For a long moment I was frozen, so confused I didn't have the faintest clue what to do. But I've never been the sort of person to doubt the evidence of my own senses, even if what they were telling me was completely crazy. So, if I was sane, and this was real, and there was no feasible way it could be a practical joke…
I turned back to the crowded waiting room, and raised my voice.
"If you people think there are zombies running around tonight, why on Earth are you sitting in a room full of people who've been bitten? Are you trying to get yourselves killed? Go hide someplace that doesn't have windows on the ground floor, and lock the doors!"
I stepped away from my prisoner, and scooped the revolver off the receiving desk.
"Kim! You can't say that! The liability-" Liz protested.
"Won't matter in a few hours," I snapped. "Why didn't you tell me what was happening?"
She spread her hands helplessly. "It sounds so crazy. Would you have believed me?"
A scream from the recovery area cut off my response. I leaned around the partition to find one of the doctors struggling with a slim figure in scrubs. Was that Tammy. Oh, right, Liz said she'd been bitten. Damn.
Confused shouting sprung up behind me. I spun to find that several of the patients with bite wounds who'd been waiting for treatment were now attacking their neighbors, and the door was blocked by a crowd of blank-faced intruders.
I grabbed Liz' hand and pulled her away from the crowd, back past the treatment area. More shambling figures were emerging from the recovery rooms, and I caught sight of Ben backing away from them. He ducked through the door to the break room, and I followed with Liz in tow.
Inside another EMT was just zipping up a gym bag, which from the way it bulged was stuffed with something other than clothing. His nametag read 'Jim'.
"Ben, Jim, we're in," I said hurriedly. "The ER entrance is blocked, and the main lobby probably is too. How do we get out of here?"
Jim was a bit shorter than Ben, dark-haired and a bit on the burly side. He looked up in surprise, and saw the gun in my hand.
"You must be Kim," he observed. "Okay, if there's already a mob we've got to get moving. I'm thinking up the back stairs to the second floor, then across the skywalk to the parking garage. My truck's up on the top floor there. Ben, what about you?"
"I'm in the employee lot out back," Ben answered. "If the lot's clear you can drop me off there, and I'll follow you."
"Works," Jim said shortly. "Let's roll."
"But… but… this can't be happening!" Liz protested suddenly. "We can't just leave! What about the patients? What about our jobs?"
"Liz, we're going to die if we stay here!" Ben argued. "We can't stop them. All we can do is save ourselves."
The door flew open again, and a doctor in a bloody coat stumbled through it. He slammed the door, and something thumped against the other side. He put his back to it, and held it shut.
"What is going on out there!" He exclaimed. He was one of the new residents, a short-tempered Indian who was already getting a bad reputation with the day-shift nurses. What was his name? Puranjan? Duranja? Something like that.
"Zombie apocalypse," Jim said laconically. "Damn, that was the only door. We'll have to fight our way out now."
"Are you crazy?" The doctor demanded. "Those things will kill us all! No one is opening this door."
A bloody fist punched through the little window in the door, and grabbed him by the throat. He flailed about, choking, and the men just stood back warily. Useless.
I stepped up to grab the zombie's wrist with my free hand, and yanked at it with all the freakish strength I was usually so careful to hide. There was a snap-crackle-pop of bone and cartilage giving way, and I found myself holding a severed hand and forearm. Lovely. I tossed it away, noting with relief that it didn't seem to be animated.
Cease interference, that soundless whisper came again, sounding a bit irritated this time. Operation ordered by Emerald Sunset, ma'am. Stand down.
I braced myself against the door to hold it shut and pulled the gasping man away from the window. The room outside was still in chaos, but I could see at least three zombies from here.
"Can you guys hear that voice, or am I going nuts?" I asked my companions.
Liz bent over the doctor to check his throat. Ben frowned. "What voice?"
"You're just nuts," Jim said. "But that's fine, as long as you keep kicking ass like that. Let's go, before it gets worse."
I stepped aside, and waited.
The door was flung open an instant later, and a one-armed zombie stumbled through. It ignored me completely, shambling past me towards my companions, so I just put the revolver's muzzle against its temple and pulled the trigger.
