The sun was slowly rising as Daryl and his group made their way into the city limits but the light it cast through the smoky sky was dull and gray. Daryl became dreadfully aware of how many zombies were still locked inside the cars that lined the street. Some had chewed through their seat belts and pressed their dead faces against their windows, gnashing at the meals on wheels as they rode past. Others remained trapped by their belts but reached for them nonetheless. It wasn’t surprising though. Daryl had been working the night of the outbreak and the calls all started coming in so quickly it was as if someone had just flipped some magical switch and poof more than half the population was dead.
The occasional zombie stumbled around on the street as well, bobbing awkwardly between the cars, but they were far too slow and uncoordinated to catch the scavengers as they sped by. As long as Max and Corrigan remained subdued, Daryl thought, this could be a successful mission.
“Hey, look up there!” Corrigan called out, pointing up towards a flashing red light atop a tall apartment complex.
“Shhh!” Daryl hissed as a zombie turned to see where the voice had come from.
“Just keep moving!” Daryl whispered back.
“But look!” Corrigan insisted again, this time much quieter. “There’s power up there. Do you think there are people?”
“Just stay focused on the job,” Daryl said as they came across an abandoned grocery store. “Let’s start here.”
The four of them left their bikes outside as they went into the store and Harley held back to guard them. The shelves were half bare and the stench of rotting food hung in the air. The only light came from the entrance, and it couldn’t penetrate the interior of the store. Every corner was obscured in ominous shadows, possibly hiding a ravenous zombie.
“Well, let’s split up,” Max said, wrapping an arm around Eden’s waist. “We’ll go this way, you guys check out over there.” Before Daryl could respond, Max and Eden were gone.
“That man is so frustrating,” Daryl said to Corrigan as they moved to an aisle half full of canned goods.
“I don’t know. He’s not all bad.” Corrigan seemed lost as he spoke about Max, his eyes seemed unfocused and his voice was a little lighter than normal.
“No, he is. I’ve been a cop long enough to know when a person is no good. And Max is no good.”
“You just don’t know him,” Corrigan said, a little more forcefully. “You just have to give him a chance.” He thrust a can into his bag and muttered something under his breath.
“Why do you defend him like that?” Daryl challenged, confused by the youth’s defense of the man.
“He’s my family, okay? Jacob might not like that but it’s true and I stand up for my family!”
Daryl held up a hand to quiet his looting partner. “Do you hear that?” he asked, raising his gun. A scraping sound was coming from the other side of the huge shelf. They fell completely silent as Daryl lifted his gun and approached the edge of the aisle. Corrigan pulled the pipe from his belt and quietly put the bag on the ground, preparing for the worst. As Daryl moved cautiously to the end of the aisle, he glanced back at Corrigan with urgency in his eyes. This could easily become a life or death situation but he wasn’t sure if the kid knew it.
“BAHH!” Max yelled as he leapt around the corner into Daryl’s face. He started laughing, clearly pleased with the prank he’d just pulled.
“Max, what are you doing? That’s not funny! I nearly shot you!”
“Oh relax.” Max’s laugh was subsiding. “It was just a joke.”
“There’s something seriously wrong with you, man,” Daryl said as he looked around for evidence that anything had heard the commotion. He stopped short as he realized who was missing. “Wait. Where’s Eden?”
Max stopped laughing and spun around. “Eden?” He called out and the word echoed through the empty grocery store.
“I’m here,” Eden said as she appeared from another aisle. Her face was drawn and frozen. Her face was pale and she was gripping her stomach. “And we’re not alone.”
“What?” Max lifted his rifle, peering left while Daryl aimed his own gun right. “Who’s here?”
“Not who, what” Eden whispered, clutching her stomach tighter and twisting her face with pain. Daryl recognized the act, Eden had been sick like this before. He wasn’t sure if he truly believed she could do what she claimed, but Jacob had seemed convinced.
They heard that grating howl again. It was like the hungry scream of a robotic beast that echoed in the grocery store and became amplified.
“Let’s go,” Daryl said as he quickly turned and sped down the aisle, barely slowing down to lift the heavy bag of canned food off the floor and throw it over his shoulder.
Nobody hesitated as they followed Daryl. Whatever was hunting them screamed again and they stopped in their tracks when Max and Eden joined the cacophony with their own cries. Daryl turned to see that Eden was alone. “It got him! It got Max!” she cried.
“Shh,” Daryl raised a finger to his lips and poked his head around into the next aisle. He could barely see in the shadows but it looked as though Max was pinned under a hulking, bestial figure. He was crying, begging to be let free and Daryl watched as the beast moved its head closer to Max’s. Its black body was long and lean, bulging with huge and grotesque looking muscles. It drew in a huge breath of air, taking in Max’s scent and making strange noises with its clicking jaw.
“Please, please, just leave me alone,” Max’s voice had never sounded so pathetic and the thing’s curved teeth parted as it screamed in his face, apparently displeased with its catch. The monster leapt off his body and attached itself to the ceiling with huge claws that bent the metal rafters in their grip. Daryl peered up at it and noticed two glowing green eyes staring down at him.
