“Cheryl. I’m just checking in to let you know I’m on my way back. They’re thick out here today.”
All I hear is dead space in my headset. My throat tightens and the adrenaline surge threatens to choke me. It's flight or fight time. The problem is that we're fighting an enemy that can kill us with a look. And running? It's hard to outrun everyone you've ever known, almost each and every person you've met or will ever meet.
“Cheryl? Come in!”
The thought of my cousin hurt, or worse, makes the bile in my stomach rise and I swallow it back down with a gag.
A faint crackle in my ears has my heart flipping in my chest.
“Mi… safe…. South… go…"
“What? You're breaking up. Repeat!”
I duck involuntarily as something to the north explodes. Was that us, or them? I glance around what’s left of the mall I’m standing in. The roof has collapsed and rubble lays scattered throughout, some of it wet from rain and damaged water pipes, a lot of them red with blood. A quiet sob makes its way to me. The butterflies in my stomach start to crash into each other.
Is it a trap?
A small girl, her red dress muddied and torn, limps past my hiding place. I wince at the blood scabbed to the side of her face. I’m just about to step out and ask if she's okay when she snaps her fingers.
I stop breathing. Fire Thrower. Why the hell couldn’t I have got a cool power like that? But, no. I got speed which would be all fine and dandy if Fire Throwers, Lightning Makers, and pretty much every other power out there couldn’t be thrown at me almost as fast as I could run.
A small group of military looking guys sneak in through a hole in the Knickknacks store’s outer wall.
The Fire Thrower turns and unleashes fireball after fireball. One, maybe two of them, are Shields. One soldier screams as a fireball punches into him, the heat of the flames burning through him.
“Mi…. Help…” Cheryl's voice is still cutting out. Help who? Her? The soldiers? Cheryl's power has a distance limit. Sending her thoughts through radio waves is pretty neat, but if she’s too far away or too tired, she's out of luck. I’m not sure what’s causing the disruption at this very moment, but I’m hoping it’s just distance.
I take a deep breath and roll my shoulders. Cheryl or no Cheryl, it’s easy to see the soldiers aren’t government zombies and the kid is. She walks past me again, getting closer to the guys. Her attention diverted, I use what I’ve been given and run. It happens fast. So fast. I still feel every millisecond of it. The thickness of her bloody hair, the coolness of her forehead, the dry crust of the scab on her temple. The warmth of the knife in my hand, the slight hesitation of the blade as I pushed it through her neck… the heat of her blood spilling over my fingers. The smell of iron overtakes everything.
My stomach heaves and the little bit of oatmeal I had for breakfast comes rushing back up. Someone hands me a bottle of water. I spit out as many chunks as I can before pouring water over my head and into my mouth.
“Fucking zombies.” I’m trying to convince myself I’m still a good person, that it was us or her, but I’m having trouble talking myself into it. I just killed a kid. I resist the urge to look back and instead look at the soldier who handed me the water.
“You okay?” The only thing I can tell about him is that he's a man. These guys are covered from head to toe in gear designed to try and keep them alive. Obviously, it doesn't always work.
“Yeah. I’m good. Did Cheryl send you?”
He nods. “We were doing a sweep and she asked us to check on you.”
“Thanks.” It’s definitely a bonus that my cousin was the voice of the Asskickers. I can’t help the laughter as I think of the resistance’s name. It had been an inside joke between Cheryl and I. Somehow it had spread and stuck.
The soldiers all look at me, but I can't tell if it’s in amusement or worry. I manage to pull myself together.
“Where is she?” I inquire after clearing my throat.
“They’ve set up camp just south of the city.”
Water bottle guy extends his hand out to me and I let him help me up.
“Thanks for that.” His gratitude might have been followed by a smile, but it’s hard to tell behind the mask and goggles. “I’m not sure how much more my shield would have taken.”
“Mi…” Cheryl interrupted us.
“I’m okay, Cheryl.”
