the normal amount, scattered along Belmont. Most were drifting slowly in the same direction as Big Bessie – towards the shiver’s house. Lark kept shooting while watching the monitor. Even blasting every zombie in sight wasn’t having the usual effect of relieving her anxiety. She was pretty sure all those brain munchers were heading for the shiver’s place. She couldn’t say how she knew, just that she was certain down to her bones. Of course the why remained to be answered – she’d heard of zombies swarming in a feeding frenzy, but these zombies weren’t frenzied. If anything they were focused, if that was even possible for a brain muncher.
There! Just what she’s been dreading – a mass of heat sigs on the monitor and, yep, the red blinking light showing their destination was right in the thick of them.
Tony piped up. “Lark, what do you think we should do?”
Dude must be terrified if he was conceding Lark could have superior knowledge.
“Looks pretty solid on the heat sig.” Lark tapped her fingers on the side of the monitor, considering their best move. Not completing the pickup wasn’t an option even in this situation. The company guaranteed the client would be retrieved, no matter what. Not for the first time Lark wished for the fancy helicopters like they had at the L.A. branch. But it was a fact that the L.A. wealthy outnumbered the Portland wealthy, impacting local profit margins and resources.
She shoved those dreams to the same place her dreams of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail lived. OK, focus, lots of zombies in a seething mass, surrounding the shiver’s home. Something pinged in her subconscious. Weren’t they near…? “Hey Tony, am I crazy or is the shiver holed up in Portland Catholic High?”
Tony gave a short, mirthless laugh. “Yeah, you’re crazy, but this isn’t a symptom.”
“Well, damn. The shiver could be anywhere inside the school building.” Lark shot a couple of zombie who meandered by Big Bessie.
“You didn’t read the message, did you? The shiv...client is in the back, in the science labs, off the outdoor basketball courts.” Derision over Lark’s lack of preparedness seemed to balance Tony, because he sounded calmer.
Lark ignored the tone; it was the driver’s job to know such facts, since the driver was the retriever. “OK, so around back.” She pressed a few buttons widening the area the monitor scanned. “Crap, there’s just as many in our way. Well, I guess using Big Bessie as a battering ram is our only way in.”
“Crap.” Tony echoed. “I was afraid you’d say that.” He grunted and Lark heard the distinctive snap of the special webbed harness drivers wore when plowing into a hoard. Lark knew Tony would be checking the doors and windows, confirming all were secure. Lark didn’t really like the guy, but she felt a little bad that Tony was at risk while she was relatively safe in the steel box. If everything went as planned Lark would only unlock the door after Tony had retrieved and scanned the shiver for the zombie virus. Then Lark would open the door just wide enough to yank the guy inside. If, as was becoming likely, things went south and Tony was compromised, the politically correct word for munched, then Lark had to finish the pickup. Her stomach clenched at the thought.
Tony gunned Big Bessie’s engine as if ready for a drag race. Big Bessie shot forward at a speed that belied the truck’s large size. Lark gripped the gun controller, shooting in every direction. No need to aim, the brain munchers were so thick. Tony yelled as they rammed into the first wave of bodies. Through the monitors Lark saw bodies exploding from her gunfire, she felt the bumps from hitting bodies, and heard the thuds of bodies hitting the truck. Gore, guts, wet splatting sounds. Thump, slap, bump. Thump, slap, thump. Zombies don’t scream, just make weird grunting sounds. The voiceless carnage continued as Big Bessie muscled her way through until they were in the middle of the basketball court –completely surrounded by zombies, all scrabbling to get inside to eat Tony and Lark’s delectable brains.
Tony stopped so suddenly that Lark gasped; they were near the door to the labs.
“Lark.” Tony panted as if he’d been running uphill. “I don’t see a way to get out of the truck here, not with so many zombies. Looks like there’s a sort of foyer area between the door and the labs. I’m going to ram through the door and hope Big Bessie blocks off the zombies while I make the run. Can you to aim to the sides and back and try to keep them off us? Hopefully the client knows we’re here.”
Lark bit her cheeks, fending off hysterical laughter. “If he doesn’t know we’re here then he’s deaf and we’ve got bigger problems.” Banging against Big Bessie’s sides punctuated her declaration.
