The enemy broke through our lines one misty morning.
I say enemy because according to just about every soldier I ran into, it wasn’t okay to say zombies anymore, though at that point I had yet to discover exactly why The Z-Word had become so terrible.
On second thought, the stuff I referred to as mist wasn’t really mist at all. It was ash and soot and everything else that got kicked up when meteors come crashing down. Maybe it wasn’t even morning. It could have been afternoon. Time blended together after the world ended and my days started revolving around survival instead of my next frappucino break.
For the record, I preferred to just call them zombies.
I also would have preferred regular enemies—the living, breathing kind—but no one consulted me when they were working on this apocalypse.
“They’re coming through! Get to your posts!”
I dropped the bandage I was holding. It landed on the dirt floor next to the single camping lantern that kept me from working in total darkness.
The soldier I’d been wrapping up—Chase, according to his name tag—glanced at the fallen gauze, and then up at me. “Hey. You gonna get that?”
He spoke too loudly; a gun or grenade had gone off near his head, probably giving his eardrums a good shake.
“Did you hear that?” I asked, trying to sound calm and collected when all I really wanted to do was flee the tent.
“Yeah,” he said. “What’s the big deal? They don’t move that fast.”
So he’s not deaf, just unconcerned.
I held up a finger and poked a head outside the makeshift medical tent the Army had put up when they had come out here a day prior.
“I said get to your posts!” someone bellowed.
A mixture of uniformed soldiers and members of the budding militia rushed around the tent. Part of some joint exercise, all of them working together to patch the weak point in Camp Elderwood’s outer defenses. By weak point, I meant there wasn’t really any fencing to speak of out there, and everything we tried to put up got knocked down by encroaching dead. So we kept going, and they kept coming, and someone decided they needed a medic out there, because hey, people were getting chewed on.
A few days ago I would have said I didn’t belong here.
A few weeks ago, I would have thought it was all just a really bad dream.
But lo, here I was, watching a swarm of the undead come shambling out of the not-mist, their voices blending together into that awful, stretching groan.
I turned back to the soldier, who cocked his head to the side. “Not pretty?” he asked.
“We gotta go,” I said. Then, in case the look on my face didn’t explain things, I lifted my hands into the air to mime a staggering ghoul. “Zombies are coming.”
He blanched. “Of course they are. And we can’t call them zombies anymore.”
He checked the clip in his gun, sighed, and stood up. “They’re revenants.”
“Revenants,” I repeated. “Revenants?”
Someone outside let out a shriek, one that swiftly halted, presumably as their throat was torn out.
“The general says zombies is too pedestrian.” Chase paused. “I think he meant frightening, but who knows?”
He began pushing the tent flap out of the way.
“Wait,” I said.
His arm was still bleeding. We weren’t entirely sure yet if blood lured them in closer, but as far as I was concerned, oozing wounds probably didn’t help us any. I wrapped up his arm while he stood there staring outside.
“Revenants, huh,” I said.
“Revenants,” he repeated. He still spoke too loudly, but he seemed to hear me all right.
Maybe he just had a booming voice. “Revs for short.”
I taped up the bandage, and then gestured to the tent flap. “Go forth and conquer the revs, then.”
He grinned, and then ducked out of the tent.
I sat there a moment, puzzling over the latest twist in our adventures. I’d heard the soldiers calling the undead revenants, and had probably used the term myself a time or two, but handing down specific orders about it seemed…strange. They took the same amount of time to say. Zombies sounded, well, kind of cute. Revenants just made me look around for Leonardo DiCaprio.
Unfortunately, the apocalypse had been ongoing for at least a couple of weeks, and there was no sign of Leo or Bruce Willis or anyone else with the gumption and skill set to save us all, which left us scrambling to save ourselves.
About three minutes after Chase left, the shooting started. That meant Hammond’s crowd control techniques—stab, don’t shoot, because shooting attracts them—hadn’t worked.
Which meant I was sitting alone, unarmed, in a flimsy tent in the middle of a zombie attack.
“Fucking apocalypse,” I muttered, searching for something to use as a weapon. My medical case could double as a bludgeon if it came down to it. The cot I was treating people on, maybe.
My gaze fell on the lantern. Maybe…
Or I could sit very quietly and hope nothing came after me.
That might be my best bet.
The gunfire faded away, as the soldiers pushed the undead back against the front line. Or the fence line. Or wherever it was they were trying to push them.
