Free Fiction! “The Alighieri Incident” by Yours Truly

Look, free story! Here’s one I like, but it’s a little niche–cyberpunk, trains, and ghosts all mash together into one supernatural shit show. Hope you like it!

***

The Alighieri Incident

The electromagnetic field reader in my arm chirped, so I shut my eyes. Not here, not again, I thought, but I’d had the damned thing installed for a reason. Every time my train, The Alighieri, approached the Warren Street crossing, there she’d be. Driving a named train usually held a lot more prestige than one with a couple of random numbers, but not this one. Most considered the route haunted. Others, cursed by the Devil himself.

Either way, I should’ve listened.

Most times, my co-conductor and I could face the presence together, one watching her while the other watched for idiots who might try to drive around the gates and ‘beat the train’ through the intersection, as if the train wouldn’t always win. Today, Riley stepped out to check tickets, so for the first time, I faced the ghost alone.

Jewel called out with a virulent illness, and it wouldn’t be great to have her stumbling up and down the aisle, sneezing all over the passengers. Plus, she’d get us all sick, and I’d never forgive her. Short staffed as we were, Riley couldn’t spare me from having to conduct the train through it myself.

Warren Street was the same as every other railroad crossing, except for the spirit floating there. The same gates, the same impatient cars with their impatient drivers, the same tracks, the same run-down buildings near it because no one wanted to deal with the noise of living next to the tracks. The only change was the translucent girl who shimmered like a heat mirage, standing right there in our way until we passed through her without a sound or smear along the ground.

Others saw her too. Three conductors had asked for reassignments. Two quit when they were told to keep driving the same route. I needed the work to pay off medical debts, so there I sat, stuck on the haunted tracks.

“Alert: High electromagnetic field readings. Be cautious.” The speaker built into my prosthetic arm warned as we grew closer. The EMF reader and warning system were to help find electrical problems during maintenance, or so I told my bosses, which was somewhat true. Really, they served a helpful secondary purpose. That ghost gave off a lot of energy.

I looked everywhere I could, but once she appeared, she drew the gaze in like a maelstrom. Probably fifteen years old. School uniform. Long hair. All gray, except her faintly glowing yellow eyes. The tracks seemed to float beneath her, like I stared at them through water, but tore my eyes from her. I couldn’t keep looking.

“Alert! Dangerous electrical activity! Please exit the area.”

My eyes flicked down from the tracks to my arm. Joint wires and servos gleamed under the setting sun, the usually black ‘skin’ glowering, aflame. The EMF reader clicked against the uppermost limit of its gauge, straining as if to break itself apart, then started jerking back and forth erratically as the cabin lights flickered. Our train systems crackled with electricity, starting to malfunction. I tried accelerating, braking—nothing worked.

Cold enveloped me as two icy hands laid themselves on my shoulders. The chill ran through my body, straight into my heart. My veins froze as I broke out in a nervous sweat. Hands gripped tighter. A young woman’s ragged breathing grew closer until her ethereal mouth pressed right against my ear.

The cabin door opened, and the cold was gone. Lights blared bright overhead and Riley’s sure-footed steps resounded through the cabin as she took her place beside me, plopping down into her seat.

“Huh. Lights off, you’re breathing heavy… Hope I didn’t interrupt something,” she teased.

I didn’t respond. I couldn’t do anything more complex than gripping the dashboard frame tight with my one organic hand. The other didn’t want to cooperate—a consequence of the ghost’s electrical activity. It had temporarily shorted out.

She leaned over, a fiery eyebrow curling up toward her red hair. “What’s going on?” After another beat of silence, she stood up again, putting a hand on my shoulder. “Dude, talk to me. You all right? If you’re having a stroke, let me know. Do you smell toast?”

I shook my head. “The girl. The ghost. She… She was here. In the cabin.”

Riley didn’t so much as flinch. “Here? For real? Tell me what happened. Every detail.”

There didn’t seem to be a good way to tell this story without coming across as a coward or insane, but she’d seen the spirit, and despite her inclination toward teasing people, generally kept a serious head on her shoulders when people brought up real issues.

“We approached the intersection, like always. I watched her for a moment, then looked away. The reader alerted about dangerous activity, then the lights started going out, our controls locked up, and she had her hands on my shoulders. Breathing right in my ear.”

At five-eleven with a toned frame and sharp features, some wondered why Riley chose to be a conductor and not a model or actress, but her father had been one. Add in her brilliance, along with an engineering background, and it was a wonder she hadn’t built our train from scratch. My report troubled her, eyes on our controls. A look on her face combined eagerness with worry: A new puzzle to solve alongside Lives could be at risk.

