A short story, set ina world I aim to do a larger comic thing in the future.
Smith pulled on the thick leather gloves, flexed his hands in them. They were stained black with old blood. A good puncher protected his knuckles; bad punchers didn’t last long enough to matter.
“What are the odds?” he asked his manager.
Alex was like that. What she meant was that there were nine to five odds against him. Knowing the odds wasn’t just important for his financial future. Those odds told him that they were going to have fresh ones. The type of zombie they released depended on what they could find. The fresher the zombies the higher the odds. Of course, the fresh ones were harder to capture, so the mix depended on the tournament.
Smith wasn’t supposed to know any of this. Part of the point of punching was that the punchers didn’t know what they were walking into. The tournament venues were changed, so a strategy that had saved your ass at the last tourney could get you killed if you relied on it this time.
As it happened, information on the venues was hard to get, and no puncher was likely to have the money to buy the information. Gambling on punching was big business, and the people who controlled the gambling were both very serious and very wealth, and they could buy the information and use it to set the odds. Smith could use that to plan his strategy.
The safe zone was the old high school. Smith was putting on his gear in the locker room. This was a privilege, more or less, one of the fringe benefits of his celebrity. Smith went through the same warm up before every tournament. He did pushups, squats and worked through a series of yoga poses, looking for tight spots. It was entirely possible that he was the only person within a hundred miles that did yoga.
He felt good. He flexed his hands again and punched a locker, hard.
Alex was always nervous before a fight, and she nearly jumped out of her skin now. She’d grown up in no man’s land, and it showed. She still kept her head shaved and she was determined to never go back to the QZ. She was a good manager, and she’d made a shit load of money with Smith. Not enough to establish permanent citizenship in the Old States, but she was close. If Smith died, that gravy train was over, so she was nervous.
“Just testing” he said.
“You break your hand before the tourney you cement brained idiot, we’re both gonna be poorhouse. Already made bets.”
Punchers were allowed to make bets on themselves. It was unlikely that any one would throw a tournament, all things considered. His shoulder jerked.
“Shit. Some warning?”
Alex pushed the plunger on the syringe. She smiled a mean smile. She got the ingredients for the mix direct from Old State sources, a combination of painkillers, stimulants and vasodilators. He’d feel like shit tomorrow, but he’d have an edge today. This would probably be cheating if anyone cared.
“Oh, so now who don’t like to be startled?”
She helped him slip into his leathers, and he zipped them up. Punching rules, such as they were, only restricted the use of outside weapons. Defensively speaking, Smith could have worn full plate armor into the venue. A lot of new punchers would take that approach, layering themselves with whatever tough shit they could find in order to stop from being bitten.
Smith didn’t. He wore synthetic material underneath leather. The leather has started as no color in particular, but like the gloves, it mostly looked black. He probably could have just gone with the bite resistant body suit, but he’d started out with the leathers and he was somewhere between superstitious and nostalgic. Plus, they were part of the Smith brand, now. He was unrecognizable without them.
“How much time?”
Alex yanked back a sleeve, looked at one of at least half a dozen watches. Same as him; old habits.
Anytime. He punched the locker again. Alex didn’t jump this time, but he could feel her staring at him. He felt fine. The gloves and Alex’s wrapping were doing their job. He felt loose and good.
The door opened, and a man stuck his head in.
Alex handed him his helmet, wiped her hand over sandpaper stubble. He was glad that she was doing the worrying for both of them. He slid the helmet on as he walked towards the gym door. He liked the helmet; it was a gleaming silver skull and while it wasn’t an especially subtle touch it did make a statement. Zombies didn’t care, but it did intimidate the other punchers.
It was hard to tell from the odds how many others there would be. Ship was a big venue, a decent sized college town before the outbreak. It was a full two miles from the start point to the turn around, and that meant it could handle a lot of punchers. Smith figured a minimum of five and a maximum of ten.
Less and it would take too long for them to find each other, which didn’t make for a good show. More and it was too many for the cameras which, again, was less than entertaining.
Smith turned to the man who’d stuck his head into the locker room, a weathered little man who was probably old enough to be Smith’s dad. He might even be old enough to have lived here before the big chowdown. He was holding a skull and, amazingly enough, a marker. Smith had never seen one out here in the mid zones. The skull had a fracture in the middle of the forehead.
