Plague Master: Sanctuary Dome
Gunshots broke the peace. Trevor sighed contentedly from his spot beneath rows of stained camouflaged legs and tightly laced boots, their treads heavy with the smell of ashes. The soldiers seated on the troop carrier framed the darkening red sky, and hid charred buildings from Trevor’s sight. As a native boy working for the off-planet militia, he’d been allowed to squeeze in beneath the soldier’s benches. Uncomfortable, sure, but the rare moment of safety lulled the weary teenager into a doze until the troop carrier slowed.
A block of undamaged houses appeared out of the night. He rubbed his eyes, wondering if they meant to stop. The soldiers would clear streets and sidewalks. Trevor’s job would be to draw threats out of the buildings.
Their troop carrier parked in the middle of an intersection, motor thrumming in the stillness. Moaning shadows hunted in the distance.
XT Weis dropped the back of the truck and pulled spears and shields from a canister. He called Trevor to him.
Trevor scrambled beneath the bench to the tailgate and slipped out. He accepted a spear as he hopped to the pavement. His gaze swept the square, settling on a two-story colonial with white columns and a screen of ivy climbing its brick façade. His pulse accelerated as he recognized it. They weren’t far from his neighborhood.
The XT clapped his hands at his soldiers and spoke in their native tongue, from a planet somewhere above them in the red sky. Then he raised his voice in Trevor’s language and announced, “We’ll set up a safe zone here for survivors.”
Trevor stared at the colonial. Movement flickered in the window.
“Someone’s in the two-story.” His heart pounded with tension and hope. Rarely, he’d find survivors too scared to come out, though what he usually found was remains.
XT Weis studied the building, jaw clenching. “We’ll blast it.” He turned and issued orders in his home tongue.
Soldiers jumped from the truck. One lifted a long tube to his shoulder, preparing to load a missile.
“No! There could still be people in there!” Trevor could hear the hope in his own voice.
“They should have been smart enough to get out when they could.”
When was that? Trevor wondered, bitterness hitting him so strongly it was a taste at the back of his throat. Anyone not descended from Earth’s original sleep ship lived on the outskirts of the Founder’s city, enclosed in wire fences, but the soldiers from the other five planets in the system wouldn’t care about local politics. The Founders paid them, and the soldiers paid people like Trevor. He was bottom of the heap.
Anger swallowed back, he scowled at his feet. “Let me check it out.”
The XT was shouting orders, and Trevor sensed a teenage boy’s concerns were less than nothing to the military man who was directing setup and staging for a protected enclosure. Trevor stepped in front of XT Weis. By the upward flick of the man’s eyes, he knew he’d registered how tall Trevor had gotten, though he was painfully thin beneath his dirty orange hoodie. Trevor hunched his shoulders, folding inward from force of habit. The soldiers hired small boys who would be less of a threat if they got infected.
A soldier stopped unrolling razor wire and spoke a few words in their harsh language, and his companion with the rocket launcher laughed.
Heat filled Trevor’s cheeks. He stared XT Weis in the eyes. “I know what you call us in your own language. Let me be it, the zombie bait.”
Weis’s eyes narrowed, concern sparking to life within them. Maybe he’d seen too many native boys die, already. For a moment Trevor thought he’d offer him a chance. Perhaps break the Founder’s laws and give him a gun? Then the spark died and XT Weis shrugged.
“I never seen someone seek them out like you. Make noise and see whether the place is clean… Bait.”
Trevor pulled the shield over his arm to distract himself as heat climbed his cheeks and pooled behind his eyes. The shield, once a symbol of how he was fighting back, scraped when he yanked the straps tight. Nothing more than a glorified drum, a thin membrane stretched over a light pressed wood frame against his arm. With his other hand he picked up the spear by its welded crossbeam, spinning it in the headlights.
He stabbed the air.
Dad had been angry the last time Trevor saw him, shouting that he’d chosen the wrong side. Trevor had tried to explain that he needed to stand up to the zombies. The soldiers were letting boys like him join them.
