Save me from this wicked person I’ve become
As the world comes crashing
– Fit for Rivals, “Crash”
Katie’s warning was too late. Jon let out a wordless cry and fell back into the room, his mother on top of him, her hands clawing at his cheeks. Long, red stripes were gouged where her nails bit into flesh. The blood splattered across the floor.
Mrs Petersen never looked up. Her eyes were focused on her son, but they did not see him. They were wide, wild and inhuman. Infected. She was gone. The horror of the image before her froze Katie where she stood, unable to raise her weapon.
Unlike the other Infected, Mrs Petersen did not screech or howl. She was silent, dark spittle dripping from her lips. Her teeth were so white, like pearls on dark velvet.
“Veronica!” Mr Petersen said and rushed towards the struggle. Katie wanted to call out to him, but she couldn’t. It was madness, suicide, to help Jon now. Wasn’t it? What was the use anyway?
Act. The memory of her father’s voice was so strong that she could practically hear him. It is better to do something than nothing in a crisis. But she couldn’t move. The horror crashed in on her. An Infected was inside their home. Mrs Petersen was dead. Jon would be soon. Mr Petersen would follow.
Katie’s own mother was probably dead. Until that moment, she hadn’t even considered it, hadn’t even cared.
What kind of monster doesn’t care about her own mom?
The world was dying. Tom Hadey, the nice guy who’d asked about the divorce, was dead. She’d killed him. Samantha Evans, from her gym class, was lying dead in the woods where her father had shot her. That felt like an eternity ago. And there were all those people from the town that she’d shot.
That she’d killed.
What was one more murder? One more kill?
But it was like her mother was there, crouching over her instead of Jon. More memories. The screaming. The slaps. She’d wanted to kill her mother, but all she’d done was run away. Left her to die to the plague while she came here. If she’d had a gun then, what would she have done?
You are a murderer.
The voice in her memory was so real that Katie’s hands shook and the gun dropped with a clatter. She barely saw what was happening. Mr Petersen had his arms around his wife, pulling her off his son. They fell and began to struggle. Now she was howling, screeching. Jon coughed and scuttled away, clutching his face. Katie barely saw any of it.
Lindsay groaned and Katie turned her gaze on her. Her friend lay just feet away from the struggle, eyes closed, hands clenching and unclenching. If Mrs Petersen did not die, Lindsay would. In an instant, she knew that. The mental images fled and her resolve hardened. Katie picked up her weapon again. She would protect her. Her above all others, above her memories, above her pain, everything.
She raised the rifle to her shoulder and steadied her breathing. Mr Petersen had his wife held from behind, his arm hooked around her throat, pulling her mouth up and away. Her legs flailed, the over sized shoes gone. Her pantyhose was shredded, hanging like flayed flesh around her toes and heel.
If she fired into her body, it might exit and hit Mr Petersen. She took a step closer, then another and another until she was mere feet away. Katie caught his eye, shifting her gaze away just enough to look into his face.
“Do it!” he shouted.
Katie shoved the muzzle of the weapon against Mrs Petersen’s head and pulled the trigger. Blood and bone and brains exploded across Mr Petersen’s shoulder and onto the floor. His wife’s body went instantly limp, her eyes glassy and staring lifelessly up at the ceiling. Her tongue was nearly severed where she’d bitten into it.
For a few moments, no one moved. Then, Katie slowly turned her weapon on Mr Petersen and swallowed. He didn’t look at her, but instead had his head buried in his wife’s hair. She could tell he was sobbing, his arms holding his dead wife tightly.
Katie’s hands began to shake again and she quickly safetied her weapon before retreating to Lindsay’s side and shoving the rifle under the bed. She didn’t want to look at it, didn’t want to touch it. Instead, she shut her eyes and pressed her hands against them. Jon was coughing, then began to call out for his mother.
“Son… get… get back.”
“Mom? Mom, are you okay? Mom?”
Jon sounded like he was half-asleep. Katie couldn’t look at him, couldn’t look at either of them. Samantha once more came to mind, her blond hair in a perfect ponytail as she pulled the hair-tie free and handed it to Katie. Then the image turned and she saw Samantha as she was just nights ago, Infected and screaming, trying to bite her. Katie thought of Samantha’s lifeless body lying in the snow as her dad carried her to safety.
Tom Hadey appeared in her mind next, giving that slow, sad smile of his. His hair was always slightly disheveled, but she knew he’d always worked to make it that way. He touched her arm, asked if she wanted to talk. Then he was just another Infected, screaming for blood. A hole appeared in his forehead, a hole Katie put there. Dead.