“It was from when you were here in 31” the little old guy said, "I was a cleaner for that one." That was a good year. He had no idea if this skull was one of his, but he liked the idea. He should try and grab one for himself this time.
Smith smiled as he scrawled his name. Alex had taught him that. Her mother had lived long enough to teach her the basics of reading, and it was a useful enough skill that she taught herself a lot more when she was old enough. It was a big part of she’d survived to make out of the QZ.
“Thank you, sir” the little man said. Most of the time, these kind of things ended up getting old in the Old States for a tidy profit. Punching was illegal, or would have been if there were actual laws in the mid zones, so anything from the actual punchers had to be smuggled into the Old States, which meant that collectors went zombie shit for it. The little old guy had a look in his eye that made Smith think that the dude probably wouldn’t sell it.
He stood at the door as Alex gave him a final check, making sure everything was tight and secure. Exposed skin or loose leathers were bad mojo. More than a few punchers died because the zombies found a weak spot and kept digging.
He stepped out into the light and held up an arm for shade as they crowd started to cheer. He walked forward out of the flood light and looked around him. Lots of people were outside the fence, watching the start of the tournament. Punching wasn’t really a spectator sport if you were actually at the venue, but people living out in the mid zones didn’t have a lot for entertainment.
Smith looked at the competition. There were seven of them, Smith had come out last. He recognized two of them, Hiller and Stahl, and they nodded at him. The other five were new or nearly so, as far as Smith could tell. Two of them stood out from the rest.
One was a tanker, somebody who’d opted to layer themselves in armor from head to toe, this one nearly to the point of being spherical. The guy was big, though, at least a head taller than Smith, who was a little over six foot. Someone that big might be able to make the tanker strategy work. He’d be a problem on the wayback.
The other was unique for more or less the exact opposite reason; he was tiny, barely over five feet and slim looking, as far as you could tell beneath the armor. That was fairly rare for a puncher; the game lent itself to people who could mix strength with speed. Small people generally didn’t have enough force behind their punches to get the job done. Generally.
Assuming no major changes to the venue, the tournament would take place in an area two blocks wide, to the end of the town. Roads and alleys were blocked off by fencing, and snipers at the top of the buildings would keep the zombies where they wanted to be. Punching was pretty simple. You were locked in the venue. Somewhere at the other end there were keys. Get there, get them, get out. One key per person.
Smith stepped up to the gate. The man in charge of the gate did a quick scan of the area through the scope on his rifle and turned back to them.
“On your mark”
The gates slid open. The crowd cheer was almost deafening.
The tanker swung a heavy arm at the puncher next to him. The punch drifted forward with the slow certain of a glacier, but it knocked the puncher completely off his feet. Hiller was already moving, a full tilt run. A couple of the other punchers started to sprint. Smith and Stahl left the gate with the same slow jog.
“Move you big dumb fucker.”
Smith glanced over a shoulder. The gatekeeper was aiming at the tanker, trying to get him clear of the gate so he could lock it. The downed puncher was out of it, probably for the duration. Smith noted that he didn’t see the tiny puncher. Worth remembering.
The crowd cheer died down, and Smith heard the zombies. He dropped back from keeping pace with Stahl, trying to get some maneuvering distance. The moan was close, and the moan meant that whatever zombies they had in the area would be attracted to the sound of it.
Smith felt something moving to his left and turned in time to see a zombie coming out of the glass less window of one of the buildings. It landed on it’s feet and began to sprint towards him, faster than it should be.
This was new. Zombies only moved this fast in the first twenty four hours after infection. No venue had ever done that. Smith took off at a dead sprint, aiming to get some distance between them.
He ran sideways, past one of the one of the new punchers, shoving him hard as he went past. The puncher went down hard on his ass, and the runner was on him. Smith heard the dull wet slap of punches, but he didn’t turn around.
He scanned the area. There should be more of them. He noticed movement on the roof across the street from him. No way there were zombies up there. The tiny puncher was running along the rooftop, leaping from building to building.
More zombies were pouring out of the buildings, and they were all runners. Smith counted fifteen of them. The odds were wrong. This was too many runners. The town was basically laid out so that two rows of buildings served as the outer wall, with a row of abandoned buildings in the middle. Smith went for the buildings in the middle. He heard a scream, and saw Stahl go down. Stahl was a hard puncher, but that many runners would get anyone.