“You know why they let you boys join? Because you’re the ones who should be fighting back against them! They don’t care whether you die. Be patriotic! Die! They’ll never complain as long as you aren’t thinking about all the problems the zombies aren’t causing.”
Trevor stared at the sharp point, hearing every word as if for the first time. It had taken days of this, baiting zombies, wasting time searching for survivors, and seeing the soldiers’ disregard to understand. Now that he did, it didn’t change anything. Trevor shivered and flexed his knees, stretching like a sprinter.
He stared at the blue front door.
At the XT’s signal, he entered the house, banging his shield.
He shouted as he looped through the living room, around the back hallways, and turned the corner toward the dining room and kitchen, circling the stairs that led to the upper floor. Once he’d attracted zombie attention, if they were really there, he’d bolt outside. The soldiers would do the rest. He’d entered a dozen houses, maybe more; the tension got worse each time.
He couldn’t hear over the thud of his shield. Pausing, he listened for a shuffling step or moan, sniffing the air for decay. Sour corruption seared the lining of his nose. Zombie wounds went bad fast, but with garbage collection suspended the stink could have been a wastebasket left under the sink too long.
Breathing through his mouth, Trevor paused in the kitchen. Nothing moved, so maybe he’d been wrong. Surely if there were real people here, they’d have answered and come out of hiding. Though adrenaline still surged through him, he forced himself to make a second pass.
For a house in his neighborhood, it was nice. Dad and he had lived in a crumbling shack, back when he’d lived with Dad.
The kitchen smelled bad. He spotted an open box and memories disappeared from his mind as his hand brushed crinkly cellophane.
Resting his spear against the edge of the counter, Trevor tore open a package of cookies. Not forgetting about the movement he’d seen, he choked down the treats. They crunched between his teeth and dissolved into minty pieces, making his mouth feel clean. Though he couldn’t read the packaging in the dark, he’d tasted them before. What were they called? Grasshoppers? They were about the best thing in the universe. He practically moaned as he finished the roll.
Along with the soldier’s rations, it was almost enough. Since he’d hit his teen years, he couldn’t remember feeling full. Admiring his own willpower, he slid the two remaining rolls of cookies into the big pockets of his orange hoodie. He shoved back his sleeves, adjusting the shield’s straps to fit his narrow forearm. The sleeves had gotten too short during his last growth spurt.
A board creaked on the floor above him.
If he slipped out the back door, and announced he hadn’t found anything, they might still blow the house up. Her house.
He stared at the stairwell, wondering how dumb it would be to check upstairs. He’d thought weapons would help. Somehow the light pike and springy shield didn’t make him feel strong. Fortunately, bait didn’t need to be strong, only fast. Faster than the zombies. He could leap down the steps and out the door faster than anything.
Family pictures lay on the floor, frames shattered. Others hung askew, as if someone staggered into them while running upstairs. In one, a blonde mother, dark haired father, and two kids smiled for the photographer. He hoped they hid upstairs, and imagined heroically leading them out.
He straightened the picture, leaving a sweaty smear on the glass. He rubbed it clean with his sleeve. Under the orange cloth stretched over his thumb, he recognized the young girl, even though the picture was a few years old. A cold fist clutched his stomach, like he’d forgotten his wallet on the bus. He hadn’t lost anything, he reminded himself, nothing he’d ever owned.
Hopeful speculation ended at a blood trail dripping down the handrail. Something bad had happened above. Trevor clutched his spear, careful not to touch the handrail in case it was zombie blood. That stuff would change you if it got into a cut. Maybe not right away, but for certain the change was coming.
And being distracted wasn’t such a great idea. Swallowing his dry, minty throat, Trevor started up the stairs.
In the landing where the stairs turned, he found the crumpled body of a woman, her hair the near-white of the blonde mother in the pictures. Trevor watched the body, waiting for her shoulders to rise in a breath.
Seeing nothing, he gritted his teeth and slid closer. He’d have to step over her to explore the rest of the house.
Were those bites beneath the blood that coated her beige jacket and silky tan pants? He didn’t want to touch her body, to put his hands close to her pale skin and check for a pulse. His hand trembled on the spear he aimed at her still back.