“Package acquired, ma’am. On our way back.” The other shield in the group gestures with his head and we follow behind him.
I chuckle and Water Bottle gives a quick glance in my direction.
“She hates being called ma’am.”
He nods to show he's heard.
It’s been a long five days of scouting and I don’t argue when Shield One announces we'll be stopping for the break. I move ahead and come back before Mouse (the quiet one who has yet to talk) notices. He jumps as I reappear beside him.
“There's a gas station one block ahead,” I whisper to them.
Water Bottle nods when Shield One looks at him. Mouse does the same. Hard gloved fingers dig into my arm as I start to walk past One.
“No more lone runner shit,“ he growls.
I yank free of his hold. “Lone runner shit is my job.”
“And my job is to get you back to Commander Cheryl. “
I scoff, ready to get into it with Captain Better than Thou, but Water Bottle steps between us. Inhaling deeply, I count to ten. Without a word, I dart back to gas station.
When the guys show up, I’m laying on my blankets and eating a disgusting protein bar. I don’t have to see One's face to know he's pissed. His head turns towards me and this time, Water Bottle has to physically push him back.
I toss One a protein bar and it hits his shoulder before falling to the ground, ignored. He shoves Water Bottle away before stalking off to the back of the store.
“Is he always wound so tight?” I inquire when the second shield sits beside me.
“We lost four guys this time out.”
He doesn’t need to say anything else. Watching someone you’ve gotten to know get killed was something you didn’t get over. It was why I did my scouting alone. I’d already lost too many friends.
“So, what did you do before all this, Water Bottle?”
“Yeah. You're Water Bottle, that's Shield One, and that guy is Mouse.”
“He’s quiet. You know… quiet as a mouse?”
Water Bottle chuckles, pulling off his head gear so he can eat the bar I hand him.
“My name's Rhett and I used to be a roofer.” He wipes the sweat from his brow.
I dig deep into my pack to find a few of the bite sized chocolate bars I keep for special occasions. I hand one to him. “Nice to meet you, Rhett. I’m Mi.”
Turning to the back of the store, I toss a chocolate over the counter. “Incoming, Shield One!”
There's a short pause then the sound of a wrapper crinkling. “Ross.”
Glad he's taken my peace offering, I turn to Mouse.
“What the…” Before anyone can react, I have my hands around the third man's neck. Using my momentum, I manage to get him up against the wall. Somewhere in the back of my mind I tell myself I’m about to die. I have no idea what his power is.
“Mi!” Rhett manages to pull me off, but I slip out of his hold and smash Mouse's head into the wall once again.
“You! You did this!” I can barely choke the words out past the sobs the anger and shock are causing.
It takes both Rhett and Ross to get me off. Ross shoves me toward Rhett who gets me in a bear hug I can't get out of. I try to use my knee to kick Rhett in the groin, but I don't have enough room to do any damage.
“It's alright. Let her go.”
Even the sound of his voice is enough to reactivate the fury that had been waning.
“I'm going to let you go, but don’t do anything stupid.” Rhett slowly releases his hold and I wait until I have enough room to turn before charging again. I hit an invisible force and hear him sigh behind me before he reaches down to help me up. “I'm not letting it down until you get a hold of yourself.”
The urge to kill is still prevalent, but one collision with an invisible force is enough to let me know I don’t want to do it again.
I turn to Mouse and jerk away when Rhett puts a hand on my shoulder. All I can see is the traitor before me. The man who thought he could play god. The piece of shit who poisoned the drinking water with the virus that triggered everyone's powers. He was the reason my family was dead. He was the reason some of us were walking around like zombies with only the urge to kill on their minds. We’d been the testing subjects for what was supposed to be the new and improved soldier. What the government hadn’t counted on was the fact that the people who turned zombielike couldn’t be controlled and those of us who still had our wits about us weren’t going to be used in their sick game.
“You’re supposed to be at the bottom of a lake!”