I tried to hold my breath. The less noise, the better. But holding your breath for a few seconds is far different from the minutes that tick by when there are enemies swarming you.
I heard footsteps coming up to the front of the tent. They moved with a surety I did not hear from the dead—the rotting cannibals formerly known as zombies were not famed for their speed. I set the medical kit down on the ground, ready to help whatever poor soul had run afoul of them.
A hand shoved the tent flap aside, and he came lurching in.
My heart dropped into somewhere around my stomach.
Blackened, cracked skin on his face and hands spoke of some encounter with fire. Maybe one of the ghouls that had survived Astra—no pun intended—staggering along the endless road until he found someone or something to chew on.
And now he had found me.
I’d like to say I was ready for this moment. That enough encounters with zom—um, revenants—had turned me into a ghoul-slaying machine.
I stood there, my heart blazing away in my chest, seemingly drowning out the gunfire outside.
“Please go away,” I said. “I’ll pretend I didn’t see you.”
He opened his mouth. Half his teeth were gone, ripped out either in life or after it, but he still had plenty of chompers left to use on me. I backed away from him, searching for something—anything—to use as a weapon. There was nothing here. Nothing big and heavy, or sharp and pointy.
I spotted the lantern. I had kept Chase’s arm close to it so I could ensure it was cleaned out.
My fingers closed around the handle. The dead guy came at me, all gray gums and black lips, and I swung the lantern upward as hard as I could. The container itself cracked against his head, and he stumbled to the side. The glass flew to pieces and landed in small clumps on the floor.
He tottered to the side, briefly knocked off-balance. I dodged around him and raced for the tent flap. I heard him turning around, trying to come after me, but he tripped over the medical case I’d left on the ground.
Kids, don’t let anyone ever tell you it’s bad to be a slob.
I charged out of the tent and into the mist, then nearly doubled over after inhaling some of the stuff. The zombie came shambling after me, determined to have himself a tasty snack. I whipped my head around trying to find someone, but the soldiers seemed to have gone off to the left, to push back the dead.
I turned back to the zombie—um, the ghoul. “Okay, arsonist,” I said. “It’s just you and me.”
A thin moan echoed somewhere to my left. Out came another devious dead man, this one dressed in a blood-splattered yellow slicker and effectively cutting off my escape route.
I sighed. “And that guy, I guess.”
I had left the lantern in the tent. That left my bare hands, which I really didn’t want to risk. I scanned the ground.
Tents used stakes. Three slim black poles stuck up out of the ground on the side nearest me, and I imagined there were three identical stakes on the other side.
Stakes were sharp, right? They worked on vampires.
The arsonist lunged for me.
I ducked beneath his loving arms and dove for the side of the tent. The first pole was wedged too firmly into the ground for me to pull out, but the second one came loose with some good twisting.
Shit. It wasn’t very sharp.
The zombie’s hands landed on my back and tightened into claws. I jerked forward, heard my shirt tearing. I got out of his grasp and turned around, holding the stake out in front of me. Stake, of course, is too strong a word in hindsight; no one was about to entrust us with actual sharpened pointy things, so it had a blunted off end. Still. It was long and I could stab with it.
I stepped backward. He came after me.
Well, there was no time like the present to start conquering my fears. I rushed him, closing the distance between us in a single step. I wasn’t going to be able to get at his eye without leaping toward him, but his nose was right there, and fuck it, I guess I was about to go mining.
I jammed the stake upward, heard the cracking of bone and cartilage, and threw my back into it, wedging the entire thing up into his stinking, rotten head.
He stopped moving.
I jerked the stake back and forth, hoping to scramble whatever brains he had in there.
His head snapped backward on his neck.
I pushed him away. The stake, covered in grimy blood and blobs of stuff I didn’t want to speculate about, slid from his sinuses.
He toppled over.
I turned to the other zombie. “Here, revy-revy-revy.”
It swayed back and forth. I swear the guy was sizing me up, trying to force some decaying part of his brain to determine whether I was a threat or not. I could almost picture the old neurons firing off, trying to remind him that this living bitch just shoved a camping stake up Bob’s nose, maybe I shouldn’t attack her.
He lurched toward me anyway, because zombies or revenants or whatever you like to call them are extremely slow learners.
“That’s cool,” I said. “You can have some, too.”