I’m supposed to assume she’s dead or about to change. So why am I just standing here? Grimacing, he lowered a hand toward her, feeling like he’d lost some internal argument. I don’t know if she’s a zombie. I do know she’s someone’s mom.
No life moved in the body under his hand.
A woman’s piercing scream filled the upper floor of the house, making his vision flare with white-hot terror. Someone struggled in the other room.
Trevor’s spear sank into the body until the pushbar pinned her flesh to the floor. She flopped with his thrust.
Not a zombie, then.
Relieved, he vaulted over her then pulled his spear free to bash his shield with the flat of the bloody tip. He was supposed to lead the zombies out, not pursue them, but angry wheezing undercut the screaming girl, and she was getting further away.
“Come toward me!” he yelled, doubting the girl had much choice if she was being chased.
At the top of the stairs, he rounded a corner.
An adult male zombie knocked a yellow chintz recliner onto its side.
A teenage girl who’d been standing on it labored to pull herself through a hole in the ceiling. Tipping her top half over the lip of the attic entrance, the girl’s curved bottom waved above slim jeans-covered legs as she hurried to escape the big zombie’s reach.
Wordless moans roared from the zombie’s large chest. Black saliva oozed from the corners of his mouth.
“Hey, you!” Trevor shouted, but the thing didn’t turn.
Since he couldn’t see her face, Trevor wasn’t certain whether the girl was Kristin from school. Not that it should matter; he wanted to help her.
He pounded his shield with his spear, yelling.
The zombie held pieces of a shattered wooden table in each bloody hand. Swinging one arm, the zombie stabbed the girl’s leg. The dagger of wood sank into her thigh. She screamed and pulled herself higher. The wood tore through fabric and muscle. Blood dripped downward, making the excited zombie lose his grip. Her legs disappeared through the hole above.
Trevor shouted for the zombie’s attention. It ignored him. He ran forward, beating his shield, trying to lure it away.
The zombie scrambled onto the fallen chair and grabbed the opening. It pulled itself into the hole where the girl’s jeans-clad legs had disappeared.
Public service announcements would have told her that the attic was a good place to hide, if the zombies didn’t accidently burn down the house, but she’d gotten there too late. Now, Trevor could hear the large zombie stomping across the ceiling.
Trevor ran forward, shaking. The zombie was supposed to follow him out of the house! How was he supposed to attract it now?
He raced to the window, throwing it open. “There’s a zombie. He’s after someone in the attic!” He pointed upward, hoping they understood him on the street below.
From where he leaned against the truck, XT Weis lifted a hand, waving back. His men lowered supplies they would put into the houses once they knew they were clear. It would be a nifty home base while they decimated the rest of the neighborhood. The barbed wire corral made a tidy square in the middle of the street, and already a few dozen people settled there in piles of whatever coats and blankets they’d thought to bring along.
A soldier unslung his weapon and sighted on the house. Trevor heard a report, like the clap of a hand. Another took out his weapon with the same casual air they had when they popped wild zombies from the truck bed. They were shooting at the roof, where they must have seen movement.
“There’s a girl!” he shouted. They couldn’t hear him over the pop of the guns. Or they didn’t care. It was merely another native, after all. She could easily be a zombie and, once dead, who could tell whether she’d been infected? Anger pressed like a vise around his forehead. Fury compressed his thoughts into a red haze of zombie hatred.
She was not going to die.
Cursing, he ran for the chair and leapt upward, pulling himself into the attic.
It was empty. He spotted a shattered window leading to the gabled roof. The girl had probably closed it, because it looked like the zombie had gone straight through. Blood and glass fragments lined the wooden frame.
Trevor bashed shards away with his shield. Determined, he slipped through the opening and grabbed the roof where it peaked above him. Across the angled shingles with nowhere to hide except a brick chimney still several feet from her, the girl crouched, clutching her leg. The large zombie shambled toward her. She kicked out. He tripped, fell onto his stomach and crawled toward the fallen girl. For the zombie, one form of locomotion was as good as another.
She scooted away.