She’d killed them both. Now she’d killed Mrs Petersen, Jon’s mother. Grief hit her like a breaking wave. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t shove the memories away. Mrs Petersen had been a parent chaperon during their trip to Lake Placid, New York to see the Olympic Stadium. She’d always smiled so much.
“My husband always loved hockey,” she’d said to another parent. “He was so jealous we got to see where we beat the Russians and he didn’t.”
Dead. They were all dead. Her dad might be dead too. Her mom was dead and Erin… Katie tried to stop those images but they wouldn’t hold back. They came like a flood, burying her, drowning her. Oh, God. Erin.
She began to cry and once it began, the sorrow and pain went on and on until there was nothing but numbness.
* * *
Chris Fox stared at the well-dressed man as he paced the conference room. Ex-Special Forces, Gideon Fitzpatrick was still tall and lean and powerful. He also talked the part of a leader. Chris knew people like Gideon. They were naturals at it. Men followed them because you felt right doing so. Even Chris had to resist relaxing in this man’s presence.
“I’m sure I know what you’re thinking,” Gideon said with a smile. He sat down on the edge of a table that sat at the front of the rows of chairs. He lounged lazily on it, folding his hands into his lap. “Old Gideon Fitzpatrick is a nutjob, a power hungry asshole who is going to become a warlord now that everything has gone to shit.”
Pretty much, Chris thought and turned enough to catch Bill’s eyes. His friend didn’t return the look, but kept a stony expression on Gideon instead. When Chris looked back at the man himself, he found Gideon smiling at him.
“I can assure you, I am not. Do you know why I created Black Dawn, Mister Fox?”
“To help freedom,” Chris said, his tone sarcastic.
Gideon smiled. “No. To make money doing the only goddamn thing I know how to do. The army didn’t teach me much in the way of computer programming or accounting, but it taught me about control and discipline. It taught me how to secure an area and how to bring peace to a war-torn society. I created Black Dawn to make use of that, but I did it to make money. I’d say I did pretty well.”
“What’s your point?” Bill said. “Congrats on your little army and all but what’s your fucking goal here?”
“Ah, Sergeant William Reynolds, was it? I know about you too. Fifteen years in the service. Ten of them in the Rangers and what did it get you? A divorce, an estrangement from your children and…” Gideon smiled and tapped the desk with his knuckles. “That’s right, a boot just before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was revoked. They spit on you, Mister Reynolds.”
Now, Bill looked shaken. Chris closed his eyes, letting out a low, slow breath. This man must have done some research while they were eating. Bill being kicked out of the Rangers for being gay was the one thing his friend couldn’t stand. Chris remembered the day it happened. He’d been showing Katie how to pull a bow when he’d gotten the call. Then Bill’s wife left him, took the kids and went west. Bill slept on his couch for a while after that, until he got a job with Kurama.
“Fuck you, Merc.”
“We’re all mercenaries,” Gideon said, his smile and good natured tone never wavering. He held up his hands, as if shrugging. “We all were mercenaries, Mister Reynolds. Now, we can be peacekeepers. We can be guardians. We can eradicate this plague from the face of the earth and rebuild.”
“How do you plan on doing that?” Chris said.
“Mister Fox, you are in possession of a certain list of names from your very fine company. I want it.”
“Don’t play dumb, we’re both smarter than this. I know about the list. I know about the project. Zero Event, all of it. I want the list. Those that are still alive, anyway.”
Chris shut his mouth tight, as if it would keep him from speaking a word about it. Why would he want that? The list was… they were…
“You can’t replicate the medicine here?” Chris said.
“Oh, we can. But that’s not a solution, it’s a band-aid. We need the original scientists who made this virus. I want them here, working for me, so we can end this.”
“I don’t have it,” Chris said, feeding his emotions into a little dark corner for later. He had to sound sincere, unsurprised, calm. “Maybe someone else did.”
“Naturally. We found Miss Collins earlier this week.”
“Leah?” Chris said, nearly standing up. “She’s alive?”
“Mmm…” Gideon sighed and folded his hands in his lap again. “Infected, I’m afraid. But she gave us a few names. I need the rest, Mister Fox. She said you knew it.”
Infected? But how had she been infected if the outbreak was…
“I told you, Mister Fox. Kurama lied to you. They started the Zero Event. I am going to make it right. I need your help.”
“And if I don’t tell you anything?”
“Naturally, I have a back up plan,” Gideon said and smiled.
“What, shoot me? Torture me?”
Gideon laughed outright at that. “What do you take me for? Some villain in a TV show? No. I sent an old family friend to your bunker to get it for me.” He dug into his pocket and took out a slip of paper, chewing on his cheek as he did so.
“Patrick Petersen, I believe. I should be hearing from him very soon now.”
Chris’s blood suddenly felt ice cold.