Tony punched the accelerator and managed to find more speed in Big Bessie’s engine. He growled over the radio. “Brace for impact.”
Lark realigned the guns. Wouldn’t do to shoot front. Bad form, killing a customer. Aim for the back and sides. Tony accelerated; Big Bessie plowed through something hard. The door. Lark jerked back and forth in her seat. The truck rocked to a stop, obstructing the hole it had created in the school building’s wall.
All was quiet. Until the pounding began at the back of the truck. Through the sounds of beating Lark heard Tony. “You okay?”
“Yeah.” Tony paused and then continued. “OK, I see our client waving from a window in the lab.” His voice trailed off.
“Tony, what’s up?” Lark focused one of her cameras towards the lab but the picture wasn’t the best and she could only see a vague shape in the lab window.
Tony cleared his throat, gave a short laugh. “Bailey Woodson is, um, a she. Mid- 60s, short.”
Lark didn’t see why that mattered. “Well, go get her.” She didn’t care if the shiver was a mewling baby; she just wanted to get out of there. There was a beer, check that, many beers, waiting for her at in her tiny apartment back at HQ.
“Yes, yes, of course.” In the monitor aimed at the driver’s seat, Tony’s head disappeared and reappeared. Lark watched as her partner hoisted the AK-47, wearing his protective gloves and helmet. “Right, you know the drill. I go get her, test her, she passes the test, we get back here, and you take her in back.” Tony swallowed audibly. “We go home.”
“Roger that.” Lark said fervently, her palms were sweating and she wiped them on the slick fabric of her coverall.
Tony huffed out a breath, opened the door and ran like hell through the zombie free hallway to the lab. Lark focused on killing as many of zombies surrounding the back of the truck as she could. It should have been easy, they were packed in thickly, but they were coming so rapidly that for every one that she killed two more took its place. She watched the monitor for any blips in Tony’s path; a sign that zombies had infiltrated the hallway. So far, no zombies had slipped through to gaps between Big Bessie and the wall. The pounding on the back had become more of a constant thumping, less like a fist hitting the metal and more like bodies.
While her eyes and hands focused on killing zombies, Lark kept her ears tuned to the radio where Tony kept up a running monologue.
“OK, Lark, the shiver is holed up in one of the labs, like we thought. I can see her through the glass, looks like she normally has metal shutters over them, but she’s got the ones near the door open.” She paused and Lark heard gunfire. “Looks like we got an incursion – can you…”
Lark was already shooting the zombies coming down the hallway. Where had they come from?
“Thanks. I’m almost there. Damn, she’s equipped – guns around the door, along the walls, the shutters, metal doors. I can see supplies through the window. Not sure why she’d need to leave really. Weird, she’s got a bunch of rats and monkeys in cages.”
Tony said. “OK, yeah, but she’s really calm. Got a backpack on, just watching me. It’s a creepy.”
Lark didn’t see how any shiver could be creepier than the brain munchers surrounding them but whatever.
Tony announced. “I’m at the door.” Lark heard the sound of a fist banging against metal. “Ma’am, can you let me in?”
Lark noticed more zombies coming down the hallway. She aimed, she shot. “Hey Tony, looks like they’re getting thick, not sure how they’re getting in, but hurry up.”
“Yeah. We’re on our way, she was all set. Just need to give her the test. Pricking her now.”
Lark began the 20 second countdown. 20 – Lark rattled off a round of gunfire in the back. 17 –zombies completely filled the basketball court. 15- Lark took out a couple trying to slip past the truck. 13 – Lark mowed down about a hundred of them, guessing they’d have to drive over the bodies. 10 – for the first time she really worried about running out of ammo. 8 – Crap, a whole herd of them was heading down the hallway straight into Tony’s path back to the truck. 6 – Lark blasted the herd to pieces. 5 –where were they coming from? 4 – Lark shoved her hair off her sweaty forehead. 3 – more filled the hallway. 2 – how were they getting in? 1 –
“She’s clean.” Tony reported.
“Good. We’ve got a big problem.”
“Yeah, I know.”