“You’re absolutely sure about the controls?” Her eyes stared into the distance, her mind running faster than the train.

I nodded. “Tried braking, got no response. No acceleration either.”

Riley looked through the window in our door, observing the next passenger compartment. A sunset ride usually meant lower passenger numbers, but being a Friday in January, we were full of people just getting out of work. Normally, this meant money for the company, but if the controls locked up again, it’d mean casualties.

“I think it’s because we weren’t together,” I ventured. “Normally, one of us watches it, but today, I looked away.”

“What do you think it wanted?”

She didn’t need to ask. My EMF reader spiked again, and my prosthetic arm jerked forward, slamming against the controls. I threw myself back, but not before it could damage both the main panel and my arm, cracking both and sending the train hurtling forward with a sudden jerk. Grabbing my new left wrist with my original right, I held it tight to my chest as it attempted to pull away.

“Hey! The hell do you think you’re doing?” Riley jumped over to see what still worked. The computer system shouldn’t have been heavily damaged by such a brief assault, and trains mostly ran on computers these days, but the lights were flickering again.

“That wasn’t me!” My left arm became increasingly impatient.

She spun around, gaze sharp, darting between myself, the lights, and the door to the main cabin, where people began clamoring about the sudden increase of speed. These people were regulars. They knew the cold, dark ride home from work. We were a bullet at a shooting gallery, flying true, always the same speed and destination. The sudden acceleration wasn’t part of the plan, and they damn well knew it.

The lights went out entirely, leaving only the moonlight and streetlamps to guide us. We both looked up. Big mistake. My arm shot up, curling its fingers around my throat, the cracked casing of its fingers pinching into me as it squeezed. I choked, tried to make a sound, couldn’t, banged on the wall to get her attention. She looked between myself and the computer, swore, a lot, and I would’ve been swearing too if I could speak, or had air in my lungs, but all I could think about was the car accident that took my original arm, how much it had cost to have the doctors carve up the stump and make it presentable, the way I’d fumbled around, a no-left-handed person in a right-handed world, until I met Riley, and she designed me a replacement. I’d been so grateful, and now my vision swam as she ran over, attempting to pull it away.

Master engineer that she was, Riley designed this arm too well. Even with the broken bits from the sudden slam against the controls, it was too strong to simply be pulled away, and it was held to me by a series of straps, wires, and other components that couldn’t be removed that quickly. Even if we removed the straps, it still would’ve been holding onto my throat.

“I’m sorry about this.” Riley spoke through a foot of water, voice distant and echoing, but it didn’t make sense that I’d be underwater when my lungs were on fire, my heart kick-starting like a poorly driven motorcycle, the wheels below us no doubt sparking as our speed began reaching unacceptable levels. Banging came from the door as our other staff members yelled to us, but I couldn’t respond, and don’t know if Riley did.

If I died here, I’d surely go to Hell. It’s a conductor’s cardinal sin to lose control of the train. Sometimes there were legitimate reasons. Faulty wiring. Corrupted computer systems. I never once blamed the engineer behind the CSX-8888 incident, considering all the maintenance issues, the misaligned switch, and the disconnected components. Plus, it got made into a movie with Denzel Washington. That alone might’ve been worth the trouble.

This? There’d be no excuse for this.

God, I swear, the train was haunted!

A REAL conductor would’ve had training from the Vatican to perform an exorcism on his cabin, sparing the lives of his passengers from his gross negligence! Everyone knows you don’t break eye contact with a demon. Once they know you’re afraid, they—

The stupor of my fading consciousness vanished, air surging back into my lungs with a clang. Even as an impact struck my chest, threatening to knock each breath away, I gasped, grateful, trying to swim back to the surface of reality. Riley brought down the fire extinguisher on my arm, repeatedly, smashing it to pieces. I sucked down cold air through a burning trachea, falling to the ground as much from relief as from a lack of the strength to stand.

Satisfied that I’d survive, she turned back to the controls, hands flying over every button, lever, and computer available to us. I couldn’t see the panels, but judging by the passengers’ screams, we were in some serious trouble.

Stumbling to my feet, I took my usual place beside Riley. “What’s going on?”

“Throttle’s maxed out. Dynamic brake’s offline, independent and automatic air brakes are off line, Deadman’s switch is inoperable, radio’s off-line.” Her voice fell to a flat, cold monotone, all her energy directed to thinking.

I checked my phone. “No signal. Guess everything’s offline.”