“Oh, gross. It threw up on me!” Max wiped slimy green goo from his face as he stood up. Eden ran to his side but halted when the beast screamed again.
Despite his shaking arms, Daryl raised the muzzle of his pistol and fired a shot. The creature recoiled and quickly disappeared into the darkness of the store. Its movements were fluid, like a quick moving lizard, yet its limbs resembled a muscular human.
“Go!” Daryl yelled and they burst from of the store into the comforting sunlight. Their bikes were right where they’d left them, but Harley was gone.
“Harley?” Daryl whispered. He felt a twinge of pain in his gut but didn’t stop long to ponder where the dog had gone. He lifted his bike off the ground along with the others and they wasted no time pedaling into the street. The sun was a little higher now and it was forcing its way through the black sky. Daryl could see that there were more zombies milled about now, and they all seemed aimed at the grocery store. The beast came slinking out of the store on all fours and threw its head back, screaming into the still air of dawn. As it did, Daryl noticed that every zombie stopped in its tracks. After another metallic shriek, the nearby zombies all turned in unison to look at the four bikers.
The beast leapt on top of a bus that sat idly in the motionless traffic. Daryl noticed car doors beginning to open all around him as dead hands had finally found purpose. The sedans, SUVs and minivans no longer seemed to hold their prisoners hostage. The commuter zombies were free.
Daryl watched as the zombies gained their footing and stepped towards his group. The march was slow at first, with that familiar clumsy shuffle. Their feet barely lifted from the ground and their arms flailed wildly.
Then something changed.
Daryl noticed one of the zombies running. The beast howled again from its position on top of the bus and the rest of the zombies began to sprint as well.
“Daryl! They’re running! You said they couldn’t run!” Corrigan yelled, his voice cracking with teenage panic.
“It has something to do with that monster!” Eden said as she pumped her pale legs to their breaking point. The beast leapt from the bus, tearing the metal with its monstrous claws. It landed with a crash on top of a minivan, crushing the roof as it did. Daryl tried not to watch it as it gained on them, leaping from vehicle to vehicle until it was keeping pace beside him.
“Watch out!” Corrigan yelled.
The monster leapt towards Daryl but he swerved, sending the beast tumbling across the sidewalk. It shrieked again and more zombies joined the hunt. The undead now started climbing over cars rather than going around them. They mirrored the monster’s screams with their own, less frightening ones and drooled rivers of gore. Instead of their usual unfocused eyes, these zombies stared right at their prey.
Daryl’s heart quickened as he appreciated the mortal danger all around him. The beast raised itself onto two legs and bound after Daryl. It swiped with one claw and barely missed his head. Corrigan slowed, drew his metal pipe and slammed it down on the beast’s arm as it reached out once again for Daryl.
The thing grunted and stopped running for a moment. With what Daryl categorized as a look of bewilderment, it grabbed hold of its arm while staring at the fleeing bikers.
More zombies poured from every direction, streaming from alleyways and falling from the windows of various buildings. They were all intent on Daryl, reaching out for him, moaning and grunting as they climbed frantically over one another, each one seemingly eager to please the vicious master who had called them to action.
Eden screamed as she hit a crack in the sidewalk and tumbled to the ground, scraping her knees and elbows. Max spun around on his bike and aimed his rifle.
Two zombies fell, fresh bullet wounds marring their faces. He slipped two more rounds into his rifle and fired again, missing one. He frantically reloaded, dropping bullets as his fingers fumbled.
Daryl and Corrigan joined Max, forming a circle around Eden as she shakily lifted herself back onto her bike. Daryl drew his pistol as Corrigan swung his pipe wildly. The beast bellowed its hungry scream again as it hopped up onto a nearby car. It flew through the air, landing on top of Daryl and knocking him to the ground.
The wind rushed from his burning lungs, he opened his mouth but words were impossible. Wicked teeth grazed his face. He could hear Felicia’s voice in his memory again. “I swear, if you kill me, if you kill your daughter... you’ll regret it!”
He pushed the giant head with all his might but he could still feel its slimy hot breath on his flesh. Corrigan spun around and smashed the beast in the back. It cried out again and Daryl took the opportunity to slip out from its grasp. “Forget the bikes! Run!” Daryl yelled.
He started shooting at zombies, cutting a path through them towards the flashing red beacon. They moved as swiftly as they could, taking advantage of the beast’s distraction. If the thing felt pain, though, it was easily overcome because it was already climbing back to its feet.
“Look!” Max said, pointing to the roof of the tower. Daryl noticed three or four people poised with long rifles. They were helping pick off some of the zombies in their path.
“Almost there!” Daryl called, taking the lead. As the group approached the apartment complex, running low on ammo, they noticed a team of five people waiting with automatic weapons poised.
“Hurry up!” the leader of the team called, her voice commanding even over the din of zombie wails and screams, “Before we start shooting!”
Daryl slipped through the line of people, pushing Corrigan and Eden into the building.
