With nowhere left to run—where will you go?
Most of the world’s population is either dead or dying from a virus that looks a lot like the one Bree and Nate tried to destroy—and not all of them remain dead. Chased by hordes of zombies, they flee the city with what remains of their merry band of miscreants. But even when most of them survive the first day, they are far from safe—because there is no safe place left. The fight for survival forces them to become resourceful, and soon they realize that the undead might not be their only problem. In this new world, it’s each man or woman out for themselves—and just because someone has a pulse doesn’t necessarily mean they make a good ally.
Yet there is hope—a bunker in Wyoming, outfitted with weapons and food, and above all else, defensible shelter for the winter. Can they survive the two-thousand-miles trip across the country with nothing but the clothes on their back and what they can scavenge along they way? This is not the kind of challenge that Bree ever imagined she would have to face, but she’s determined to survive—even if that means to learn how to on the job.
“Welcome to the fucking zombie apocalypse.”
A day ago, these words would have made me laugh; or at least frown, and look around to see where the camera crew was hiding as I clearly was getting punked, no doubt about that.
But a lot had happened in the last twenty-four hours. Heck, even the last hour was enough that denial died on my tongue as I stared up at the bloody corpse that Captain Hamilton—Bucky—was holding out to me. Because what had looked like a sick little girl from afar was clearly—undeniably—a zombie. Or had been, before it had found its timely end, before it could sink blood-stained teeth into any part of me, thanks to the people who I owed my life to—in one case more than one time over, but then again, he was likely to blame that it had been threatened in the first place.
Before the world went to hell.
Although my thoughts were racing, it was hard to grasp that concept. It scared the living shit out of me, while at the same time the scientist in me couldn’t help but wonder about the hows and whys. But, right now, with the “evidence” literally staring me in the face with filmy, dead eyes, there was only a single thought on my mind.
We were so fucking screwed.
His message delivered, Bucky let his macabre puppet drop into a heap at his feet and turned to his soldiers, clearly expecting no protest from us. “Us” was the small huddle of people I’d thought were terrorists—and really, although I knew now what their mission had been, the evidence didn’t exactly exonerate them—and a few of Bucky’s soldiers.
Next to me, Nate uttered a curse low under his breath and hunched over, propping the shotgun he’d just used to turn the zombie girl’s head into so much minced meat onto his thigh to keep himself upright. His features—dirty from the dust of the building that had pretty much come down on us minutes ago, smeared with sweat and blood—were scrunched up in a painful grimace, and he had his free hand pressed to the bandage that spanned his torso from his ribs down to below his waist. That he even remained standing was a miracle—I’d seen the rebar that had speared him, going clean through his side. Just the force of the blast had been enough to knock me silly and screw with my balance—he shouldn’t have been able to do anything except bleed out on the ground.
Pia—the Ice Queen, as I’d titled her, and she hadn’t given me a good reason yet to drop the moniker—relieved him of his weapon, but only to reload it. Her own rifle she had slung across her chest over her black on black combat fatigues. She caught me watching, and after a moment held her hand out to me to pull me up. Staggering to my feet, I made sure to give the corpse as wide a berth as possible.
A zombie. How could that even be possible—
I turned my head to look at the soldier who’d asked the question. We’d picked up Martinez on the way out of the building, after Nate and I had attached enough explosives to the hot lab deep underneath the complex to make sure that nothing down there survived—among other things. I still had no clue why he was milling around with us rather than his fellow soldiers, but the brief exchange between him and Nate spoke of the kind of familiarity between men who had been to war together—and just like everyone else around, he seemed to know what was going on.
Everyone except me.
“I think,” I replied, my voice thick with trepidation. Martinez gave me a nod—and a rather sympathetic look that made me like him just a little more—before he turned to Nate.
“Just saying, do you really think it’s wise to get kicked by a mule right now?” I figured he was referring to Nate’s weapon of choice.
Nate gave him a humorless grin back. “Not sure I can properly aim at anything that’s beyond twenty feet right now.” He still slung the shotgun over his torso and instead got the pistol out of his chest holster, briefly checking the magazine, then accepted a stained T-shirt one of his men had produced from somewhere. Just watching him shrug into it looked painful.
