Authors: David W. Wright,Sean Platt
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Text copyright © 2013 Sean Platt & David Wright
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by 47North, Seattle
Cover design by The Book Designers
To Austin Kleon for his book
Steal Like An Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative
, and the countless storytellers before us.
Sean and David would like to thank: Our wives and families, for putting up with our schedules and believing in us; 47North for believing in this series; and last, but not least, our Goners, for supporting our dreams and joining us on this journey.
It is the year 2135, after the zombie apocalypse, and society lives in six walled cities ruled over by The State and its ever present City Watch officers. The Walls keep the people safe from the zombies that wander The Barrens, but some would say The Walls are truly prisons, keeping people in servitude to their government.
It’s a society in which hovering orbs patrol the cities, monitoring every movement of the citizens, and City Watch propaganda posters read: “Do you REALLY know your neighbor? Watch. Listen. Report.”
Former City Watcher Jonah Lovecraft, a secret member of the rebel Underground, was framed for murdering his wife. While he didn’t remember committing the crime, his 17-year-old daughter, Anastasia (Ana), witnessed it, and her testimony sealed his fate. He was banished to The Darwin Games, The State’s televised reality game show in which prisoners are pitted against one another and zombies. The prize: freedom in the paradisiacal City 7.
When Jonah, against all odds, managed to win The Games, he soon found out that City 7 was a lie. Instead of being delivered to a new life of freedom, he was dumped in a shack in the zombie-infested Barrens, the no-man’s land outside the walled cities, and left to die.
Jonah was soon rescued, but found himself imprisoned yet again, this time by a man named Egan who held Jonah responsible for losing his family. Jonah managed to win his freedom from Egan, but before he was allowed to leave, he was told that The State had implanted chips in him years ago, an identity chip, which he knew about, and a mind-control chip, which he did not.
In the process of flushing out the chips, Jonah learned that he had, in fact, murdered his wife.
Ana’s younger brother Adam was forced into a State-run orphanage after his sister was placed in The Games. Adam found himself navigating friends and bullies with the help of his father’s old boss, Keller, who lost his son years earlier, when an Underground rebel bombed a parade. Keller told Adam to fight back against the bullies, and even gave him a weapon with which to do so. However, when Adam inadvertently killed one of his tormentors, Adam was arrested and hauled out of the orphanage by City Watchers.
Ana, with the help of Liam Harrow, a troubled young man she’d grown up with who was also in The Underground, discovered that her father may have been set up by forces within City 6. When Ana was found consorting with The Underground, she was thrown into The Games.
Liam wound up in The Games with her. He had, in fact, gotten himself arrested intentionally, with the purpose of entering The Games to protect Ana.
Ana made her way through challenges and was forced to kill or be killed. At one point in The Games, the announcer informed Ana via a video that Liam had been a double agent, working for both City Watch
The Underground. She realized that Liam was the one to have outed her father’s involvement with The Underground.
She and Liam were eventually saved by Duncan, her father’s old friend and member of The Underground, who helped them escape into underground tunnels beneath The Barrens.
During a confrontation, Liam admitted that he had, in fact, betrayed her father, but it was only to save his girlfriend, Chelle, who was living in a hidden village, the same village that Duncan brought them to, with the promise of freedom.
When they arrived at the village, it was burned down, its citizens slaughtered, and heads, including Chelle’s, were left on spikes outside the village.
Ana’s knees were starting to hurt. She was crouched in the bushes too long, waiting off to the side at the south entrance to Narrow Pass Bridge.
Ana stared through the binoculars, Liam beside her. The just-wiped lenses showed a cracked and broken road, long since surrendered to vegetation. She felt the truck before she saw it—a barely there tremor rising into a low rumble as the large armored vehicle rolled toward the bridge.
The truck was a quarter mile away. Ana chewed her lip, anxious to get this over with. She looked over to Liam, wondering if he was noticing what she was—that the truck was alone. Liam’s eyes were covered by his own binoculars, and he was waiting with seemingly far more patience than she.