She checked hers. “Damn it all.” Riley chucked her phone over her shoulder, not appearing to notice the clatter as it hit the ground. “Why does everything have to be run by computers now? What happened to good old fashioned manually controlled speed?”

“Never thought I’d hear a Millennial say we need less computers, but I agree.”

“Screw this. You ready to lose your job?” Her emerald eyes turned on me, glinting like gemstone daggers in the rapidly passing street lights.

“If the other option is everyone on board dying, then sure. Why?”

In our closet, she’d stashed her personal work kit. The railroad didn’t need us to carry our own tools and supplies, but she loved tinkering, always working on some side project or another. She brought it over, plopped it down, and handed me a crowbar, grabbing a second from the tool-laden duffle bag.

“Pry! Pry the damn panel off and we’ll cut the circuits. If the ghost can’t control it, the Deadman’s switch should reactivate, but we gotta work quick.”

“Right, because the heat will melt the brakes.” I rammed my tool under the lip of the control panel as best I could with just one arm.

“I didn’t even think of that! Crap, go faster!”

The PA system crackled to life, clearly operated by the spirit. It didn’t speak, just hummed. Not any kind of recognizable song, not a tune that made sense, just… hummed.

We managed to get the panel off quickly enough. Without real lighting, we had to more or less guess at what we were doing, fumbling around for specific fuses even as we approached what had to be one hundred and twenty miles per hour.

“Hey, just rip them out! Forget doing it right, just destroy it all!” Riley shoved her hand in and started yanking out fistfuls at a time, creating snaps and sparks as the train let out strange retaliatory noises. The girl on the PA shrieked and fell silent, so I joined in, taking that as the first sign of success, yanking as best I could at the components and hurling them to the floor.

The train buckled. The wheels stopped howling their max-speed scream, and a new groan took their place as the brakes kicked in. We were hurled forward by the sudden change of speed, but I kept my footing. Riley didn’t. She fell into the exposed wiring, seizing and jerking as the crackle of electrocution filled the room. Our systems weren’t designed to carry that much voltage. They weren’t designed for ghosts, either.

I screamed for her, but couldn’t pull her out. I’d have been electrocuted too. All I could do was stumble back, helpless, sliding to the floor, surrounded by the shards of the arm she’d built for me. The arm she’d destroyed to save me. Now, saving us all had gotten her killed.

I’m not sure if I cried; the sizzle and pop of her flesh, and the rapping of her flailing limbs against the sides of the compartment, overpowered any sound I could’ve made. The small storm that enveloped her threw lightning flashes along the walls, a thousand bolts striking one young tree.

People outside yelled for us, ramming against the door. They seemed to know what happened already. Couldn’t have been hard to figure out.

By the time the train ground to a stop, the other workers managed to pry the door open. Feet crunched over the broken pieces of my arm as someone hoisted me up. A few others raced to help Riley, now that the surge ended and her smoking body would no longer electrify them, too. I knew it was far too late for her, even as the hands under me carried me outside.

Air hit me harder than anything else. The earth kept spinning, the wind blowing, and feeling the cold gust of approaching night against my face hurt. It hurt down through my skin into my heart, hurt in ways don’t come back from. Life would go on without Riley. It’d go on without me, too. Seven billion people on earth, and maybe a few dozen would feel sad for her loss. Then they wouldn’t feel anything.

Someone escorted me to the back of an ambulance, but the responders were inside, looking at Riley. I looked up at the city around me. A familiar, sleepy, run-down city.

A sign caught my attention: Warren Crossing.

Feet crunched over gravel, and I whipped my head around, not caring who it was. “Hey. Where are we?”

A face I didn’t recognize looked me over. He wore a black coat, long, hanging to his knees, and peered over his glasses at me with a sense of disdain. A detective, maybe, or an official from the train company—too well composed to have been on the train, or near it.

“You are at Warren Crossing, in River’s End. How, exactly, does a conductor lose sight of where he is while driving his locomotive?”

I didn’t want to ever hear his voice again. It sounded… wrong. What he’d said was worse. It wasn’t possible. We were right back where we’d started, like the train hadn’t gone anywhere, or maybe went somewhere it had never been intended to go.

“Been a long night, I guess.” I shook my head, hoping he’d leave.

“I suppose. Fortunately for you, it looks like your friend is waiting to take you home.” He raised an arm, pointing down the tracks without turning his head, keeping his eyes trained on me.

I followed his finger and saw someone standing on the rails. Like always, she appeared somewhat darkened, grayed out, translucent, a sepia-tone see-through phantasma of who she used to be. But this was the wrong woman. Riley stood there, watching me, yellow eyes glowing in the darkness.