Before anyone else could say something, Bucky hollered a loud, “Moving out!” to his men—and, I guessed, to us by extension—making the soldiers break up the defensive perimeter they’d set up and adopt a loose formation centered around the few civilians in their midst—a disparate crowd in lab coats and business attire. I couldn’t help but glare at Gabriel Greene’s back, but it gave me a hint of satisfaction that he looked as scared as I felt right now—or probably even more so. That made me instantly suspicious, but for now I was happy to be surrounded by people who hadn’t tried to bash my head in or strangle me—although the jury was still out where the Ice Queen was concerned. She’d seemed civil enough once she’d stopped shooting at everything around my hiding space—what felt like a million years ago right now.
All in all, there seemed to be about a hundred of us who’d made it out of the collapsing building—about half of them Bucky’s soldiers. Even as I watched now, several of Nate’s people slunk away into the buildings and streets around the field of rubble that the explosions had reduced the Green Fields Biotech complex into. The core group that had been in command remained. Next to Nate and Pia, there was also Andrej—who’d been posing as a security guard—and Dolores—their child prodigy hacker—and a few other guys who were vaguely familiar looking as they’d guarded the atrium. Nate and the Ice Queen exchanged a few words before she gave a jerky nod and motioned the remainder of their people to follow the soldiers.
There wasn’t really a question whether I’d follow, so I fell in step beside Martinez, overly conscious that I was the only one of the group not armed.
That realization hit home even harder as we passed the last remaining concrete boulders and stepped out into what had been a side street running along the complex before. In the immediate vicinity, not a single window had remained whole, the glass blasted to a million shreds by the massive explosion. But outside of that radius of destruction, things looked just as grim, if not worse. There were broken-down and ruined cars everywhere, debris littering the streets. Even at just a glance I could see looters run out of stores down the street, their faces obscured by pieces of cloth they’d wound over the bottom half of their heads. Gunshots rang out in the distance, making me shy back momentarily, and the wail of sirens could be heard from all around us. Someone shouted, more screams followed, but they all sounded decidedly… human. In haphazard intervals the road was blocked with barricades. Some looked like heavy-duty gear that the police or the national guard might have used, others just blocks of wood jammed between cars and street lamps.
To think that just twenty-four hours ago I’d walked down the sidewalk from the bus stop over there to my workplace, everything looking as more or less tidy as usual, was eerie bordering on incomprehensible now. Sure, there had been few people out and about, and I’d had to wait for twenty minutes until a bus had picked me up as they were down to emergency schedules with only a fraction of the drivers not out sick, but everything had still been normal—not like out of the set of a war movie. Even last night, when my flight from the terrorists had ended up on the roof of the building and I’d gotten a last glimpse at the city around us, things hadn’t looked much different than normal.
“Just how long have you been holed up in that building?” Martinez asked where he’d fallen into step beside me, his assault rifle ready but the muzzle pointing down right now. More of his fellow soldiers were spreading out around the core group now, building a loose perimeter around us—not quite coincidentally, it seemed to me. That still didn’t hinder yet more of Nate’s people to disappear.
“Yesterday morning, when I went to work,” I said, my eyes snagging on a dead body lying on the sidewalk. Not that I was a good judge of that, but it looked like the man hadn’t been infected, just shot and bled out. That this gruesome image was kind of soothing to me while at the same time appropriately horrifying still left me quite disturbed. But it did look less horrifying than the three dirty, blood-smeared corpses that were grouped around another body a little farther down the street.
Martinez gave me a neutral look that made me realize that he probably still didn’t know where to place me—former lab geek or terrorist—before he replied.
“Things started going bad late last night, just before they shut off the television stations.”
“They did what?”
He shrugged. “Last I heard, some hacker group hijacked the program for their own emergency bulletin, warning everyone not to trust the police and national guard. Someone thought it would be better to cut off the feeds completely, but that just caused everyone to try to log into the ‘net. That went down just late enough for everyone who cared to watch the few YouTube videos someone managed to upload from New York and LA, and the rest is history.”
