FICTION: Pillar of Fire 6

You ever been on a hike or out in the woods and and in the distance you can hear the sound of rushing water? It’s faint at first. It blends in with the wind rustling the leaves in the tree tops. The closer you get to water the louder it gets until you finally break through the tree line and what was once a faint susurration that caused you to tilt your head and cup an ear is now a tumbling, roaring torrent.

Like that. But with zombies.

Every instinct was telling me to run for my life. I eyed the buildings along the street in hopes of spotting one that looked like it could provide protection and multiple exits. No point in running yourself into a stairwell or a rooftop with nowhere to go but Zombie Town. On the other hand, my brain was telling me that being behind or between Gabriel and Lily may have been the safest venue at the moment.

“Holy crap, that’s a lot of them,” I said.

Lily was calm but pacing, both guns drawn. She had one finger up to her ear, talking briskly. I realized that she was communicating with someone through a nearly imperceptible ear piece. “Copy that.”

“How many do you think there are?”

The zombies were still coming out of the hole in the ground around the beached metro cars. There were so many that they were clotting around the wound, so to speak. People were running and screaming in panic. The people trapped in the metro cars banged on the windows. Some tried to pry open the doors while others gazed out of the windows in shock and fear.

Lily said, “Not sure. That depends on how many dark cars there were.”

I gave her the side eye. “Dark cars?”

“That’s what I said. They usually say ‘Out of Service’. It’s an efficient way to transport the undead around. I’d guess around three hundred, assuming there’s only one dark car. Not like they care about personal space. You can stack them like cordwood.”

Gabriel looked at me and shook his head in disgust.

I said, “Hey. Don’t look at me like that. Nothing to do with me.”

“Sure. Everybody wants their free labor and discount stores as long as they don’t have to see how the sausage is made.”

My jaw dropped in surprise. “Wait a minute. Wait. Are you telling me that the government or whoever commutes hordes of zombies back and forth across the city as an undead work force?”

“And between regions,” Lily added. “Kind of like how power companies exchange electricity.”

“This day just keeps getting crazier.”

A thumping, whup whup noise began to echo off of the downtown buildings. It was practically impossible to tell where it was coming from.

Lily pulled a small metal cylinder off of her belt. “Sir, we should fall back.” She lobbed the cylinder a good thirty yards into the thickest zombie pile up and with a pop it started spewing thick, amber smoke.

“Roger roger,” Gabriel said. “Come on, Speck.”

They jogged off to the side of the street and around the corner of a building. I hobbled along after them. The whup whup turned into a whiny roar as an angular matte black helicopter slid into view and hovered over the park square. The amber smoke rose and then fell in the down draft. If it weren’t for the circumstances it would have been pretty.

I finally reached Gabriel and Lily, a little winded. “Hey, guys.”

Gabriel’s staff was still glowing with blue-white flame. The wall it was next to started to char. “What is it, Speck?”

I poked my head out around the corner to survey the chaos. I had to shout over the din of the helicopter hovering thirty feet off of the ground. “What are they doing? Home come they aren’t chasing–”

Lily had her hand up to her ear again listening to something. “I’d cover my ears if I were you.”

Before she finished her sentence a long barrel extended smoothly from the helicopter’s undercarriage and it opened up with a barrage of thunderous gunfire. It was so loud and concussive that the alarms of cars around the corner started chirping and blaring. Tracer rounds streaked into the horde and body parts flew and scattered.

More of them clumsily lurched into the open, seemingly disoriented. The carnage of the bodies turned into obstacles. The zombies tripped and stumbled. The people trapped in the trains screamed and panicked as they looked down on the mayhem below.

The swarm began to coalesce but instead of the general chaos you expect of zombies with packs splitting off here and there to chase down a quick meal, they began to walk a large circle. The entire square became a vortex of the dead, hemmed in by buildings and gunfire.

It was too big. No one knew what to do.

A loud, creaking squeal emanated from the chaos. The trains propped up against each in the giant “A” tilted and then in slow motion began to fall. It sounded like a dozen car accidents at once. A few score zombies were crushed beneath the fallen cars. Viscous black fluid oozed greasily beneath still twitching and clawing dismembered bits.

And still the circling zombie vortex grew. When it met an obstacle they seemed to methodically flow around it. Aside from the gore, stench, and the distinct possibility of being eaten alive, that’s got to be the most disturbing thing about them. Maybe about humanity in general. Sure, we’re individuals with drives, thoughts, goals, and plans. We’ve got places to go and things to do, but if you put enough of us together in one place you can accurately predict movement and patterns the same way you would any other system that can be represented by particles. Water flow, traffic patterns, wars, economies. Mob behavior, swarms, flocks, schools of sea life, starling murmurations.

I stepped from around the corner to get a better view of this apocalyptic scene. “Um. What the hell is this?”

They weren’t attacking, chasing, or biting. I mean, I wasn’t planning on getting any closer but this was definitely not the same aggressive, single-minded predatory behavior that we all know and love having nightmares about.

“This isn’t right,” Gabriel said. “I’ve seen them stampede before. I’ve even seen them herded, but this — this is out of character.”

Lily had swung out the stock of one of her firearms and was sighting through an attached scope. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say it looks like they’re running from something.”

She pulled the trigger and off in the distance an ambulating corpse’s head exploded. Its body took ten more steps and then stumbled to the ground to be crushed by beneath the spiraling stampede of walking dead things.

“It almost looks like a –”

Gabriel glared at me. “Speck, I swear to God Almighty on High, if you say zombienado I’m going to cut you in half.”

I admit it. I was going to say that. “Hey, can I have a gun or something? I’m feeling a little vulnerable out here. This is just wrong. Like the laws of nature are different. I thought they were all mindlessness and disease vector spreading. This is like — like some end times s—. Some anything goes, anything can happen stuff.”

Lily continued taking potshots into the mayhem. “Guys, you’re missing the point. And no you can not have a gun.”

“What’s that?” Gabriel said. “Oh. Right.”

The helicopter hovered upward and then peeled off between buildings. The eeriest sound I ever heard, as the sound of the helicopter rotors faded away in the distance, was the near silence. All of those dead people walking. Their numbers had been decimated but there were still a good hundred. Not a single creepy-ass moan, though. Just the sound of discordant marching and raspy clattering.

At the far end of the square a column of SWAT and Zombie Suppression Units formed up in their riot and control gear. The mop up crew.

I said, “Looks like the cavalry’s here. You can put away your flaming staff of righteousness or whatever.”

“You know what your problem is, Speck?”

“Well, my name’s not Speck, for starters.”

He patted me on the shoulder, an almost avuncular gesture. “You don’t ask the right questions.”

“Such as? Oh. Right.”

Lily was right. We had been missing the point. What in the world could scare zombies into a state of panic?

“What are they running from?”

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