Even as the stranger walked off, heavy footfalls resounding over the scene, and even when the paramedics came out with Riley’s body, I kept my eyes on her. This time, I knew better than to look away.

***

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Free fiction to kick off my 2018 campaign @Patreon!

Hey folks!

To start my 2018 off “write,” I have two stories up on my Patreon account that are FREE to all readers!

If you like what you see there, please consider pledging. The first five pledges of 2018 get a free ebook, and one slot’s already taken, so hop along if you want that special offer!

1 dollar gets you the monthly story and an annual eBook of them all collected,

5 gets you an MP3 recording of me reading the work

10 earns you a “Sponsored by” listing on my website, a link to your page/site/profile, and being personally thanked in my videos

20 gets you signed print copies of the annual collection, AND any single-author book I put out while you’re pledged, not to mention an entire page of my website dedicated to you.

And 100? That’s a special tier. You get a special GOLDEN MYSTERY BOX! (Once a year)

So, here’s a teaser to today’s free story. Head on over to read the rest!

Sacrifices

The front door slams open, then shut, and I hear heavy, rapid footfalls going up the stairs. Damn, I think, looking at the stove, turning the flame down low so that I don’t turn chicken cutlets into charcoal. With a twist of the sink’s knobs, hot water blasts over the carving knife, cleansing it as I follow my sister upstairs. After today, it’s never going to be clean again.

Cyborg Sunday, Update 12.31.17: A review of 2017

Another year gone

But how can I measure change,

or quantify me?

–“Calendar Shift” A Haiku, by yours truly

 

2017 is pretty much over, and most people won’t read this. That’s okay–I’d actually prefer you didn’t, if you’re busy celebrating, meeting up with family, and all that fun stuff. If you skip my blog just to skip it, well, that’s okay too. Go live life as you see fit.

All things considered, it was a wild ride for me. I graduated Monmouth University with my Master’s, worked for the real NCIS (which, by the way, is not like the NCIS show, but was a lot like The Office), and had three novels accepted for publication in six months.

I am BEYOND excited. This January, I didn’t have resolutions, I just thought to myself, “This is going to be my year.” I thought maybe I’d get ONE novel published, but not three.

To recap:

My first was The Nightmare King, coming from Siren’s Call Publications. I got my start with this crew, and it’s an absolute pleasure to be publishing with my debut novel with them (ignoring the woeful self-pubbed novel I put out several years ago). This is a supernatural-psychological horror novel set in an overarching macroverse I like to work with, not unlike King’s repeated use of Castle Rock.

A month later, I followed up with At the Hands of Madness. This Lovecraftian-Kaiju Military horror-comedy romp (I can’t think of a shorter genre classification) is hopefully the first in a trilogy, assuming it sells well. We’ll see!

And, less than a week ago, I signed for my NaNoWriMo 2017 novel, These Walls Don’t Talk, They Scream to be published with HellBound Books, who I worked with for The Shopping Listan anthology where each story begins, literally, with the writer’s typical shopping list. My story, “The Cadenza,” featured a gay man who lost his arm due to a hate crime. Needless to say, by the end, he found a way to release his pent-up rage.

I also had work accepted to The Horror Zine, The Mad Scientist Journal, Worth a Thousand Words (An Ekphrastic anthology being independently edited/published by Delphine Quinn and company), Pleiades, The Digital Fiction Publishing Company, Rain Taxi, and a variety of anthologies.

Of things that came out this year, we have Sci-Phi Journal (237), Solstice Literary Magazine (Skin Music Review), Deadman’s Tome (Where the Missing Go), Transmundane Press (On Fire), Radiant Crown Publishing (Gaslandia), Mighty Quill Books (Dead of Winter), Siren’s Call Publications (Wicked Deeds, Monster Brawl), Fossil Lake (Fossil Lake IV: Sharkasaurus!), and Thunderdome Press (Dread State).  I got published alongside Ray Bradbury in that one, which is super cool. A number of shorter pieces also got picked up by The Horror Tree’s Trembling with Fear and SCP’s The Siren’s Call.

I even got to work on a screenplay! Co-writing Human Report 85616 alongside Kevin North Ruiz was really fun. It’s currently wrapping production, and I’ll update more when it’s viewable.

So, what’s coming in 2018, you ask?