Our whole group stopped when we reached an intersection, and Bucky waited for several of his recon team to return before he gave the all clear to cross and proceed farther down the street. In the middle of the crossing, I got a good look toward the city center of Lexington, where yet more of the same was visible—people slinking from building to building, ruined cars and storefronts, and the occasional heap on the ground that used to be a person. Several plumes of smoke rose into the sky, and the wail of sirens suddenly seemed twice as prominent.
“Let me guess—that wasn’t about civic unrest?”
His teeth looked very white in his olive-skinned face as he gave me an approximation of a smile.
“That depends entirely on how you define the term ‘civilian.’ But no one seemed to care much anymore if the police and national guard shot into the masses if they got their faces torn off the second their magazines clicked empty.”
A shudder ran through my body that I didn’t even try to suppress.
“So this isn’t just a local thing?”
He shook his head.
That one word confirmation was more than I ever wanted to hear. It was still hard to come to grips with this—whatever exactly “this” was. Thinking about something else was much easier. Anything else, really. A few looters came out of a building across the streets, bristling with weapons, but one look at the soldiers streaming down the street and they ducked right back inside. Behind another half-blown-off door I could see a woman clutching a small child to her chest, her eyes impossibly wide with fear. I half expected her to join us, but she shied further back, out of sight.
Then we reached another intersection and Bucky directed his troops to turn left—toward the river, if I wasn’t completely turned around—yet stopped when Nate and his people didn’t follow along. Orders were given to halt, and Capt. Hamilton himself came swaggering back to our huddle, his soldiers gravitating to the sides to open a space around him. His eyes were fixed on Nate, who still looked deathly pale but had no problem oozing his own kind of self-assurance all over the place.
“What’s the holdup?” Bucky wanted to know.
“Where exactly are you leading your merry little group here?” Nate asked instead of answering.
Bucky hesitated for a moment, but it looked more like he considered whether he should reply at all—not what exactly to say.
“We have a camp south of town. Our orders are to fall back there now that our objective has been pulverized.”
Nate’s return grin held just a hint of mocking satisfaction, but it was enough to make Bucky gnash his teeth.
“Yeah, thought so,” Nate replied. “The hound heeling, as he’s supposed to.”
“Coming from a traitor, that’s not really much of an insult,” Bucky shot back.
Nate considered for a moment, then looked around as if he was actively surveilling the intersection.
“Yeah, I think I’ll not join you. I haven’t spent the last fifteen years busting my ass to end up as someone’s pet lab project.” I knew that there was a lot more to that statement than I understood right now, but the message was loud and clear, even for me.
At Nate’s exclamation, people tensed all around him—his people readying their weapons, while the soldiers seemed to back away and into a more defensive position. Suddenly, the before tense but mostly neutral air seemed to have turned hostile, making me want to run for cover. It didn’t escape my notice that Martinez had stepped closer to me, but he was eyeing the soldiers critically, not the former terrorists. Only Nate and Bucky remained relaxed, facing each other across the widening open space between the two groups.
“So what are you going to do?” Bucky asked, his words dripping with scorn. “Strike out on your own? You and what army?” He looked after two more people who were silently disappearing down the road we’d come.
“I don’t need an army, just competent people,” Nate replied, then looked around at the gathered soldiers. “And everyone’s free to join me.”
It wasn’t like a murmur ran through the soldiers, but I could see a few stealthily glancing at the people standing beside them.