The blast was louder than I'd expected. The other side of the zombie's head exploded in a spray of gore, and I watched it carefully to make sure getting its brains blown out actually stopped it. The thing tottered for a moment, and collapsed.
Good. If that didn't work, I wasn't sure what would.
Fortunately being a nurse meant I was long since inured to disgusting messes, so I ignored the brains and blood splattered all over the room and turned to the door. Outside, a bunch of zombies were shambling through a screaming confusion of doctors and patients, clawing and biting at anyone in reach. Several of them were beating at the door to one of the recovery rooms, and there were already more bodies on the floor than I wanted to think about.
Some of them were starting to rise.
I shoved a raving patient out of the way and stepped into the room. It wasn't as crowded as it looked at first glance, and I was able to skirt the general melee along one wall while I wondered absently how I was doing this. I've never been in a fight in my whole life, and I couldn't help but think I should have been huddled in a corner begging for someone to save me. Of course, if I did that I'd be dead soon. So instead I kept moving, forcing a path through the crowd, pushing the occasional victim out of the way with my superior strength while I kept track of the whole room with my peripheral vision.
The zombies continued to ignore me, but we'd only made it halfway around the room before I saw one fix its gaze on Liz and stumble towards her. The gun rose in my hand, and somehow I could see exactly where my bullet was going to go without even thinking about it. A big black man shoved a gurney into another zombie with a roar, a female doctor ducked behind him, and for a split second I had a clear line of fire.
I pulled the trigger, and the back of the zombie's head exploded.
Last warning, Velvet Silence, the whisper said angrily. Cease interference, or be presumed hostile.
"I'll show you hostile, monster," I muttered. "What are you? Why am I the only one who can hear you?"
You're malfunctioning, ma'am, it replied. Cease hostilities, and repair will be provided.
"Like I'd trust anything from you," I shot back.
I kicked another zombie in the back, sending it stumbling back into one of the recovery rooms, and finally we had a clear path to the exit. A short run down another hall brought us to a stairwell, and thankfully the door was closed. A moment later we were through it, leaving the chaos behind.
I kept the lead, bounding up the stairs two at a time with my pistol at the ready and my heart hammering in my chest. I was terrified, but at the same time the danger was exhilarating. Apparently adrenaline was a good antidote for fatigue, because for once the exhaustion that had dogged my steps all my life was absent.
Two flights up I stopped, and put my ear to the door leading out onto the second floor. It was barely six a.m., so the wing full of semi-private rooms on the other side should be pretty quiet.
I heard the sound of a TV, but nothing else.
I hid the gun in my pocket, and turned back to the little group behind me.
"Sounds like it hasn't reached here yet. Walk fast, don't attract attention, and maybe we can get across the floor and into the garage before it does. I'll keep point, ok Jim?"
He gave me a speculative look, but nodded. "Yeah. Don't stop for anything. Let's go."
I opened the door, and stepped back into normality. Rooms full of sleeping patients surrounded us, and a bored nurse on graveyard shift sat watching TV at the little nurse's station down the hall. I started toward her, my conscience uneasily reminding me that all these people were about to die. Wasn't there something I could do to save them?
None of the staff were going to believe me unless they'd seen it themselves, in which case they'd already be running.
What about the patients?
Well, I certainly couldn't fight off hundreds of zombies by myself. I only had four bullets left, and they'd dogpile me if I went hand-to-hand…
Why the heck did it feel like there was practically an ammo counter floating in the corner of my vision? How did I make that shot when the zombie went for Liz, and how had I known I could do it? I've never even held a gun before.
Did I really rip a zombie's arm off a few minute ago? I couldn't possibly be that strong, could I? You'd think I would have noticed.
I pushed the confusion aside. No time now. Survive first, have nervous breakdown later.
The nurse at the desk eyed us suspiciously as we went by. I suppose we must have looked pretty scruffy, but bloodstained scrubs aren't as rare as you might think in a hospital. Since we were leaving her area instead of entering she just watched us go by, and turned back to her TV.
The main building of Ben Derrick Memorial was star-shaped, with five wings and a central hub where all the elevators were located. We had to cross the whole length of the building to get to the elevated walkway that led to the parking garage, and I was worried that we'd have trouble at the elevator bank. But the lobby area was deserted as we filed through, aside from a janitor mopping up a puddle of blood in one corner.