  1. I aim to get to 100 short story publications (reprints count).
  2. I’d like to have a book of short stories accepted for publication (doesn’t have to come out next year, just slated for release) (I have two leads on this).
  3. Ditto to a book of poetry (I have a lead on one, Painting the White City Red, already…)
  4. I’d like to revise and send out Before My Eyes, a slightly older novel set in the The Nightmare King macroverse (I have a publisher in mind).
  5. Same goes for Amphibia Maxima, a novella about ancient, car-sized, man-eating frogs (not in the macroverse) (got a publisher in mind here, too).
  6. Have a solo-written screenplay accepted for production.
  7. Appear on a podcast.
  8. Get my Twitter verified
  9. Branch out into noir and, maybe, extreme horror. We’ll see.

I have some fitness/cyborg goals, too, of course. I want to get back into routine yoga to fix my overly-tight legs/shoulders, then run a 5K at some point before June (deadlines, as we all know, are important). I’ll be considering the Freestyle Libre, as it comes highly recommended by a bunch of my cyborg friends on Instagram, but no promises. Insurance has to cover it. If it works out, I’ll update.

Naturally, I need a job. Gotta keep the lights on.

I’ll be crossing these off as I accomplish them, updating the list throughout the year. I’d love to hear yours, too! Drop a comment on your goals below, if you have them. Either way, thanks for stopping by. Have a great NYD and 2018!

Cyborg Sunday, Update 12.17.17: Phoenix flames, net neutrality, writing, and other current events

Those who burn the world,

And keep boots upon our necks,

Will choke on their smoke.

–Comeuppance, a haiku, by yours truly

I may be one of the only people around who enjoys tinnitus.

Now, that doesn’t mean I LOVE it, just that I don’t find it as inconvenient as others seem to. In fairness, I don’t hear a high-pitched ringing, so much as a rapidly oscillating pulse. I’m not sure what the frequency is, but if I had more time, I’d perform some experiments to find out. That’s just the kind of guy I am.

Fortunately, it’s not the same tone as my insulin pump, and the sound only goes off intermittently anyway, so it’s not like this little plastic pancreas will run out of batteries and I won’t realize until my glucose hits 400. Even in sleep, I’m pretty good about hearing it. When health and survival depend on a single shrill tone, or the hum of an artificial ‘organ’ against your hip, you learn not to sleep too deeply.

Yet, for all my restlessness and insomnia, that steady wubwubwubwub in my ears lulls me to sleep. Good thing, too, because Net Neutrality has me–and, from what I understand, 83% of America–worried.

As a freelance writer, a lot of my future depends on my ability to get work out there. I’m not the only one, and I’m lucky, in the sense that my livelihood doesn’t depend on this yet. While I’m trying to build a Patreon page, sure, representation looks like my most assured path to making a career out of what I love to do. Until then, I keep the day job, which offers a slightly livable wage and, more importantly, insurance.

All I can offer those who might see their income impaired is pity and prayers. As someone who would’ve died at the age of two if not for scientific advancement, I know prayers only take you so far. I do believe in something, but I believe it helps those who help themselves. No one’s getting cured by accident or miracle. We develop, adapt, and overcome, or we succumb.

Maybe I’m cynical, but come hold my pancreas for a moment, then tell me your worldview.

Let’s see, writing and reading news: I read through Attack of the Kaiju: Age of Monsters this week. An admirable collection of giant monster fiction. It does contain four works by the two editors, but three of those four are fairly original, and pretty good. A few other names repeat. If you like kaiju and can’t wait for Pacific Rim Uprising, you ought to check this out.

I’ve also been hired to narrate four audiobooks. I’ll post more info when they’re closer to release, but long story short, they’re sci-fi works set in an android-ridden, drug-fueled, capitalist hellscape. I suppose my tech interests and gravelly voice made the writer think I’m a perfect choice, and hey, it’s been a lot of fun. Writing’s fun, too, but getting to contribute to another’s work, while getting me back into performing at the same time, has been great. I’m glad to have this opportunity.

Final notes: I sent out new flash fiction work to a contest, as well as to a Santa themed anthology. I don’t discuss details on non-accepted work, but “Maul Santa” will be appearing in Shades of Santa, a charity anthology put out by Things in the Well.

Soon, you’ll also be able to catch “Body and Soul” in the next issue of The Siren’s Call, a story about a man who dies in his sleep, and wanders his house as a ghost while his reanimated corpse wreaks havoc. If you just can’t wait, check out “Weighing Feathers” in the current issue. No spoilers, but let’s just say, I love reanimation–you’re just not always going to get zombies.

I’ll hopefully have more news soon. I’ve got poems out in a few markets, a few short stories being considered, a novella, two novels, and two short story collections being considered. I’d slow down, but I’ve lost interest in video games, so what else am I going to do with my time?

Besides, I’ve got a database to keep my head straight.