“Join you?” Bucky jeered, doing a wide sweep with his arms. “Look around. The city is lost, and out there it’s a fucking battlefield. There’s strength in numbers, and guess who has them? The army. We already have a camp established that is right now starting a well-coordinated evacuation. Everyone’s best bets are with us.” He looked to the huddle of civilians with his soldiers, but they didn’t seem to need convincing in the first place, so it was no surprise that instead he focused on me. “You’re a scientist, right?” Defiance—born of what exactly I didn’t know—made me want to remain stoically unresponsive, but instead I gave a jerky nod. “You helped them?” He indicated Nate, but his eyes didn’t leave my face. Now I chose not to reply, which in itself was an answer. Yet Bucky didn’t wait much longer than a few seconds before he went on. “I don’t care, and neither do my superiors. That’s all water under the bridge. Right now it is important to secure as many important people as possible. You know shit? You’re important. Come with us, miss, and we’ll make sure that you get to safety unharmed. Our secondary objective is to bring everyone with scientific background to the camp, too. You will be most useful there.”
I didn’t need to glance at Nate to know what he thought of that, but the look on his face was closed off enough that it made me hesitate for a moment, doubt sweeping through my mind, the sour taste of betrayal riding shotgun. I was aware that he’d only ever chatted me up because he knew who I was, where I worked, and could potentially be useful to him, which should have nullified everything that had happened between us since. But at the same time I knew that what he’d said down in the hot lab—when he’d asked me to join him in continuing his crusade against the people who had led to his brother’s murder—was still true. I realized that he tried not to influence me now, but when I caught his gaze again, I could see that he was itching to open his mouth—likely to tell me not to be stupid and fall for Bucky’s bullshit.
“Same goes for everyone else,” Bucky went on meanwhile. “We’ll need everyone who knows how to handle a gun in the coming weeks. And you all know that there’s strength in numbers.”
I was surprised to see a few of Nate’s people hesitate before they crossed the intersection, while a couple did so with confidence, even. The Ice Queen made a face but remained mute; otherwise stoic at Nate’s side, it was obvious why she was his second in command.
By then Bucky must have realized that I wasn’t buying what he was selling, but he still tried again.
“No offense, but do you really want to stay with the people who gave you that nice temporary makeup?”
He was referring to the bruises on my face—and wouldn’t you know it, it just took that mention to make my cheekbone and nose twinge uncomfortably, but I did my best to ignore it. It was impossible not to single out Gabriel Greene in between the scientists, and I felt my face twist into a sneer.
“Thanks so much for your concern, but I think I’ll stay with the people who didn’t try to bash my head in,” I said, taking a step back which brought me right up to Andrej. Greene didn’t try to avoid my gaze although he did glare back, and the way his right hand twitched I wondered if he was itching to protect his junk from my knee. It was then that I realized that he still looked scared shitless, his previous sleazy demeanor crumbling under the emotional turmoil. But then, he must have known exactly that he’d been sitting on a ticking time bomb all along, and now that the shit had hit the fan, he likely had a much better grasp on what was going on than I could imagine. And I had a very vivid imagination.
Bucky seemed confused, but he took it in stride.
“You really sure that you want to hang with a bunch of second-rate criminals and army rejects? Because, let me assure you, they’ll sell you out as soon as they find something worth bartering for.”
“And you won’t?” I asked. “I mean, you’re working for the people who built this fucking plague. Why should I trust you?”
It was a wild guess at best, but the fact that all I got out of him was him gnashing his teeth was the kind of confirmation I really hadn’t needed. What was equally disturbing was that neither of the scientists spoke up, but then it made sense that—as group leaders—they’d been in the know of what their company had actually been working on. In fact, Greene was still eyeing the intersection as if he was thinking about bailing, too, but one look at Nate and he remained firmly rooted in his spot.
Maybe it had been that exclamation, or they had just been biding their time, but four of the soldiers joined us, pointedly not looking at their comrades. One of them, a six-foot-and-then-some bear of a man with skin so dark that even in the direct sunlight it looked black nodded at Nate and Pia, and received a similar nod back. Clearly, Martinez hadn’t been the only one who’d met Nate before. Another I recognized as one of the soldiers who had run into Nate and me when we’d hightailed it out of the hot lab, and he joined Martinez, the two of them briefly bumping fists. It looked like that was all, until another soldier joined those two, who I guessed was their commanding officer. He looked about as confused and frightened as I felt, and he kept eyeing Nate with a similar kind of distrust he reserved for the bodies lying dead on the sidewalk, but he had switched sides, and that counted for something.