He took a swing at me. I ducked, but felt his hand skim across the top of my head. I propelled myself forward, smashed into his midsection, and knocked him to the ground.
He utterly reeked: just because something looks well-preserved on the outside doesn’t mean it isn’t a decomposing mess on the inside, I guess. But I held my breath and darted in, shoving the stake up his nose, too.
His hands scrabbled at me, and I kept jamming that thing in, and finally he stopped moving.
I left the stake up his face and stepped off him. Cold sweat had beaded across my forehead, and I moved to wipe it off, but paused. I had gore all over my hands: blackened, oozing ichor, straight from undead heads to my skin. Instead I wiped my hands against the tent, leaving bloodied palm prints against the heavy canvas.
I looked around.
The camp was deserted. Completely emptied out. Sporadic bursts of gunfire still echoed from maybe a quarter-mile away, down the road, toward the front.
The front. Or was it the side? I hadn’t figured out my terminology yet.
I had been brought out here to help the wounded, but no one had said anything about what to do if there were an actual battle.
“Thanks, guys,” I muttered. “What the hell am I supposed to do now?”
Of course, I’m pretty sure ditching the hapless medic hadn’t been part of their grand plan, if they had one. I was just out of sight and therefore out of mind.
Meanwhile, I was staring there in the middle of a potential zombie—excuse me, revenant—showdown and I didn’t have so much as a knife to my name.
I went back into the tent and dug through the battered remains of my medical case. I had a scalpel, but it was fairly small, and using it meant I had to get really, really close to these undead fucks, which I preferred not to do. Sure, I had heard of the occasional brawler who loved getting right up in revenant faces. I was not one of them, because I still had my wits about me.
Still. Scalpels were sharp. If only they had longer handles. Even another foot would give me some space…
I dragged my equipment outside.
The coast was still clear. I pulled up another of the tent stakes, cleaned it off against the canvas, and pressed the scalpel’s handle against the end. One roll of medical tape and a few muted curses later, and I had affixed the scalpel to the end of the stake, making myself a nice little spear.
I jabbed it against the canvas a few times, cutting neat slices in the material.
Not bad, Vibeke. First a blunt weapon, now a spear. I’d be creating fire and taming beasts in no time.
I packed up the last of my stuff and slung my backpack over my shoulders. Then I shifted my little spear to my right hand and started off in the direction the fighters had gone.
The mist curled around me. You could hide a good number of revenants in here, quietly stumbling around.
The mist moved. Something was coming: I could make out the outline of a man, this one a few inches taller than me. I lifted my spear, ready to jab it through his eye, or into his mouth, or somewhere else soft and squishy.
“It’s got a weapon,” the man said.
I knew that voice. “It?” I demanded. “I should put your eye out.”
Tony came closer, and I saw that he had a broad, shit-eating grin stretched across his face.
Well, I was glad one of us could smile. “Where the hell did you go?” I asked. “You guys left me in the tent!”
The smile faded. “Chased some zom—revenants off,” he said. “Hammond didn’t want them in the camp, so we pushed back.”
“Yeah, well, you left me.”
“Only for a second.”
“You guys ditched me.”
“I came back!”
It was hard to stay properly angry when no harm had really been done, but I waved the spear at him anyway.
He stuck a hand out and caught the stake. I relinquished my little weapon, and he pulled it to himself, arching a dark brow as he inspected it. “What the hell are you going to do with this? Roast hot dogs?”
“I’ll roast you,” I muttered.
Footsteps moved against gravel. We both turned to my right. The footfalls didn’t sound entirely right; one leg was being dragged behind, the shoe scooting gravel aside instead of stepping atop it. I snatched my hot dog-roaster back and waved it threateningly. Tony had a gun, but didn’t aim it just yet.
It emerged, a giant shambling mess of a woman, blood and guts liberally drenching a sequined evening gown. I hadn’t seen anything like her as of yet; where had she been the night she died? At some gala when the meteors fell? Or had she been bitten, and put on a pretty gown, and decided to go out like a star?
One foot had twisted at the ankle.
High heels will do that to you.
“Well,” Tony said. “Get to it.”
“You have a gun.”
“And we don’t want to attract any more of them. Go on, get her. I’ll clean up if you can’t.”
There was a teasing lilt to his tone. He thought I wouldn’t do it.
I jabbed the little spear forward. It split her dress, sending shiny little sequins all over. The scalpel went into her flesh easily enough, tearing white-gray skin apart with a flick of my wrist.