Obviously, life stands to change quite a bit soon, and that might impact all of our work, not just my own, but don’t any of you give up. There’s still plenty of time to sue to FCC, or have Net Neutrality pushed through via Congress, regulated by our federal legislature instead of a 5-person committee headed by a former Verizon lawyer.

Remember: if you can’t stop the world from burning, bring that fire into your heart, and scorch a path to a better tomorrow. Get out there, protest, and by all 5,000 of human kind’s gods, vote! Vote in every single election. Show the incumbent their positions are not secure. Show corporations that they do not get to dictate what is best for this nation.

The future is not decided by one person, by five, or by 535. It’s decided by all of us, every day. So get out there and make a choice.

 

Frost Bite: #ThrowbackThursday #amwriting #horror #shortstory #free #zombie @Sirens_Call

One from the archives: “Frost Bite,” originally published five years ago in an issue of The Siren’s Call, the eZine put out by Siren’s Call Publications. That’s a free ‘zine, by the way, so go check it out.

This was back when I wrote under the name Alex Chase, so if you want to read it in the original eZine, be sure to look for the right name. …You’ll also notice I’ve changed the title slightly since then.

But in the meantime, here’s my story. It’s zombie themed, so anticipate violence, gunfire, and lots of angry chewing.

***

Frost Bite

Ross Jackson stared out at the white-washed landscape; an icy gale screamed, hurling snow and ice at his team. He paid no notice. He was too preoccupied with the prestige that would come with their triumphant return home.

“Look, all I’m saying is that I’m glad to live in a world where we don’t need to carry guns around anymore. Walking around without a weapon… it’s liberating, you know?” said Joshua Newman from the backseat of their all-terrain Humvee. He seemed to be too large for their vehicle- at six foot four and nearly three-hundred pounds, he dominated any space he found himself in. That’s ignoring the fact that he almost always had a shotgun, assault rifle or other such heavy weapons at all times.

“What are you talking about? We’re all heavily armed. And not five minutes ago you said, ‘I love my shotgun almost as much as life itself’.” James Wake smirked, staring at Joshua. James, conversely, was a wiry man who barely scraped five foot ten. He had his legs crossed beneath him and a belt of assorted grenades strapped to his chest.

“I said we don’t need guns. I didn’t say they aren’t fun to have,” he grinned, resting his hand along the barrel of his custom VT-19 combat shotgun.

The Humvee sputtered to a halt outside of a small metal tube that led to the International Antarctic Geological Survey Center. The frigid gray walls towered over them. Lisa killed the engine as Ross threw open the door, blasting the interior with snow. They clambered out and trudged carefully through the snow to the shelter of the enclosed entryway.

James looked over at Karen; her eyes showed fierce determination, but they also glistened with repressed anguish. They were a few feet behind the other five members of the squad.

“Are you ok?” He asked softly.

“Yeah, why? You wanna lecture me too?” She snapped. He drew back. “Save it, James. I don’t wanna hear it. Don’t give me that, ‘You’ll be ok, everyone lost family to ‘em’ crap, got it?”

Karen Jensen was the small arms technician; they hadn’t found a single gun that she couldn’t take apart and reassemble in less than a minute. She lost her temper just as quickly.

James glared at her, “Actually, no. I was going to say that it is ok if you’re not ok. I was going to say that I’m here for you if you need to talk- though some of us didn’t have family to lose. But you know what? Fuck you, Karen.”

He stomped off towards Ross, who was working to cut down the door to the facility. She wanted to go after him and apologize but knew it wouldn’t help. James had been an orphan up until the Newman family had taken him in while he was in fifth grade. He had no real family, and the only remaining member of his adopted family was right there by his side.

She covered her eyes. Guilt was the last thing she needed. “Pricilla… you were always so much better at this touchy-feely crap… I really should’ve listened when you gave me advice,” she whispered. Pricilla Jensen had been bitten during a reconnaissance mission in the Swiss Alps and put down immediately thereafter.

“Almost got it- the power’s been cut off, but there should be backup power to the research and residential wings. James, you and Joshua are going to escort Shadow to the data facilities to see what can be recovered. I’m going with Karen to the residential suite while Marcus and Denver are going to get the main power on.”

“Got it,” James growled, shoving his hands into his pockets.

“Hey, James,” Denver’s high-pitched voice barely carried over the wind. “Is it true that you had the highest kill count out of any soldier?”

“He has the highest,” Joshua clapped a hand over his back. “This little weasel came close to killing me more than a few times, but he’s sent thousands of those god damned zombies straight back to Hell.”

“And that’s precisely why close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades,” James patted the canisters on his chest.