Nate took a brief look over his assembled people before he turned to Bucky again.
“Looks like we’re done here.”
“You actually have a plan?” Bucky grunted, his tone derisive.
“I always have a plan,” Nate shot back. “And if Plan B goes up in flames, there’s still the entire rest of the alphabet.”
Bucky seemed to consider, but then simply turned around, facing his people. “Move out!” Clearly, we were dismissed.
Nate allowed himself the hint of a smile—or a wince that he only showed now that the other guy wasn’t looking at him anymore—but it froze when Dolores gave him an apologetic look and started walking toward the soldiers.
“You know that I can’t shoot for shit, and I’m not exactly the survivalist type,” she said, sounding like she knew how hollow that came out. I was sure that I would have gotten a glare for that, but Nate just seemed sad.
“If you say so.”
“If this really is the end of the world, I’m sure I’ll be much more useful with the guys who still have electricity, and likely a working internet connection,” she offered, but had to look away. “I’m sorry. I did what I could, right? I helped you avenge Raleigh.”
Nate just kept looking at her blankly now, but a muscle jumped in the Ice Queen’s cheek. Contrary to Nate, she looked the opposite of broken up with losing their tech wizard.
“You did,” Nate finally replied. “And I thank you for that.”
“You’re welcome. And good luck.”
Her goodbye sounded final, and once the mumbled words had left her lips, she quickly turned around and ran after the soldiers, joining the huddle of scientists in their midst. Nate looked after her for a moment longer before he tore his gaze away and addressed the group around him. Altogether, I counted nineteen heads now—a bare fraction of the people who had made it out of the collapsing building.
“I think on one thing I can agree with that asshole—let’s get out of here.”
He looked at Pia, who immediately started calling out names, the designated people swarming out to build a loose guard team around the core group of the rest of us. Andrej was busy typing away on his phone, but after a moment he put it away, cursing.
“Signal’s down. Paper maps it is from here on out.”
Nate acknowledged that with a quick nod.
“We need maps then. Provisions, and gear.” Looking around, he absentmindedly pressed the hand that wasn’t carrying the gun against the wound in his side. “But most of all, we need to get the hell out of here before things get worse.”
That this was even possible seemed like a stretch to me, but judging from the grim faces all around me I was still too optimistic, even with doom and gloom whipping each other into a panic attack at the back of my mind. Nate looked at Pia and Andrej, then to Martinez, but when he just got shrugs back, his eyes found me.
“Do you know where the next mall is? Sport or camping supplies stores is what we’re needing to hit first.”
I was surprised that he asked, but then it made sense. Just because I’d run into him in a park a few weeks ago didn’t mean that he or his people had been living in the city for long—or had time for shopping when they were busy infiltrating the corporation and plotting their mission. Not that my knowledge of this side of town was much better, but my addled brain finally came up with something.
“There’s a kind of mall by the interstate close to the edge of town,” I offered. “I think they have a sports supplies store there.” I certainly knew that they had no less than three coffee shops, one right next to the makeup store Sam always dragged me through—
And that was when my mind snagged on a detail that I had successfully ignored for the past estimated half hour, but now that I’d thought of it, there was nothing else that I could think about. Grief so visceral that it made my chest hurt gripped me, but I just couldn’t quench the small flicker of hope that came with it. Looking in the opposite direction from where the mall lay, I stared sightlessly back toward the city center, and the part of town around the university campus beyond it.
I hadn’t realized that I’d fully turned around until Nate suddenly stepped into my field of vision, reaching up to grab my arms and still me, his gun now holstered. The look on his face was unreadable, but he didn’t put effort into chasing emotion out of his gaze, looking at me with understanding.
“Bree, listen to me,” he started, squeezing just a little harder until my eyes focused on his face rather than continue to stare off into nothing. “When was the last time you saw her?”
The girlfriend I hadn’t thought about for a second although the world seemed to be about to go down the drain? Sure, I had been running for my life, and then almost got buried underneath tons of concrete and steel, but shouldn’t any decent person have thought about what happened to their loved ones the moment they were in relative safety again? But I had the sinking feeling that therein lay the real issue.