A glance at the elevator lights told me half of them were down on the first floor, while the others were scattered over the eight floors above us. So far so good.
We passed another nurse's station, a larger one with several computers behind the counter for the inevitable paperwork shuffling that made up a depressingly large part of our duties. Two nurses and a female doctor were huddled nervously around a little TV in the back, looking pale and bewildered.
"It's really happening, ladies," I called to them as we passed. "They're all over the ground floor by now. Get out while you can."
They turned to us in confusion. "What? No, that's impossible," one of them said hesitantly.
I didn't stop walking, and neither did anyone else.
"No time to chat," Jim replied. "Good luck."
Twenty feet down the hall I head an elevator ding behind us. A moment later there was a shout from the janitor, and the crack of a mop handle hitting the floor.
"Run for it," Ben shouted, and sprinted past me. The rest of the group followed suit, and we charged down the hall towards the exit. More shouting sprang up behind us, and a couple of screams, but it seemed like we were well clear. Ben hit the door running, and sprinted across the elevated walkway that led to the parking garage with the rest of us trailing along behind him.
They caught him just inside the garage.
He was just passing an SUV in one of the handicapped spots when a burly zombie lurched out of the early-morning shadows and tackled him to the ground. A little boy with a missing hand scampered out after him, and sunk his teeth into Ben's leg. By the time I had a clear shot he'd already been bitten, and more zombies were emerging from behind the cars and support pillars ahead of us.
"Crap! Ben, are you… oh, hell," Jim said. Liz and the Indian doctor stumbled to a halt behind me.
My eyes flicked over the scene, picking out essential details with clinical detachment. He'd said the top floor. Two zombies on Ben, and three more between us and the stairs. The others were moving too slow to catch us if we were quick. We could do this, but there was no time for debate.
"Follow me!" I shouted, and put a bullet through the head of the big zombie that was busily tearing Ben's throat out. It dropped in a spray of blood, and I kicked the little one out of the way as I jumped over him and started across the garage.
Jim and Liz were right behind me, with the doctor trailing along behind.
I lined up my weapon on the zombies between us and the stairwell, and once again it was like I could see exactly where my bullets would go. It didn't matter that I was running, and so were they, and there were a million other things I had to keep track of at the same time. I pulled the trigger three times in two heartbeats, and all three sprouted holes in the middle of their foreheads. I ran over them as they collapsed, careful not to stumble as a dozen more undead closed in around us, tossing the now-empty revolver away as I passed them. I threw open the metal door of the stairwell and rushed through to safety.
Three more zombies were waiting in the stairwell.
They grabbed me as I blew through the door, and for a second there I thought I was dead. I ducked under a bite and kicked one in the face, sending it tumbling down the stairs along with one of my shoes. Nails clawed at my arms, and the other two slammed me into the concrete wall of the stairwell.
Surrender! The whisper demanded.
"No!" I cried.
Then die. All units, designate alpha unit Velvet Silence as hostile.
Then something very strange happened.
I'd known the zombies were trying to kill us, but aside from their obvious wounds they'd looked just like ordinary people. If I'd passed one on the street any other day my first instinct would have been to stop and try to help them.
But suddenly, something was telling me that these things were enemies. The two holding my arms, the one stumbling back up the stairwell, the four outside who'd almost caught up to our group, all hostile hostile hostile…
Jim slammed into one of the zombies holding me, knocking it into the other one and freeing my arm. I punched the other one in the face as hard as I could, and felt the crunch of breaking bone as my fist sunk in much further than it should have. The thing died, or de-animated, or whatever you call it, and a trickle of something dark and bittersweet rushed up through my arm to pool in my heart.
I ignored the strange sensation and kicked the zombie coming up the stairs again, sending it tumbling back down. Jim was beating his opponent with that overstuffed bag, but that wasn't going to stop it. I stepped to one side, and kicked it in the knee. The joint shattered, and the thing collapsed.
"Go!" I shouted, and he instantly sprinted up the stairs. I stepped up to put my foot on the zombie's throat, and turned to Liz.