Trevor bolted across the angled roof, letting his momentum keep him on course. At the last minute, he slid and forced his shield underneath the monstrous zombie, trying to pry it off the roof with the force of his movement. The zombie rocked upward, a human-cry of surprise issuing as it tottered toward the guttered edge of the roof.
Zombies often had injuries that kept them off balance, even if they couldn’t feel them. Unfortunately, not this one. Steadying, it roared and turned toward Trevor.
The pale girl looked at Trevor, gratitude lighting her blue eyes. Though he hadn’t saved her, she looked happy simply to have another living person present when she died.
It was Kristin. Tension ran up his shoulders and neck, adding to the adrenaline racing through him.
Kristin grabbed the brick chimney and pulled herself upright, holding a hand out toward Trevor. Blood dripped from the leg of her jeans onto the tiles, trickling downward toward the roofline like raindrops.
Spotlights from the trucks below glazed the edge of the angled roof and glinted off a piece of shattered glass lodged in the thick bulge of the zombie’s neck. A bullet plunged through the zombie’s shoulder, ripping a bloody gash but leaving the head attached.
He staggered toward Trevor and the girl. One blackened hand still clutched a shattered wood dagger. Zombies acted on instinct.
Roaring, the monster swiped at Trevor.
Trevor met the wooden point with his shield. The thin membrane tore, proving it was more drum than protection. Trevor dropped the shield and shoved with his spear. The metal point caught the zombie in the side. The monster grunted and dropped into a squat on the angled surface. Black blood oozed from the monster’s exploded shoulder, and the arm was barely attached. Shattered bluish fingernails scraped along the tiles toward Trevor.
Trevor wanted to run. His weapons were no more effective than a child playing knight with a pointy stick and cardboard box. The shield slid off the roof, floating toward the armored guards far below.
Concentrating on his balance, Trevor backed down, hoping to lead the thing similarly to the edge of the roof. Killing a zombie didn’t need to be precise, just thorough. A good fall would finish him or at least make the zombie someone else’s problem.
Hissing, the zombie scuttled around to face Kristin.
She whimpered, clutched her leg and pressed against the brick chimney. Trevor figured it sensed her weakness, choosing to take the easy meal. She seemed to realize the same thing and her face contorted with determination. Balanced on her good leg, sobbing between breaths, she lifted her arms to wrap around the chimney at her back. As the zombie scrambled close, she rolled her body up, kicking outward into the zombie’s drool-covered chin. Her sneaker connected, jarring the thing back.
Supported by her arms, she lowered her leg again, gasping in pain.
The zombie put its hands on the shingles and lunged.
Trevor swept up behind it, spear raised. His thrust entered through the zombie’s back, plunging the spear all the way to the crossbeam and it burst out the far side as the zombie landed against the girl and scraped her down the bricks of the chimney. She screamed as they slid along the roofline toward the guttered edge.
Trevor snatched for her, catching her shirt. Her legs, still clutched by the zombie, dangled over the edge. The zombie lay wedged between her and the roof, moaning. Kristin beat at the zombie arm encircling her legs. Already weak and nearly detached, his flesh parted. She kicked him loose.
Stupid thing, it still clutched its wooden dagger and couldn’t get a strong handhold. The aluminum gutter bent and gave way, casting the zombie into the darkness below.
The spotlight swept down with it, uncaring that it left Trevor holding onto the girl in darkness. He groped, stretching her shirt and bra as he dragged her up. She clutched at him, getting tangled with his arms as he pulled back from the edge of the roof and the rough metal where the gutter had pulled free.
They collapsed together, too exhausted to move.
Laying back, the girl warm against his side, Trevor gasped for breath. His arms throbbed and the shingles made painful dents in his back. Smoke and rank decay drifted on the breeze and a cloud crossed the face of the night sky, hiding pinpricks of light and the familiar planets of their system.
Out there were more people. Were they fighting too? At least he’d saved a pretty girl. He looked down at her, surprised how she cradled against his shoulder. A beautiful girl, he amended, mind going numb. Kristin had gone to his school and he’d barely dreamed he’d ever talk to her. She trembled against his side. Afraid to move, he stared upward without blinking.
