Authors: Joshua Guess
War of the Living
The Fall: Book Three
©2014 Joshua Guess
This book is dedicated to:
Josh White, friend and super-fan. Lee is as much you as I could make him. Forgive me if I fall short.
And to Helen Speirs, a fellow escapist. Words can be powerful, and when used properly can give us inspiration, even places to go when things get difficult. Words also go both ways, and kindness from readers can inspire writers just as much.
Also by Joshua Guess
Living With the Dead
With Spring Comes The Fall
The Bitter Seasons
Year One (With Spring Comes The Fall, The Bitter Seasons, bonus material)
The Hungry Land
The Wild Country
This New Disease
Dead Will Rise
War of the Living
The Next Chronicle
Beautiful (An Urban Fantasy)(Novel)
Soldier Lost (Short Story)
Dog Dreams In Color (Short Story)
With James Cook
The Passenger (Surviving The Dead)
War of the Living
Kell had never been a soldier, but there was no doubt he was a warrior.
The woods were dark, the sort of midnight shroud found only on overcast nights like the one he crouched in, waiting. The moon was an invisible sliver behind banks of clouds, casting no light upon the tops of the trees, much less the ground below.
Tonight he carried no spear. It would have been—and always had been—his first choice of weapon. Deadly, true, but just as useful for defending himself and others as it was for killing. Instead he held a bow, painted in a mottled black and gray, with arrows to match.
Not a soldier, but even the least survivor of The Fall was a warrior. It was a long-accepted fact.
Before, when he had been merely a scientist, Kell rarely bothered to exert himself beyond the effort it took to go shopping or take the occasional jog. Combat was an abstract concept, and survival was defined by regular trips to the market.
A couple years of fighting the undead (and more and more frequently, the living) shined a light on the uncomfortable reality that Kell McDonald, world-class biologist, geneticist, and avid player of Dungeons and Dragons, was built for war.
With a size and physique that could have won him a place in any professional sport, he was an imposing figure. Even at his most slovenly, with the beginnings of a belly, Kell's dark skin wrapped around the curves of hard muscle he barely noticed. Now, through periods of near-starvation and constant labor, he was in the best shape of his life. Older, scarred inside and out, he was six and a half feet of steel, harder than a coffin nail and capable of running like a Kenyan track star.
None of which made his feet hurt less as he shifted his weight, nor did it ease the annoyance of waiting for hours on end.
The piece of cloth wrapped around his face, leaving only his eyes exposed, reminded him not to give in to the urge to complain out loud. A lifetime spent hunched over lab equipment while talking to himself was a difficult habit to break, but the consequences in the here and now were enough to keep him quiet.
Twenty yards away were men with guns and the experience to use them well, though at this range they hardly needed it. The wrong move would end in a sad lesson in basic physics, a demonstration of the effects of a fast-traveling, compact mass against the frontal bone of his skull and the precious brain within.
Still, waiting here was getting old, and he had to pee.
The pain in his feet, the creeping ache heading slowly but surely toward his knees, the persistent reminder that he'd drained a full canteen before slipping into position, all these things served to distract. His surface thoughts split between his discomfort and watching the enemies ahead, leaving no space to dwell on what would follow.
The sentries standing atop the school bus before him, itself part of a wagon ring protecting the camp within, turned at the same time. Kell did not hear the sound that distracted them, but he knew what it was.
In a single liquid motion, Kell stood and drew his bow. Muscle memory took over, the reaction drilled into his nerves by the brutal efficiency of the need to survive. He sighted easily, target framed by the dim glow of firelight from the camp. There was no time for thought about the person at the other end of the arrow's flight, only a breath and relaxation as the shaft whispered through the air.
The swishing hum of the bowstring blended with the startled and wet gasp of his target as the arrow burrowed into his side, digging upward between ribs and deep into his lung. Rational Kell, the detached part of him that observed and theorized, wondered how much more damage the lung had taken because of that involuntary gasp.
Even that small corner of his mind was too busy to think on it very long, as Kell was already running with another arrow ready to fire.