The windows on the middle building were covered in plywood, which was new, and they actually had doors. Smith turned and punched a runner as it got within arm’s reach of him. He felt the thing’s jaw shatter under the impact and it hit the ground. He slammed a heel down on its head, once, twice, a full two hundred pounds down on the skull. The thing stopped moving.
Three more were coming in fast and he tried the door. Locked. Figured. He smashed it with his shoulder and stepped inside. He put his weight against and felt the runners slam into. They weren’t afraid of getting hurt, so they hit it with everything they had. Smith slid forward, but he held. Fuck.
The door slammed shut behind him and he dropped to his ass when it did. He took a deep breath and realized that he could see. It was dark out and it should have been pitch black. Instead, a single lamp glowed in the dark. He heard a small whir as a camera in the corner turned to catch him. This is what he was supposed to do, then.
That camera lead was putting out a wireless feed that a production team was picking up somewhere outside the venue. Smith hadn’t seen the armored bus coming in, but he knew it was out there. They would mix it and edit, and then push to a satellite, where people all around the world would pay for the privilege of watching it.
In the Old States, this was illegal, but in a meaningless way. The government had to spend most of it’s time and energy fight outbreaks and sweeping the midzones, so tracking and busting people watching punching on the internet wasn’t very high in their priorities.
Smith kept his back pressed to the door and reviewed his options. The good thing about runners is that their attention spans were short. Shamblers would keep clawing at the door for a while, but runners were going after the next person. He slid and up the door and took a deep breath, held it.
He stepped away from the door and spun, arm raised. Nothing. Probably swarming on the tanker. He grabbed the lamp to the next room. The doors and windows were boarded shut. There were two door ways that would take him out of here, but they were both boarded up. He glanced for the camera, looked at the doors they were covering. Thanks you production.
He pulled one of the boards away, and rotted teeth snapped at his fingers. He stepped back, holding the board. The zombie reached through the gap, stretching for him. He could smell it from where he stood. This one looked to be a rotter, stinking fluids barely held together by a bag of skin.
Smith snapped the two by four in half over his knees. He grabbed the reaching arm and pulled hard. It separated from the rotter with a dull squelch. He dropped the arm, held the broken board with both hands, and drove the point right between the things eyes, or at least where its eyes ought to have been.
Smith tore away the rest of the boards and moved into the next room. No more rotters. He pulled the board out of the thing’s head. He didn’t like this. He suspected that the rest of the punchers had been forced into the buildings, the venue seemed to be constructed that way, but he couldn’t see them, which was a problem. Fuck that.
He had a straight shot through what must have been three buildings back before. He was about halfway through when he fell through the damn floor. He lost the board and the lamp. He barely got a grip on edge of the floor before he went the whole way into the basement. The hole had been hidden by an old, nearly invisible sheet on the floor. Naturally, there was a camera looking straight down into the hole. He should have seen it.
He pulled himself up and something pulled him down. He looked down into hole. A zombie looked up at him, not too far gone. It had a serious grip on his ankle. He could hear more moans down there, shuffling as other moved towards it.
He kicked at the thing, scraping his boot down his leg. He felt one or two of its fingers break, but it held on. It got a grip on his other ankle. Fuck. The other zombies moved around, shoving for position and reaching up. He could feel their hands grabbing at him, but none could find purchase. Smith’s fingers were going numb.
He kicked forward with both legs, swing his bodies as hard as he could. Again. The zombie lost its grip on him and he jerked himself up, got his chest up above the hole. He couldn’t find any purchase on the smooth floor, but he wriggled enough of himself out of the hole to be able to swing his legs up out. He rolled on to his back and took a deep breath. He slowed down his pulse and looked up at the camera on the ceiling. He gave it the finger.
He stood up slowly and inspected his boots and pants. Nothing there. He was a room or two away from the street. The doorway to the next room was boarded up, too tight for Smith to get a grip on the boards. He wasn’t supposed to go that way. He had no intention of walking into any more traps.
The thing about buildings in this town was that many of them had been constructed more than a hundred years ago, the last twenty of which they hadn’t had any maintenance or heat available. So while the doorway might have been secure, the walls around them weren’t.