They watched as the truck rounded a torn section of road, navigating around something Ana had heard everyone in Paradise called the “April Cotter Incident,” or “that thing at the bridge,” though nobody had said what the incident was. To her it looked like some giant meteor had fallen from the sky and cratered the earth with a hole so wide and deep it seemed to reach into the planet’s core.
She couldn’t allow the hole to distract her now, though. This was Ana’s first time to raid supplies. Paradise’s leader, Oli, had always denied her previous requests. Duncan, her father’s old friend who’d come to the village with them, said he thought Oli liked her too much, and was afraid of losing her. That was a perfectly rational explanation, just like saying she was needed in Paradise more. But that was bunk, and everyone knew it. If perimeter teams failed, then the camps fell too. Ana’s experience and training during the past six months made her better suited for stealth and fighting than most of the men, and Oli knew it.
So Oli finally ran out of excuses. Moss was off with a group sweeping up some zombies that had popped up about three miles away. A whole mess of them—fast ones, the kind that move like they don’t tire. Mission teams had to be exact, and Daemon only had 11 people; though the giant brute, Shaw, said he counted as 2. Ana volunteered, Oli spouted a dozen reasons why not, Liam insisted, and that was that.
It was Liam who had briefed Ana on the drive over: three trucks, maybe five. “Nothing matters more than the unexpected,” he said. “If it smells wrong, it probably is.” Then he told her about a time back in March, when they had waited too long after an unexpected orb appeared from nowhere. Liam guessed it was
five seconds before the orb turned Tom Callow to foamy red oatmeal from the shoulders up.
The thought made her shudder, and she had seen some awful things since being “chosen” for The Darwin Games. She shook her thoughts back to the present and looked at Liam. He wasn’t happy, eyes off the road and scanning the opposite horizon—the other side of the bridge, where the rest of their team was positioned just out of sight. His binoculars peered into the trees and his jaw twitched. He lowered the lenses and looked at Ana, nodding. They said it together: “Just one truck.”
“How far behind do the others usually follow?” Ana asked.
“Close,” he said. “There’s no more coming.”
“What about orbs?”
Ana wiped her brow, chewing her bottom lip. She looked from the road to Liam. “So what do we do?”
“Call it off. One truck’s stupid.”
“It’s why we came out.”
“No.” Liam let go of the binoculars so they hung from his neck. “We came out for a shot at a City Caravan. We’re swapping camps in three weeks, and this vein is close to tapped out. Maybe we had less time than we think. One truck isn’t a caravan: fewer supplies, no vehicles, almost for sure no weapons.”
“Maybe it’s something small. Easy pickings?”
“No,” Liam said, raising his com, ready to call Daemon. “After what happened on the other side of Cactus, it looks like they were expecting it here. This is a trap.” He half smiled, like he was patting her on the head. “We’re done,” he said into his com. “One truck. It’s yours any second. I suggest calling it off.”
Liam’s com crackled, and Daemon’s voice said, “Bullshit. The barb strip is down. We’re not going back empty-handed.”
“Pull the barbs and let’s get out of here,” Liam said forcefully, even though Daemon was the mission leader. “This isn’t right, and you know it. There’s one truck. When has there ever been
just one truck?
Liam pressed into Daemon’s silence. “Look, I don’t want to go back without a haul any more than you do. I
it. But I want to live, Daemon, and that means not chasing one truck into an obvious trap. Let’s stand down and head back. Sometimes springing a trap’s the only option; this time it isn’t.
No crackle from the com: Daemon thinking.
Liam had raided many times since he and Ana found Paradise. And while she was new at this, she trusted him when he said they never sent fewer than three trucks into City 6. It was frustrating: this was supposed to be an easy raid, one of the final few before the swap. Twelve people had left Paradise—an even match for a caravan, and overkill for a single truck. Low-hanging fruit, ripe for the fall … if not for Liam’s instinct. Everyone—especially Daemon—knew he wasn’t the sort to say the sky was falling unless it was.