“So you’re the one who blew up the Golden Gate Bridge?” Marcus looked over.

James matched his stare. “Yup, that was me.”

“Nice.” His face couldn’t be seen through his mask, but it was clear that he was grinning. James smiled back.

“How many did you kill in doing that?” Denver prodded.

“I don’t know, honestly. At least ten, twenty thousand. Maybe more. We hovered over the center of the bridge in a helicopter. They were climbing all over each other trying to get to us, so it was hard to get a read on the body count.”

Ross kicked down the remnants of the front door and motioned for the team to follow. They fell silent and drew their guns. They crept inside; the building was dark and cold. The screech of the wind through the open door echoed throughout the hallway.

“Ok, we’re splitting up here. Keep your radios on and if there’s any sign of trouble-”

“Come on, dude, we’ve been fighting this war for almost a decade. We know how to handle this. Besides, zombies are slow and stupid. All you have to do is point and click- as long as they’re an arm’s length away, we’ll be fine. Let’s just get this over with,” Karen growled. She noticed James looking at her; she looked away, unable to make eye contact.

Ross glared at her. “Be careful- we’re still not sure as to how many bogeys we might find here.”

“Hold up,” James called. He gave a package of remote explosives to Marcus and another to Ross. “Leave one in your respective bays… just in case.” They nodded.

Marcus started off towards the maintenance bay. “Do you have any idea how to work a generator?” He whispered to Denver.

“Don’t worry, I think I’ve got us covered,” she laughed. Her voice still bore the light-hearted melody of one who hadn’t seen bloodshed. Though she’d been at the forefront of the war, her role was always within the bases she was stationed at. She never ventured beyond their walls. Her few friends were all kept safely within those confines as well.

Marcus had been a field “medic”- which meant it was his solemn duty to execute any and every bitten soldier he came across.

Ross and Karen tromped down to the residential suites. She spared a glance back towards James. He looked away, his countenance twisted by contempt.

“Let’s go,” James muttered. He led Joshua and Shadow towards the research labs.

“So, why do they call you Shadow?” Joshua looked over at the girl beside him.

“Why do you ask?” She said hesitantly; her low voice was barely audible.

He chuckled. “Look, I don’t care about what you’ve done; in times like these, only what you do matters. First we clear the world of the undead, then we rebuild it; it doesn’t matter what you did before. I’m just curious.”

She shrugged. “I’m quiet and can get in and out of anywhere without detection. If something needs breaking into, I can guarantee I’ll get you in, whether it’s a building or a computer.”

Joshua smirked, “Humble.”

“Fact,” she countered.

“Interesting,” James grinned. “So what brought you to the war zone?”

She rolled her eyes, “I got sloppy. Someone caught me rerouting troops from within the D.O.D. mainframe. They said I could be a soldier or be bait. My choice should seem obvious.”

“Why were you…?” Joshua squinted at her.

“Probably to ensure the zombies got distracted and went somewhere else, right?” James looked back. She nodded.

The group turned and walked into the main lab, where the computers were located. James and Joshua secured the room as Shadow took a seat in front of the glowing screens.

“We’re lucky the backup power kept these working,” James jutted his thumb towards her. She’d taken off her scarf and mask, exposing her angular chin, thin lips and pale neck.

Her fingers danced across the keys, the rat-tat-tat of her typing mimicking the constant gunfire that marred the better part of their lives. Sure enough, she’d broken through the facility firewalls within a few minutes. She thrust a flash drive into the USB port and began siphoning the data that had been collected, but froze.

“Hold on… there’s a file marked ‘URGENT’ on the desktop. Doesn’t look relevant, but you want me to examine?” she turned to the men.

James nodded. She opened it up to a series of video logs. She selected the earliest entry and hit play. It was dated from nearly seven years ago, towards the beginning of the zombie outbreak.

The screen buzzed, displaying the image of a well-groomed man with dark brown hair and a white coat. “Dr. Spaulding here; we recovered a few bodies from the ice. They appear to have once been zombified, but perished in the cold. The molecules in their brain burst as the water within froze. To be safe, we destroyed the heads.” The video ended.

The second showed the same man, looking notably more disheveled. It was taken roughly three days later. “I’ve just been informed that our evacuation has been delayed by an ice storm. Not sure if we have the supplies to make it until the end,” his eyes darted about. He was scratching his neck profusely. “In case we don’t… I understand. Whoever’s out there, calling the shots… I forgive you… there are more important things to deal with than rescuing us. Just tell my family that I love them.”

James stared at the ground. Joshua watched him. Shadow clicked the third video, taken later in the same day.