“Go with them, get in the elevator and go to the top,” the woman yelled out but Daryl refused to move. He pulled an extra clip of ammo from a deep pocket and reloaded his gun.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he said, moving to the rear of the team of people, each was wearing dark body armour that made him suddenly feel under dressed.
“It’s your funeral,” the woman said, clearly not in the mood to argue. Nobody had to tell Max, Corrigan and Eden twice though. They’d already piled into the elevator, not eager to get wrapped up in the fight.
The beast was up again. It moved faster than any of the zombies, even with their newfound agility. It flew through the air, propelling itself off the roofs of cars, and with every scream it let loose the zombies moved with extra vigour.
Daryl watched as the snipers put down several zombies while the woman in charge kept excellent control over her people on the ground.
“Preserve your ammo!” she called. “Don’t fire until you’ve got a clear shot!” The beast screamed once more as the first wave of zombies climbed over the line of cars separating them from the apartment building.
“FIRE!” she screamed as she pulled the trigger of her own gun. Daryl was surrounded by short but frequent blasts of rapid gunfire. He watched each person sweep their gun from left to right, almost in unison. He thought his head would split open with the noise but he watched as pieces of dead flesh were sent flying. Zombies whose decomposition was compounded by the heat inside their vehicles were liquefying and splattering black blood over their comrades. Heads exploded and limbs were cut free as the frightening horde was showered with hot bullets.
The beast flew over the line of fallen zombies and crashed into the building, digging its claws into the concrete and smashing several windows with its impact. It turned its head back toward Daryl and dropped itself to the ground.
“Vicky, Joshua--get that thing!” The commander said, barking her orders like a seasoned vet.
The beast leapt from the ground, barely avoiding being hit by several speeding bullets, and pounced on Daryl again. He cried for help as its teeth came dangerously close to his face. The thing gnashed its jaws, spraying streams of gooey saliva all over Daryl. He could feel his arms weakening as the beast persisted.
Under a spray of gunfire, the beast tumbled off him. He sprang to his feet and saw his attacker bleeding on the ground.
“They’re slowing down!” a man in black yelled and Daryl turned to see the zombies returning to their usual shuffle. They seemed to have lost the purpose that had so suddenly consumed them.
Daryl turned back again to see that the woman named Vicky had removed her facemask to stare intently down at the beast. Its flesh was bubbling and melting across its body as its skeleton shrunk in a very uneven sort of way. Daryl watched in amazement as the shiny black body turned pale, hair sprouting from its rapidly shrinking head.
“What is this thing?” Vicky asked, nudging it with her toe. Its claws melted away, leaving human hands attached to arms that looked less beastly by the second. Last to melt away was the hideous looking face--revealing the soft features of a human woman.
“Felicia--” Daryl couldn’t believe it but he was staring in disbelief at his naked wife.
“She’s still breathing!” a man said as he knelt beside Felicia’s body. “She’s alive.”
“Well what do we do with her?” Vicky asked the woman in charge as the approaching zombies shuffled steadily closer.
“We can’t leave her here, she’s my wife!” Daryl said, turning towards the commander. He couldn’t leave his wife’s helpless body behind... again.
“Sure we can!” came the booming voice of the largest man in the group. Daryl spun around and placed the muzzle of his gun against the large man’s temple, losing control of his judgment.
“We’re not leaving her!”
“That thing nearly killed you!” the man yelled, lifting his own gun to rest it under Daryl’s chin. “There’s no way we’re putting our people at risk like that.”
“She’s no risk! Look at her! She’s back to normal.” Daryl fought back his tears with increasing rage. He couldn’t show weakness in front of these people. The woman in charge put her hand to her mask and appeared to be in communication with someone over a radio. He strained to hear the conversation but all he caught was something that sounded like ‘we lost the serpent,’ whatever that meant.
Finally the woman said, “Just grab her! Let’s get inside before they come any closer. Move out!”
Daryl bent over to hoist Felicia’s helpless body into her arms. Vicky covered their retreat to the elevators, firing at zombies who shuffled too close to them.
“Vicky!” the woman in charge yelled as the elevator doors slid open. Vicky backed into the building, firing her short bursts until she had stepped inside. Then she turned to run, joining the others in the elevator with grasping zombie hands nipping at her hair.
The elevator doors closed and everyone panted in the cramped space.
“Are any of you bitten?” the commander asked. She was the only one not out of breath.
Daryl answered for the group with a curt “No.”
“So, that’s your wife?” Vicky asked as the elevator climbed. “Quite the catch.”
“Shut up,” Daryl muttered, not making eye contact with her.
“Are you sure we should be bringing this woman in here?” Vicky directed her question to the woman who’d been yelling commands.
“Orders from up top,” the commander said.
“But what if--”
The commander made a cutting motion with her hand. “Enough. We’ll keep her secure. Dr. Kent has his containment unit in the infirmary.”
“And what if she can’t be contained?” Vicky asked, her tone still demanding.
The other woman looked from Vicky to Felicia and said, “Then we kill her.”