“Bree, answer me,” Nate repeated. “When did you last see her?”
Swallowing thickly, I forced myself to reply to his question, my stomach sinking further.
“Thursday night, just before I went to bed. She fell asleep on the couch, watching TV. I didn’t even kiss her good night because I didn’t want to catch—“
A sob wrenched itself from deep inside my chest, and I quickly stifled it with my right hand, barely feeling my teeth as they sank into my knuckles. Knuckles of the hand that was barely scabbed over from the cuts that I’d sustained while I’d crawled through the destroyed bottles in the hot room where I’d been hiding; the hand that still had the angry red burn across the back of it from where the coffee had spilled when the first round of explosions had gone off that had turned a usual Friday afternoon into a nightmare that I would likely never forget—
The way Nate kept squeezing my arms felt more supportive than the gesture had a right to be, and when I looked at him again, I could clearly see that he was hurting for me. That alone seemed so at odds after his mostly no-nonsense behavior of the past day, but then he had been on a mission. Now, all that was left for us was to survive—those of us who were still alive.
“You can hate me for saying this now, but we don’t have time to sugar-coat it,” Nate suggested, his voice hard but still kind of gentle. “There is nothing you can do for her.”
I knew that—rationally, but my heart still wanted to dance to a different tune. I still didn’t know how the infection was spreading all around us, but if the way Raleigh had died was any indication, anyone would be dead within two days—or worse. And Sam’s two days had run out even before I’d seen that video.
“She… she was—“ I started, swallowing hard when I just couldn’t go on for a moment. “She came home sick on Wednesday afternoon. She called me to pick up some chicken soup on the way home but I forgot—“
Nate cut me off before I could go on.
“You know that you can’t help her,” he said. “Even if you could make it across town—and I honestly don’t think that we have any time left—trust me, you don’t want to. If she was lucky, she’s dead. And if not, she’d just come after you the second you unlocked the door to your apartment.”
The cynic inside of me supplied a third option—that she hadn’t remained home but instead stayed with whatever latest girl she was cheating on me with. If you could call it cheating considering that I suspected and had always been too placid to get in her face about it. And who was I really to throw stones? But the fact was the same—she was likely dead.
Martinez stepped up to us, remaining a little to the side as if to lend us some privacy but clearly intent on butting into our conversation.
“From what we know, most infected have died within the first twenty hours. The latest numbers are giving a ten-hour window for incubation, and less than thirty average until it’s over.” He cleared his throat, avoiding my gaze. “And about one in ten… well, you know.”
“Comes back as a zombie?” I asked, my voice still pressed but a little less frail now. There was no sense to sugar-coating that, either.
“Yup,” was all he provided, clearly uncomfortable. The very idea was too absurd to consider, and still—even the looters were wearing face protection, not that it would change anything.
Nate cleared his throat, making me focus back on him. “I know that this is hard for you—“
I interrupted him before he could go any further.
“I get it. She’s dead. And we need to go. So, let’s go, right?” I hated how hollow and cold that sounded, but it was the truth. The fact that all of them were still tense and clearly ready to move out told me that lingering wasn’t an option, either—even if it felt like I was abandoning everything I’d ever believed in. Everything I’d ever loved.
Nate gave me a single, slow nod. I could see that he wanted to say more, but, really, what was there to say? If this was as bad as it seemed from the three blocks we’d seen of the city so far, there was no telling how much worse it would be elsewhere—and that very likely meant that everyone I’d ever known—family, friends, acquaintances—were either dead, or out to kill those who had miraculously avoided infection so far. Looking around at the others, I could see that same knowledge in every pair of eyes that I met, only none of them chose to act on the grief they must be feeling. Somehow, that made it just a little easier to suppress that wave of emotion and push it to the back of my soul, to leave there until a later time when I might have the opportunity to wallow in it.
“Let’s go,” Nate agreed, and after lingering for another second, he turned to Pia. “Get us the fuck out of this city.”
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