The other sentry jerked, a fine mist of blood erupting from his throat. Out of the corner of his eye, Kell caught the movement of his partner as she dashed forward to stand near him. He nodded at the slim woman before they turned from each other to stand back-to-back.
Facing away from each other, bodies pressed together, enemies could not sneak up on them. Their part in the night's plan was to take out one of the four sentry teams in order to clear the way for the entry groups to attack the camp itself. Kell was spared that especially dangerous job, though he would have to take down any living enemy that escaped the camp.
His partner, Andrea, nudged him with her elbow. “Incoming,” she breathed.
He had known without being told. Between the increasingly loud shouts of men and women fighting for their lives, the telltale crunch was obvious. Though the organism had evolved over time, making the hosts more efficient and dangerous, there were still a large number of infected whose bodies were worn out from years of exposure and damage. The result was a dragging sort of shuffle, the signature lead-footed gait of the very tired, the very drunk, or the very dead.
Smart of the enemy to surround their camp with zombies. The undead would deter casual intruders, but that confidence was misplaced when it came to Kell and his people. They were warriors, after all, and the crucible which burned all the softness from them was the daily struggle to outfight swarms of dead people. Zombies were something to worry you, make you wary and alert in much the same way a bear or wolf would on a camping trip. For people like Kell and Andrea, they no longer inspired terror.
But it was more than that. Far more. The camp could have been surrounded by fire-breathing dragons hopped up on Viagra, and the team would still have attacked. This was not about opportunity, and their interest in the camp's occupants was anything but casual. The men inside the ring of trucks and buses were responsible for the deaths of dozens, possibly hundreds, of survivors who had committed no crime greater than having plenty. Or what passed for plenty in the world as it now was. Men, women, and children cut down by the score, bodies burned to ash and bone, all for the food in their pantries.
While killing the living usually weighed on Kell—and as the plague was at his feet, his were history's bloodiest hands—the idea of these men dying barely stirred his conscience. The act of killing bothered him, especially if it could be avoided, but these people had it coming in every possible way.
Another soft hiss of a bowstring and Andrea's zombie was down. More appeared from around the edge of the circled vehicles, enough bodies to overwhelm the two of them.
Fortunately, they were not alone.
Three more pairs of fighters materialized, shadows breaking off from the edge of the woods. There were no flashes of silver—all their weapons were painted—but the wet sounds of violence filled the small clearing.
Kell was glad for the backup, and with a silent surge of energy he threw himself at the shambling forms. One fell with his arrow through its face, heavy steel point jutting from the back of its head. Kell yanked the arrow through the wound as he passed the fallen body, using the spent shaft as a makeshift stabbing weapon on another zombie.
His left hand clenched inside its armored glove, this one much thicker with protective plates, which turned his fist into a bludgeoning weapon capable of cracking skulls. With the right hand he pulled his knife
For the span of thirty seconds, all thought was gone. Kell let himself revel in the motion, arms and legs working in harmony as he spun and flowed between the bodies of the swarm like a dancer through drops of rain.
It was not a perfect dance; there is no such thing. Kell stumbled slightly here and there, body knocked askew by the press of enemies. It was no less freeing for that, his existence reduced to the primal struggle to win, to live, to survive. In that state there was no right or wrong, the weight of conscience lifted from his shoulders.
His armored hand crashed into skulls with wrecking-ball force, the interlocking pieces of steel making each strike deadly. The knife darted out in perfect time, each careful thrust finding an eye socket or soft palate.
The ranks of the dead thinned considerably in a short time, the thrill of victory blinding Kell to the signs that something was wrong. He should have noticed, of course. They were obvious. But in his excitement even Rational Kell was overwhelmed.
Instead of seeing and preparing, Kell was caught completely off guard when the zombie in front of him feinted.
It was then, mid-stumble, that his mind caught up with what he had seen. This body was not in the same sad state most zombies endured. There was no sign of the wear and tear of years spent exposed to the elements. No shredded fingertips with sharpened bone poking out like claws, worn to talons from constant use.