The com snapped with static, then Daemon said, “We’re hitting the truck.”
Liam’s fingers curled around the com, and Ana worried he might crush the device. His nostrils flared. “You
that’s a mistake.”
“Not a mistake,” Daemon said, the swagger back in his voice, probably to account for his doubt. “This is too easy a target to ignore, Liam. We’re
going back with nothing,
with only one truck to take down.”
will go wrong,” Liam insisted. “They wouldn’t send one truck and you know it!”
Daemon got louder. “Everyone appreciates your contributions, City 6; you’re a real asset to the team. But I’ve been packing with this camp since I couldn’t shave and you’d barely left your daddy’s sack. We’re hitting the truck. That’s an order, from
Liam couldn’t argue. In seconds the truck would be tearing rubber to shreds on the barbs. But Ana could tell by Liam’s slowly mounting snarl that he was edging eruption, and she knew it was wasted energy. She grabbed him by the arm. “Don’t,” she begged, with eyes and words.
Liam raised his eyebrows.
“It’s one truck, Liam. It probably
a trap, but we’re prepared. There are twelve of us, and we have Shaw.”
Liam didn’t laugh at her Shaw joke. “We have no idea what could be waiting. This is dangerous. More importantly, it’s foolish to bend for Daemon’s ego.”
“You’re right,” Ana said and let go of his arm. “But we’re already on thin ice. We don’t want to piss off Oli’s son, even if he is being stupid.”
Ana didn’t want to remind Liam how he’d nearly gotten them kicked out of the camp in their first week because of his flaring temper, particularly now, when Liam’s caution was right. Over the last few months she had found a subtle way to tap Liam’s more thoughtful, analytical part, a layer beneath his anger.
“Sometimes,” she said, “we have to play politics. Isn’t that what
told me? We have to be nice and swallow the shit sandwich?”
“Well?” Daemon’s impatience crackled the com. “Are you ready to do this?”
Liam turned from Ana. “Fine,” he said to Daemon. “But if this goes wrong, it’s on you.”
Daemon said nothing, ending the communication.
The truck made its way around the April Cotter Incident, then tore by Liam and Ana, both still crouched low. The truck was going too fast … way too fast for a decrepit bridge over a deep ravine. If the 400-foot drop didn’t kill you, the river’s teeth—jagged rocks and alligators—would.
The truck was three-quarters of the way across the 700-foot bridge when its front two tires exploded. The truck screamed to a stop, the engine choking violently, stopping just short of the crumbling concrete guardrail—the only thing preventing the truck from losing complete control and plunging into the ravine.
Liam and Ana ran toward the truck’s rear, keeping a good 10 yards back, rifles out, as the rest of their raiding crew approached from the front. It was a cargo hauler with 18 wheels, a large boxed back, and a retractable rolling door.
“Keep an eye on the rear door, and watch out for crossfire,” Liam said, even though they’d gone over the details dozens of times prior.
Daemon reached the driver’s-side window with his grandfather’s old lead shooter drawn.
“Get out with your hands in the sky!” he ordered.
The truck was surrounded.
The driver’s door opened a crack, then swung wide.
“Out,” Daemon ordered.
The driver hit the dusty asphalt, a young man in common clothes. A terrified rabbit in a human’s body.
Daemon waved his gun at the truck. “What’s in the back?”
Ana held her gun to the rear, both anticipating and dreading what would happen when the door rolled up. Her heart raced in her chest, unable to shake the feeling that Liam was right and that they were stepping straight into a trap.
“Just supplies,” the driver said. “I’m making a run to City 6.”
“What kind of supplies?” Daemon peered toward the back, as if his squint could cut metal.
“Flour, medicine, rations. No weapons.”
“We’ll see,” Daemon said. “Open it up.”
He waved his gun from the driver’s face to the truck in a universal
before taking a step back.