A new voice, the shiver’s strong, rough tones commanding the situation. “They are coming in from the gym. Sorry about that, folks. I know this is a tough one. The zombies clearly have an affinity for me.” That was new, a shiver acknowledging the difficulties in retrieval. “I’ve got an idea. You, in the truck, you’re not allowed to leave unless your partner is compromised, correct?”
“Yeah, I mean yes ma’am.” Lark resisted the urge to salute. Who was this lady, this Bailey Johnson?
“Glad to know Steve is still using the protocol we set up.” Lark was shocked to hear the woman refer to ZARA’s CEO so casually. Before she could comment Bailey continued. “Here’s the plan: You in the truck, lay down suppressing fire along your left while this young man and I run like hell for the truck.”
Pretty obvious plan but Lark didn’t argue – just started shooting. Over the noise of gunfire she heard Tony and Bailey breathing heavily as they ran.
Tony gasped out. “Almost there.”
Lark started to cheer but the sound died in her throat. Zombies were coming around Big Bessie on the driver’s side. In her focus on the hallway Lark had lost track of the zombies in the court. “Tony, Tony, watch out, on your right.”
Lark jerked when Tony screamed and Bailey swore. The truck rocked and through the camera aimed at the driver’s seat Lark saw Tony’s hand grasping for the steering wheel only to be yanked away. She gripped the gun controller but was unable to shoot into the mass for fear of hitting Tony and Bailey. It looked like the zombies weren’t attacking Bailey – more oddness. Even though Tony was wearing his protective gear, it was mostly a delay of the inevitable in a horde. Zombies were really good at finding exposed skin given enough time.
Tony’s screams ended in a horrible gurgle. Lark froze when the shiver, Bailey, snapped at her over the radio. “Let me in. Now!”
Lark pulled herself together enough to see she was in the cab, perched on the side of the passenger’s seat. She was tiny, elf-like, with short hair and bright eyes. Her eyes focused on the camera as she spoke to her.
Lark swallowed, she really hated this part so freakin’ much. “You might be bit. I gotta come out and test you again first.” Her bowels threatened to betray her but she forced himself to clench. Her subconscious and, frankly, her conscious screamed at her not to go out. They were completely surrounded and Big Bessie rocked like two teenagers were making out in the back. But if Bailey was bit and Lark let her into the back, she was risking her own death. If she left Bailey in the cab to fend for herself Lark was dead for sure because the company would come after her. It was best to follow procedure – test the shiver again then, if she wasn’t infected, let her in back so they could call for help.
“OK, hurry up then.” Bailey spoke briskly, shifting out of the way of the door.
Lark didn’t let herself think; she just opened the door and kneeled in the spot Bailey had just vacated. She left the door open but blocked the entrance with her body. Bailey held out her arm and Lark pricked it just below the elbow, mentally beginning the count as the horde howled outside the truck. They didn’t speak; both stared at her arm, waiting for the betraying bumps to appear.
Ten seconds left. So far her skin was clear; Lark realized she was holding her breath and she let it out slowly, almost swallowing her tongue when the crash of breaking glass sounded from the driver’s seat window. Training took over and she jumped in front of the shiver, throwing up her arm in automatic defense of the attacking zombie. Too late she realized she’d forgotten her protective gloves as the gripping teeth from a zombie clamped down on her wrist.
Lark screamed in fury and fear. She jerked her arm away, horrified as her skin tore off; left hanging from the creature’s rotting lips. Stupid, stupid, not to be holding a gun or a knife. More zombies tried forced their way into the cab, fighting to get past the zombie blocking the narrow opening.
“Not again!” Bailey sounded more annoyed than afraid. “Come on.”
Lark was in shock. She felt her thoughts, her memories, what made her who she was, draining from her mind. She retained enough awareness to know Bailey quickly climbed over her body into the back of the truck. She thought, Good she’ll lock herself in and wait for help. When Bailey grabbed Lark’s shaking body under her arms and started hauling her into the back, Lark tried to pull away. “No, no.” Was the old lady crazy?
“Come on. It’ll be ok.” Bailey shushed her.
Was the shiver stupid? Any minute now Lark would Z’out and start attacking. Jesus, the lady was strong though. Bailey dragged her to the side of the truck, pulled Lark’s unresisting arms up and locked them into the cuffs designed to hold zombies caught for testing – the kind of pickup Lark had never done or wanted to do.