She was backing into the stairwell, shaking in terror as three zombies tore into the doctor who'd been last in line. She slammed the door shut in their faces.
Damn it. Well, if he'd been bitten we probably couldn't save him.
"Come on!" I told her. "Up, follow Jim, I'll be right behind you!"
She ran past me. I looked at my left hand, covered in stinking blood and gore from the zombie I'd punched. Looked down at the one I had pinned.
What the hell.
My fist went right through the thin bone of its face, pulping its still-warm brain. Another rush of that odd sensation flowed up my arm, sweet shadows coiling about my heart. Some half-remembered instinct told me it was power. Power I could tap into, use to do… something. But the details eluded me.
The half-closed door to the stairwell slammed open again, to reveal a half-dozen zombies outside. I yelped, and bounded up the stairs in a panic. One or two I could handle, but not a crowd.
I caught up with Liz just as she scrambled into the passenger seat of a big black pickup truck. Jim was already in the driver's seat, starting it up. Liz saw me coming as she reached for the door, and her eyes fell to my gore-covered hand.
She slammed the door shut in my face.
"What?" I yelled. "Liz, let me in. They're right behind me!"
She shook her head, her face pale with shock. "They... your hand… you'll…"
I shook my head impatiently. "I'm fine! They didn't bite me. Liz, let me in."
"Sorry, babe," Jim said. "Can't take chances. Besides, you're nuts."
He threw the truck into reverse and roared out of the parking spot, forcing me to scramble away to avoid being run over. Then he slammed it into drive, and floored it. The truck flew away in a haze of burning rubber, careened around the ramp down to the next floor, and vanished.
"You asshole!" I screamed after him. "You stupid bitch! You'd both be dead if I hadn't got you out of there!"
There was no response, of course.
The early morning light showed plumes of smoke rising all across the city. Screams and gunshots rose in the distance around me. A city in chaos. A zombie apocalypse. And they'd left me here to die.
I stifled a sob.
Alright, so I was on my own. Now what? I needed to get away, before…
The stairwell door slammed open, and a crowd of zombies began to emerge.
I edged towards the ramp down, but there were more of them there. Ten, twenty, thirty… damn, too many. They were shambling aimlessly up the ramp, looking slow and clumsy compared to the ones I'd fought a few minutes ago. But that wouldn't stop them from swarming me.
I backed away, desperately trying to think of a way out. The roof was too high to jump, there were too many of them to just run around, and I certainly couldn't fly away. The shambling horde closed in slowly, their hands reaching blindly towards me. My back met the concrete barrier at the edge of the roof, and the horror of the day became too much. I just wanted it all to go away.
The power coiled in my heart spun and stretched, and the wall behind me vanished. I stumbled backwards, caught completely by surprise, and tripped over an unseen obstruction to fall flat on my back. My head hit something hard, and I saw stars.
I couldn't afford to pass out. I fought back a sudden wave of dizziness, and forced my eyes open.
Instead of open sky, there was an unfamiliar ceiling above me.
I sat back up, looking around in confusion as I rubbed my head with my clean hand. I was sitting on a hard floor, surrounded by a dimly lit ruin of twisted steel and broken stone. The shattered walls had once been polished marble, but now gaping holes exposed some huge machine behind them. The parts of the machine I could see were warped and broken as well, and in places the metal had melted and flowed out to cover patches of the floor before solidifying again.
What the hell?
Whatever had happened here, it was apparently long since over. But where was I, and how did I get here? There was certainly no sign of a zombie-filled parking garage anywhere. In front of me was a featureless expanse of steel that might have been a closed door, but there was no sign of any control mechanism. Had I fallen backwards through it? My position said yes, but that only raised more questions.
I stood, uncomfortably aware of the gore dripping from my hand, and picked my way through the debris. The room was fairly round, with a big opening on one side that led deeper into the damaged machinery. But to my left was something that stood out as different. An ordinary-looking wooden door, decorated with an odd symbol that seemed familiar for some reason. It was unmarked by the destruction, so maybe it led someplace that wasn't in ruins.
Nervously, I tried it.