Okay, so we’d established that the thing worked.
I yanked the spear free and stuck it toward her face.
She moved her head to the side, and the blade opened up a neat little weal on her cheekbone.
“Your aim sucks,” Tony said.
“You suck,” I replied.
I didn’t feel as afraid with him there. He’d get her, even if I didn’t.
“You’re bad at this.”
Of course, that meant I had to fuck her shit up out of principal.
I tried for her nose, but all I ended up doing was slicing it away from her face.
She kept coming.
Ah, well. Eyes had worked in the past, and they would work again.
Her eyeball popped as the scalpel cut into it, and she began to jerk and dance, her body twisting this way and that as I rammed the makeshift weapon all the way into the socket. She went down quicker than the other two, collapsing in all her blood-soaked finery.
I pulled the spear out of her face and turned to Tony.
“So there,” I said.
“I’m applauding on the inside,” he said.
We stared at each other for a second. Had I just taken her out in cold blood? Or was this some strange new sport?
Is it still murder if they’re already dead?
“Who’s there?” Hammond called out.
“McKnight,” Tony said, his gaze still on my face. “I found Vibeke.”
“She all right?”
The captain emerged from the mist, a set of goggles propped up on his forehead. “Can’t see shit with these things,” he complained. “Vibeke, where have you been? We have wounded.”
“I don’t know. Someone forgot to bring me along when you all went running off into battle.”
If we’d been in any other situation, the captain might have blushed. As it was, he didn’t quite manage to meet my eyes. “Sorry,” he said. “We…I mean…combat medics usually come out with us. When they hear trouble.”
“No one told me I was supposed to follow you guys out,” I said. “And I’m not a combat medic.”
Come to think of it, no one really told me anything, but I’d address that grievance later.
Both of the men were staring at me.
“What, exactly, do you think it is you are?” Hammond asked.
I kept my tone level. “I am a music reporter who is currently trapped in post-apocalyptic conditions. Who’s hurt?”
“Chase is dead. Harker and Irvine both bitten. Minor, by the looks of it. They’re on their way back.”
Chase is dead.
He went so fast.
So very, very fast.
Everyone goes fast these days.
“So, a question for you, non-combat medic,” Tony began. He did not mention Chase. “What is it you think is going to happen? You’re just going to go right back to writing for Rock Weekly when the zombies stop getting up?”
“Revenants,” Hammond said. “They’re revenants, please.”
So there would be no discussion of the dead man. Fine. I could play with that. “Yeah, can we talk about that?” I asked. “Revenants? What’s wrong with zombies?”
“It’s the general’s directive.”
“But revenants? They’re zombies.”
“They’re also revenants, and the general doesn’t want us calling them zombies.”
I thought of what Chase had said. “Too pedestrian?”
His gaze sharpened.
“Who told you that?”
“No one,” I said, not really feeling like throwing a dead man under the bus. “But revenants? We can’t even call them the undead?”
“It’s not up for debate,” Hammond said. “How would we debate that, anyway? ‘All in favor of Z, say Aye?’ The general issued an order. We obey it.”
“To Z or not to Z,” Tony said. “That is the question.”
The captain’s expression darkened. “Again. Not up for debate.”
I shifted my gaze to Tony. “Whether tis nobler of survivors to suffer the bites and affections of the scabrous undead…”
“…Or to take arms against a horde of revenants,” Tony said, swinging an arm around my shoulders. I knew this was his way of saying I’m sorry I left you to get eaten by the undead.
“And, by opposing, kill them,” I said. “To death.”
Hammond looked between us, his face caught somewhere between resignation and horror. “This is what I get when I agree to work with the militia,” he said. “Bad poetry.”
“Hey,” Tony said. “That’s the bard you’re talking about.”
“And I’m sure your post-apocalyptic revision of Hamlet is going to be riveting, but we’ve got shit to do.”
A low moan carried out of the mist. Tony sighed, pointing his gun in its direction. I lifted my spear.
“Elderwood!” Hammond called out behind us. “More are coming. We make a full retreat to camp. I’m not risking any more of us in this fog.”
He started walking toward the sound of the moan, pistol in his hand, and then paused, turning back to look at us. The fog had swathed some of his face, but a sly grin had carved its way across his features.
“Get moving, kids,” he said. “Hell is fucking empty, and all the devils are here.”