Dr. Spaulding was wild-eyed and shaking. “We were wrong to bring them here, so wrong, so very wrong! It wasn’t just the water that froze- the virus froze too! It went into a dormant state, or something, became spore-like, and finally… it… it… evolved. The freezing made the virus more powerful, somehow.

“We breathed it in when we smashed the skulls. We’re all infected now. One already turned… We shut down the power, he’s locked in. The regular virus can live for a few weeks outside of a host, not sure about this version. It takes you over, you don’t have to get bit to turn, you just itch, itch, itch… then stop being human. The new strain… keeps the flesh from decomposing. These zombies are faster… Stronger… Deadlier… Please… if you’re watching this… run.”

The trio looked at each other. James’s hand flew to his radio and slammed down on the talk button. “Marcus, whatever you do, don’t-”

The lights flicked on and the ventilation system gave a dull hum. Stale air washed over them.

“What?” Marcus radioed.

“Shit,” James hissed.

“I don’t understand,” he radioed back.

“Let’s get out of here,” Shadow leapt up and started for the door when a figure blocked her path. It looked human enough- except for the blank, white, telltale eyes.

Joshua whipped out his shotgun, but the figure had already lunged forward, tearing out Shadow’s windpipe in an instant. It threw her to the ground, snarling as it ran at Joshua.

He fired, blowing off its right arm. It stumbled and fell, but lashed out with its remaining arm and caught his ankle. James fired, putting a round through the front of its skull, but the bullet missed its hindbrain. It sank its teeth into Joshua’s ankle before he could pull away. He screamed, aimed down and smashed it’s skull with the butt of his gun.

Joshua dropped to his knees, slamming his fist into the ground. James knelt beside him. Joshua was sure it was just the trickery of a frightened mind, but he could already feel the burning, festering sensation of the virus taking over.

The words “Man Down!” came through over the radio- someone else had been bitten too. James put out the same call.

“I knew I should’ve gone with semi-auto,” Joshua tried to smile.

Marcus rushed in. “You too?” He looked down; Marcus had fresh blood on his jacket.

James nodded, biting his lip.

“Hey,” Joshua thumped James on the shoulder. “We had a good run, right? Besides, I kinda always knew I’d die during this war… Killing zombies was the only thing I was ever good at. There’s no place for me out there. Get out there and live.”

James gaped, “But the video…”

“I know, but I don’t believe that. I won’t believe that. Just go… alright?” He looked at Marcus, then handed over his VT-19. “Do it with this, will ya’?”

Marcus nodded. James threw his arms around Joshua and squeezed him tight. “Wait for me up there… got it?”

Joshua nodded, “I’ll have fresh coffee ready.”

James choked back a cry and retreated to the doorway. “I’ll miss you, bro.”

“I’ll miss you too.” Joshua shut his eyes; so did James.

The roar of Joshua’s shotgun echoed down the hall. James clung to the wall as he was wracked by sobs, hot tears spilling down his cheeks. Marcus laid the gun beside its fallen maker, grabbed James and ran to the entryway.

Ross and Karen met them there. They didn’t need to ask what had happened.

“We’re leaving,” Ross growled. He started for the door.

“No,” James’s cracking voice stopped him. “You’re leaving.” He held up the remote detonator.

“James, come on… don’t do this,” Karen whispered.

“I have to. I’m ending this war in the only way I know how… I’m not letting some other team come back here and risk more deaths.”

“You can come with us, blow it up as we go!” She yelled a bit too desperately.

“No… I can’t… the signal wouldn’t reach in these conditions,” he waved his hand at the snow-strewn gale, “and either way… I won’t.”

“Come on… he’s made his choice,” Ross said, gently taking her by the elbow and leading her back to the vehicle.

Marcus turned to James. “I’m sorry.” His eyes shimmered.

“You didn’t kill him,” James gave a weak smile.

Marcus nodded and walked off. The three remaining members climbed in and began driving away. Karen pressed her face to the window, taking one last look at him before the snow blocked her vision.

Nothing could prevent her from seeing the wave of fire tearing across the ice. A tear slid down the side of her nose.

It only took them a few minutes to reach the military transport plane. They drove inside, shed their snow-gear and tried to relax as the plane took off.

“That… sucked,” said Marcus.

Karen sniffed and nodded, falling silent for a few minutes.

Marcus scratched at his neck. “Is it just me, or is it itchy in here?”

“I’m itchy too,” Karen nodded.

“Probably just from the cold,” Ross said. “Slight frostbite, you know? It’s probably nothing. Besides, a little itchiness never killed anyone, right?”