No, this one was the strange gray of the New Breed. Pebbly skin like some giant lizard, neck and head slightly misshapen by bands of tough material growing beneath the skin like armor. It would be strong, too, almost as strong as a living person, but that strength was not the danger.
Intelligence. That was what sent a bolt of terror through Kell as he caught himself, turning his stumble into a deliberate roll. At the end of the tumble, Kell whipped his body around and upright, using his momentum to reach a kneeling position.
Brown eyes met those filmed with milky white, sending an involuntary shiver down his spine. The thing had recovered from his surprise roll and was now watching Kell with the careful eyes of a waiting predator. There was something resonant in that gaze. Not human intelligence, but beyond animal without a doubt. New Breed had been seen using tools, even building crude structures to reach their goal.
Which was universally a meal made up of living people.
Even more terrifying was their ability to, on some level, actively think and plan. This one had been acting like a regular zombie, blending in with the crowd, until Kell cleared the way enough to put himself in danger.
Thankfully there were no other New Breed around. They worked well in packs and showed a surprising degree of teamwork and coordination. One-on-one, they weren't a match for healthy adults unless they got stupidly lucky.
Kell feinted with his blade, drawing the zombie's attention to his thrusting right hand, which he pulled wide to his right at the last second, turning the thrust into a sweep. As expected, the New Breed followed the movement with its eyes, body beginning to follow.
As his armored gauntlet swung around to crash into the thing's head, Kell thought he saw something like understanding strike the zombie, as if it realized at the last moment that its own maneuver was being used against it.
Then Kell's steel-clad fist thundered against its head, and the zombie dropped to the ground.
The window of the bus popped open, a black-clad form sliding through it with practiced ease. The man flipped as he dropped, getting his feet under him and raising a submachine gun. His fingers froze on the grip of the weapon, the gun itself stopping in its upward arc. Kell stood with his bow at full draw, the tip of the arrow a yard from the escapee's eye. Andrea was in an identical posture.
“Put it down slowly,” she said, nodding toward the gun.
The soldier hesitated. Just a fraction of a second, but it was there. The barrel of the gun raised only slightly, but it was enough. Kell shifted his aim, stepping to move his body instead of his arms, and put an arrow through the man's forearm.
To his credit, the soldier stifled the ear-shattering scream he should have let out, instead voicing a muffled shriek as he dropped his weapon. Andrea darted forward to kick the gun away, dropping her bow to grab the arrow transfixing the soldier's arm on both sides of the wound. She torqued it slightly, driving the man to the ground in pain, then used her leverage to work his arm around to his back.
Kell moved in to help her
zip ties around the injured man's wrists. He left the arrow where it was. Awkward and painful, but it would keep their captive from getting any ideas about escaping his bonds.
All around the outside of the camp, people gave all-clear signals. The zombies were cleaned up for the moment, though the smell of death and blood would inevitably draw another swarm like flies to honey. Inside the ring of vehicles, the sound of gunfire had ceased. The battle there hadn't lasted long, though that was no indicator of its severity. His side brought eighty seasoned fighters, several of them ex-military, but though they outnumbered their enemy two to one, the sides were evenly matched.
Kell's team might have been at a disadvantage were it not for the element of surprise and the cover of darkness. The enemy force was mostly comprised of soldiers, dangerous and skilled, but Kell's people knew the wilderness like elves out of Tolkien. It was that experience which gave them the upper hand, and the victory when all was said and done.
Well, that and a healthy dollop of luck. Can't ignore good, old-fashioned luck.
A nearby truck started, its engine rumbling to life. The sound made Kell jump a little. The sharp ticking of the motor as it heated and the thrumming of the pistons seemed unnatural and loud. That the gunshots and screams of dying men didn't elicit the same reaction was not lost on him. Every day brought a new understanding of what you could get used to, if you had no other choice.
Kell shook his head, banishing the thought. It was good to question your moral track every once and a while, if only to gauge your distance from the center. Dwelling on those questions never ended well. The harsh reality was that the world would keep trying to kill him and the people in his community, leaving them little choice but to do everything they could to survive. Simple as that.