“It was decided that letting me live was a far worse punishment.”
In a moment of pure childishness, my brain changed his name from Mouse to Shitface.
“I’m doing what I can to right what I did wrong.”
“By helping those that need it.”
I look at Ross before glancing back to Rhett. Both of them nod.
“I’m hoping that soon, this will all feel like a bad dream.”
I scoff and turn to Rhett. “Let me out. I am not staying here.”
“You can’t just head out there on your own. It’s going to be dark within the hour.”
I walk past him, my arms out in front of me. My fingers touch the shield. “I need some air.” It’s just a whisper, but he takes my arm and escorts me outside.
I look up and try to find what he’s pointing to in the sky. “Wait. Is that a plane?” The city has been a no-fly zone for months. I press the talk button on my coms. “Cheryl. Come in.”
“Hey! Are you guys almost back?”
“Not Quite. Do me a favor and look up and to the west.”
There’s a short pause as she does what I ask. “Is that a plane?” More silence as she talks to those physically around her.
Rhett and I are joined by Ross as everyone’s coms receive some muffled voices under a wave of static.
Cheryl’s cutting in on the plane’s transmission and letting everyone hear what she’s hearing. It’s one of the things the Asskickers love about her. There are no secrets.
“… Doctor Banks wasn’t lying, Senator. It’s a warzone down there.”
“Understood. Come back to base. Operation Earthworm starts at oh six hundred. We need…” Whatever else was going to be said is lost as Cheryl cuts off the signal.
I sprint back into the gas station, thankful Rhett had dropped his shield. “I don’t think so!” I throw myself at Banks and he drops to the ground. “You lying piece of shit! You’ve been here spying on us!”
“Mi, I know you’re losing it right now, but we need him alive.” Somehow, my cousin’s voice penetrates through the red haze I’m in.
A hand touches my shoulder and I turn, still swinging. Instead of hitting flesh or even a solid shield, my arm seems to get sucked into extra thick jelly.
“It’s just me.” Rhett’s eyes meet mine and he lets his shield down completely to release my limb.
All of us fall to our knees as Cheryl’s voice explodes in our heads. “EVERYONE BACK TO BASE!” Her apology is softer, but we all understand. That message was meant to carry to every one of us still out in the city.
“Where are they picking you up?” Ross yanks Banks’ head back by the hair. The doctor’s face is a bloody mess and I don’t feel any regret.
“I have to go. Please. Please let me go.”
Rhett winds up and kicks him in the gut. I’m about to do the same when a distant explosion makes me pause.
Banks starts to sob. “It’s… it’s too late…”
Ross lets go of him and we watch as the grown man curls into a ball and gives up.
“It doesn’t sound like we have until morning.”
“Can you make it back?”
I shake my head then remember she can’t see me. “No.”
Three more explosions go off, each one closer than the last. I climb up onto the roof of the store. Rhett and Ross settle beside me on the edge.
“Looks like they had a plan in case their shit show didn’t go well. Cheryl, they’re blowing it up from under ground. “
A few scattered people climb up to see how they’re going to die. Strangely, the only one who seems to be panicking is Doctor Banks. Or, maybe not strangely. Somewhere in the back of our minds, we all knew this day was a possibility.
In the news tomorrow, people will have their coffee and toast and talk to each other how horrible that something like this could happen. And I have no idea what they’ll blame it on… a terrorist attack? A sink hole? One hell of a gas leak explosion? Who knows. Well, maybe Banks knows.
“Yeah. I’m still here.”
“I’m glad we both made it until now.”
“Me too. Mi?”
I can hear her voice tighten and I have to clear my throat before I tell her I feel the same.
The underground charges are going off in precise lines and the city is dropping in an eerily beautiful wave.
One of the blasts shakes the gas station and I close my eyes. The next set will be ours. Ross and Rhett put their arms around me. The rumble starts far to our left and I take one last deep breath. I think of Bank beneath us soaked in blood and tears and I smile.