It opened onto another room. This one was about the same size, but the dark wooden floor and walls showed no sign of damage. Warm sunlight filled the space with a cheery glow, and the same symbol that was on the door was inlaid in the floor in some glassy blue material. Other than that the room was empty.
I stepped inside, and was immediately struck by a sense that I was intruding on someone else's territory. There was no hostility, just a distinct sense of awkwardness.
I was getting really tired of mysterious feelings. I shook my head in exasperation, and looked around. To my right was a massive door that would have looked right at home as the entrance to a bomb shelter. Fat chance of getting through there. But to my left was…
I blinked, and looked again. It was sort of like a movie screen, showing a group of office workers frantically struggling to escape from a gaggle of zombies. But the scene didn't seem to be projected on anything. It was just… there, replacing a section of wall the size and shape of a door.
There were three men in the little group, armed with golf clubs that they were frantically swinging around in a doomed effort to fend off their attackers as they crossed a parking lot. But it was the woman with them who instantly captured my attention. She was tall and curvy, with long honey-blonde hair and pale blue eyes, dressed in casual jeans and a sweatshirt. On most days I would have killed to have her figure, but today it was her actions that held my attention.
As I watched she adroitly tripped a zombie with the golf club she carried, and spun to brain another one before it could jump one of the men from behind. Two more came at her from either side, but she ducked and tumbled out from between them. Her weapon flicked out to smash one in the kneecap as she flowed back to her feet, her hair whipping wildly around her. There were probably twenty zombies surrounding the group, but they were too slow to catch her. If not for the men she was trying to help she'd have gotten away easily.
I caught a glimpse of her face, and my heart clenched. There was something so familiar about her. She was so brave and bright and free, and I'd missed her terribly for so long without even knowing it. I had to help her.
She paused in her dance of destruction to toss a set of car keys to one of the men, and a zombie lunged at her from behind with its jaws gaping wide. Before I knew I'd moved I was leaping forward with my fist clenched…
I stepped right into the scene, and planted my fist in the thing's face with a solid crunch.
She spun at the sound, and gaped at me.
"What the hell? Where did you come from?"
I blinked. Her voice. That was the voice I'd heard this morning, the one in the prank call I'd dreamed about. Except that I wasn't so sure now that it had been a dream.
"Sara?" I asked wonderingly.
"That's me," she confirmed.
"Wow. Um, beats me," I answered honestly. A glance around showed one of the men opening the driver's door of a van covered with some radio station logo, while a second tried to keep the zombies off him. Where had the third one gone?
Oh. He was behind me, with a zombie chewing on his arm and two more pulling him to the ground. Damn it, there were just too many of them.
"Fight now," I said. "Explain later."
"Right!" She said tightly. "Grab Ralph's golf club, and we'll show these things who's at the top of the food chain."
She kicked a zombie out of the way, giving me just enough space to grab her fallen companion's weapon off the ground and tumble back to my feet. I tripped a zombie and ducked a blow from her golf club that nearly decapitated another one, and then we were standing back to back.
Fighting with Sara at my back was as natural as breathing. I threw out a high kick that caught a zombie in the chest and sent it stumbling back to collapse in a tangle with two others. My partner spun clockwise and I matched her motion like we'd rehearsed it for weeks, instantly grasping her intent. The men had the van door closed now, so we didn't need to protect them anymore.
I leaped to the roof of the van, and dropped to one knee to grab a luggage rail while I extended my golf club to her. She grabbed it, we both pulled, and she vaulted up to land beside me.
The engine started, and I nearly panicked. But she patted my hand reassuringly, and tumbled off the other side of the van. I scrambled after her, landing feet-first on a zombie that would have jumped her from behind if she'd tried that alone. I took a second to kill it with my now-familiar face punch maneuver, and ducked under Sara's spinning golf club as she beat back the crowd. There weren't as many zombies on this side of the van, but that would only be true for a few seconds.
I dove for the side of the van, heaved the sliding door open and tumbled inside. Sara took one last swing and backed in after me. The instant she was inside I slammed the door shut again.
"We're in! Let's go, boys!" She called, and the van lurched into motion.
Zombies went tumbling like ninepins as the driver gunned the engine, sending the van lurching out of its parking spot. Then we were moving, leaving the crowd of shambling horrors behind us.