Ana and Liam took a step forward, as did Manolo and Jor, who had circled from the front to stand beside them. The driver turned from Daemon, trembling slightly, and walked to the back of the truck, his measured steps making it look like he was trying to keep himself from tripping. With no hesitation, the driver swung the latch and yanked the door up by its weathered strap, then slipped his fingers under the metal bottom and shoved the paneled door high.
As the door started to open, Ana noticed that the driver had something dark tucked away in his palm—some sort of small device. Something in his eyes seemed wrong. Like he was afraid, but not of the men with their guns aimed behind him.
No, there’s something else.
Then the door rolled all the way open and hell spilled from its gaping mouth.
Zombies exploded from the back, swallowing the driver in a sea of arms, legs, and gnashing mouths.
Ana fell back, staring in horror as they chewed through the driver like ants devouring a speck of bread. She thought of the thing in his hands, then noticed that all the zombies wore black bands around their necks—necklaces that must have kept them docile until the driver pressed the button. He had known what was coming. Ana wondered how many rations and credits The State had given the driver’s family to make a suicide run like this.
While the first group of zombies was feasting on the driver, the rest raced forward, searching for their own meals.
Liam pulled his trigger a beat before Ana, but both his zombie and hers dropped at the same time with matching head shots. They had been lucky, being farthest back of the raiders, with time to draw a bead on the zombies. Manolo and Jor were closer—overwhelmed before they had a chance to aim. They fell while emptying their guns, but they did little damage, and were torn apart in seconds.
There were at least 20 zombies left, maybe more; it was hard to tell. They were moving faster than any zombies Ana had ever seen.
She pushed herself against Liam, feeling his side against hers as they fired into the crowd, missing more often than not, but still somehow keeping the horde away.
They could hear the other members of their party firing, but were too busy to see how the fight was going.
“I’m out,” Liam said, stripping a magazine from his rifle. Ana covered him, taking shots at a zombie racing toward them. She missed the first three times, the thing was moving so fast, but her fourth and fifth shots dropped the creature.
Once Liam swapped his ammo, Ana did the same.
She was startled to see that the zombies were now ignoring them. Instead they were chasing the remaining raiders in front of the truck.
“Come on,” Liam said, “Let’s hit them from behind and take out as many as we can.”
They spotted Daemon climbing to the top of the truck for a better vantage. As far as Liam knew, zombies couldn’t climb for shit, so it was a terrific position if Ana and he could make it up there too.
A zombie noticed Daemon before he reached the top, however, and grabbed at his ankle, snarling as Daemon kicked at its face. The zombie tried to bite him. Daemon screamed, kicked again, and scrambled to the roof before the zombie could sink its teeth into him. On top of the truck, he started nailing zombies one at a time, felling each with a head shot, including the three descending on Ana and Liam.
Zombies kept pouring out from the truck. Ana couldn’t imagine how tightly they must have been packed inside their rolling coffin. They were coming out too fast, and she couldn’t reload quickly enough. Neither could Liam. He fell back beside her until they were just far enough from the mass to get their bearings. Then—as they were taught and practiced each day—they spun their weapons, butt first in their fists, and rushed into the fray, swinging rifles like clubs at the zombies, aiming for heads when they could, or less lethal places when they couldn’t.
Ana and Liam quickly dropped the zombies closest to them. With bodies sprawled across the ground, they held formation, waving their weapons in front of them, ready to either reload or keep swinging. But it wasn’t necessary. The back of the truck was finally empty, and Daemon, with nothing to slow his reloading, was a metronome atop the truck until his shots finally fell silent and the bloody mist cleared.
Their team had been cut to a third: just Ana, Liam, Daemon, and Shaw, who was the only one to survive the massacre in front of the truck.
Daemon reloaded his gun one last time before climbing down from the truck, looking pained as he dropped to the asphalt. His right ankle was fringed with bloody tassels of shredded denim.