All the while Bailey muttered. “It’ll be ok. This is a good spot of luck for you. It’ll be ok. You’re lucky.” Was she talking to Lark? Lark no longer seemed to have the power of speech to ask, her tongue felt thick. “You’ll be –“
The woman’s words faded into gibberish. Lark’s mind went black along with the world around her; her last aware thought was “ouch” when a sharp stab went up her arm.
Thud! Lark jerked forward, only stopping because of the chains holding her arms. Blinking against the light, she stared around.
She was still in the truck, zombies still raged outside, and Bailey sat in the gunner’s seat holding a rifle watching her avidly. Lark’s thoughts were clear again, she knew himself, and she didn’t want to eat anyone’s brains. Her mouth was dry, roughening her words. “What,” she cleared her throat, “happened?”
Bailey smiled, looking like a happy elf. “Welcome back.”
“What happened?”” Lark rattled her chains. “I was a bitten, I was Z’ing out. No one comes back from that.”
Bailey got up, set the rifle down and walked over to take her pulse. With a satisfied nod of her head, she began unlocking the cuffs. Lark tried to pull away but she put a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Congratulations, you’re the first human to be cured of the zombie virus.”
Lark gaped at her while Bailey finished removing the cuff and pushed the chains aside. Lark didn’t move. “No one has a cure. There isn’t a cure.” She reached for the chains and cuffs, intending to put them back on.
Bailey sighed, sitting back on her heels. “No one until now.”
“Who are you?” Lark was afraid to stand, afraid it was a dream brought on by Z’ing out. Any minute it would fade and she would be out there mindlessly shuffling and chomping.
Bailey settled back with a bitter smile. “I’m one of the people who created this whole mess. We were trying to find a cure for mad cow disease and it all went wrong.” She winced when Lark surged to her feet. “Yes, I understand you’re angry. It seems only right I find the cure – which is why I called for pickup. I just wish it hadn’t taken me ten years. I had to hide out; people were trying to kill me. I managed to set up a lab here, though it wasn’t easy.” She frowned at the walls around vibrating with zombie fists. “I think they know, the zombies, not sure how, but more have congregated here in the past day.”
Lark didn’t care anymore why the brain munchers were so thick here. She was still reeling from her announcement. The shiver was the architect of the horror they’d been living with of the past ten years? She should throw Bailey outside with her creations. From Bailey’s expression, she knew what Lark was thinking, but she didn’t move. Just watched Lark with a wary yet wry expression.
Lark stepped forward, grabbed Bailey’s arm and dragged her to her feet. She reached for the door handle, the action causing her torn sleeve to fall away from her arm. Her wrist was still bleeding from the zombie bite, the impression of teeth marring her skin. But her head was clear and she knew she was ok, just like she’d promised. She was still human because of this woman. She met Bailey’s eyes. “You have a cure? For all zombies?”
“Yes. Before I used it on you I tested a few zombies. They were cured of being zombies but sadly too far gone physically to live much longer. If I’d had a better lab I could have helped them more.” Bailey kept her gaze on her. “Once I get it to the labs at ZARA, we can begin making more, enough to get started.”
Lark blew out her breath, let go of Bailey’s arm, and picked up the panic button. “Well then, let’s get out of this crap so you can save the world.” She kept her eyes on Bailey’s as she radioed. “HQ, I’ve got a two person emergency pickup. Send reinforcements. Now!”
LeeAnn Elwood McLennan is the author of The Supernormal Legacy, Book 1: Dormant, and The Supernormal Legacy, Book 2, Root. The third book in the trilogy, The Supernormal Legacy, Book 3, Emerge, will come out next year. Growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, she was always looking for any opportunity to read - under the covers in bed, in the car, and in class using the book hidden in the textbook trick. When her father introduced her to sci-fi/fantasy through a book of short stories from Astounding Stories, she was captivated by the possibilities in every word, and her daydreams involved other worlds, magical powers, and time travel. Despite graduating from Clemson University with a degree in English, LeeAnn has spent her career working in computer engineering related fields. She lives in Portland, OR with her husband, Andy, and three cats (number of cats subject to change at any moment).