Greatest moment of my life, he thought.
“That was my dad,” she said.
Covering his eyes with his free arm, Trevor heaved a sigh.
She groaned and rolled onto her back, still cradled against him. A twinge ran up the shoulder he’d used to yank her back onto the roof. She lifted herself away. Despite the pain, he’d have put up with it forever if she’d let him.
“My mom was hiding below. I have to see if she—”
“She didn’t make it.” Under his bent elbow, he grimaced. The heroic feeling, not much to begin with, had fully disappeared.
His stomach twisted at the control he sensed in her words, the anguish she knew better than to express. That was good, because the night wasn’t over yet. He wished there was something he could say, but knew there wasn’t. The best thing he could do was keep her alive.
When he looked up, she’d curled her knees to her chest. On the street below, soldiers worked in the dark to unload containers. Others, flashlights attached to their guns, patrolled the street.
Loudspeakers boomed with recorded messages for people to remain calm. Soon, they’d have hundreds of survivors herded into the intersection, accepting their protection. More would remain barred in their sagging homes.
Wiping her face on her knees, she said, “I’m Kristin.”
“Trevor. We met in school a few times.”
“Yeah,” she agreed, sounding uncertain. “Are you taking me down there?”
The night, filled with calls from the speakers, stretched between them. Trevor couldn’t think of a right answer. It wasn’t like they had options. The soldiers would tell them where to go.
Muscles tense, she extended her legs until her feet poked over the edge of the roof, considering. Inhaling a few times, summoning courage, she slid a hand along her leg. Her fingers tightened over the wood lodged at the base of her cut. With another breath in, she yanked the wood from her leg, doubling over silently as she pressed on the wound.
She dropped the shard and turned toward Trevor. He stared at her, wide-eyed, sensing that she didn’t want to look alone. Together, their chins dipped. Both stared. It wasn’t as bad as he’d thought, deep in only one spot, but it must have hurt. Her blue jeans were saturated with her blood. Worse, a deeper blackness swirled over the fabric. When Trevor had impaled the zombie and sent him into her lap, his blood had soaked her.
“It’s okay.” His voice sounded far away and tinny. “It doesn’t mean you’ll change.”
“Oh, that was convincing.”
The tips of his ears burned. He covered it by helping her to her feet. “I mean, not right away. It could be months. Or years. You weren’t bitten, were you?”
“No,” she said. Her voice dropped, soft in his ear, “From what I hear, though, they’re not going to care.”
Trevor opened his mouth to argue, but only a sigh escaped.
“Are you okay?” Her hands caressed his shoulders, seeking. He didn’t even have a scrape, yet his skin burned when her thumb touched it. He didn’t know how to put into words the series of things he’d seen that were all coming at him now. Things she probably already knew, maybe everyone knew but him. How did these things continue?
Because there’s no one who stands up against them. They have the power because they’re stronger, and they have all the resources.
“I’m doing great,” he said, and clenched his jaw, determined to mean it.
He led her to the window with the broken glass. Carefully, he went through first then lifted her down. Her golden hair fell over his arm. He didn’t really know where to grab her, but she didn’t complain. She was the first girl he’d ever held.
They exited the attic and followed the steps down. Trevor insisted on going first, since her mother’s body still lay there. Kristin covered her face, letting him lead her over the body and down the sticky steps.
At the bottom, she glanced back up the stairwell. Only the familiar blonde hair could be seen in the dim light.
“At least she didn’t turn into a zombie. I never want that to happen. Never.” She shivered against him. Neither of them looked at the dark smears on her leg.
His arm, firm against her, kept her from moving to the front door. “Not yet.”
She trembled beneath his palm. “What else can we do?”
“Get out of here. But it’s going to be hard.”
“To get out?”
“That, and I’ll have to apologize to my dad.”
She laughed at the downward turn of his mouth, then realized he was serious. Both of them sobered.
She’s probably thinking about her dad, too. Great job, Trevor.
“How do you feel about water and confined spaces?”
She trembled beneath his palm. “As long as there are no zombies.”
“Of course not,” he lied.