It took a couple of minutes for him to punch a hole big enough for him to slide through, which he hoped was giving the production team a fit. He really didn’t appreciate the hole in the floor trick, especially considering what he was getting paid for this shit.
He kicked the plywood out of the window and looked at the street. He caught the attention of a couple of shamblers, but he didn’t see any runners near enough. He looked back towards the gate and saw the tanker still there, a pile of zombies in front of him and more runners coming for him.
Smith dropped out on to the street, turned and punched the head of a shambler clean off. The body twitched for a second or two and tried to take a step before it spun and feel. Smith figured that the viewers would love that. He didn’t see any of the other punchers. He figured the runners had herded them into the buildings, and that was going to slow them down.
He had a fairly straight forward run to the end of town, and he could probably get there first, assuming no more surprises. He wasn’t sufficiently stupid to believe that. Between the runners and the trap in the building, he figured that there was more to come. He smiled underneath his helmet and began to jog.
He controlled his breathing and focused on listen. He heard, somewhere faint in the distance, the sound of metal on metal. Then the moan. He started sprinting, heading towards the ancient rusted wreck of a car, left to rot in the street.
The runners were on him fast. Second wave, released when he crossed some unknown threshold. That was good news, because it meant he was the first person to run past this section, at least outdoors.
The runners were nearly on him when he got to the car. He stepped on the hood, the roof, then down the other side. The runners tried to follow him directly and failed. They were fast, but they weren’t agile. A bunch of them went down in a heap and the rest detoured around. It wasn’t much, but it gave him a couple of steps on them.
He didn’t want to go back in the buildings, but he couldn’t take this many runners. There. He zigged across the street and said a prayer to a god he didn’t believe in. There was another car remnant there, and he took at a run. The hood collapsed and his leg sunk hip deep into the car. No engine to stop him. He couldn’t afford the time. He pulled himself up and there was a stab of pain he didn’t have time to worry about.
He kicked the first runner as hard as he could, connecting with its jaw. It would have been a perfect drop kick if he were playing soccer. He got lucky, for once, and the runner knocked down two other as it went down. There were half a dozen right behind it, and they swarmed around the car. He jumped over and landed hard, his hurt leg buckling. He ran again, not nearly fast enough.
Smith slammed an elbow back into the face of one of the runners. It didn’t have much effect. You could damage them, but you couldn’t really hurt them. He needed to get his back to something solid. He was probably fucked either way, but it would give him something.
He could feel their fingers scrapping at his leathers, their teeth breaking and grinding as they tried to find flesh. He turned and grabbed one and slammed it into as many as he could reach. He began punching as hard as he could, feeling the squelch of dead flesh with every blow.
He aimed, as much as was possible, at their mouths. They didn’t have normal human reflexes anymore, so it was easier to knock out their teeth than it would have been if they were still people. Take out their teeth and they wouldn’t be able to kill him as easily. Desperation move.
There were enough of them that they would eventually overwhelm him. He kept punching and moving until his back was up against the wall. This was good. They were only coming at him from one direction, and that meant that he could take them one at a time.
He grabbed the first one he could get a grip by the ears and pulled as hard as he could, slamming it’s face into the brick behind him. The thing went limp as the brain died. One down, a shit load to go.
Something flopped down and hit his shoulder. He risked a look up, and found that the rooftop puncher was looking down at him from three stories above. The puncher had thrown down a length of what looked like power line. Or from Smith’s position, a lifeline. He pressed his back against the wall, grabbed the line and hauled himself up. He kicked viciously at the runners.
They grabbed at him, tried to find purchase on his leathers. He put a foot on one’s head and used it to leap up the line. The line was thick and he was barely able to grab it again, but the move took him out of the runners’ range. They clawed at the wall and tried to climb, leaving red smears on the wall as their fingernails tore away.
Smith was strong, but there was no way he was going to be able to climb three stories up this line. There was also the possibility that his savior was planning on dropping him when he got high enough. It didn’t seem likely but punching wasn’t a team sport and he wasn’t inclined to trust anyone.
It was easy climbing up the building, once he got past the first level. He flopped down on the top level of the building and scanned the roof. He didn’t see any zombies, and he didn’t see any cameras. The production crew would be going apeshit. They clearly hadn’t anticipated this particular course of action.
He kept his back against the ledge and pulled off his helmet, took deep gulps of cool fresh air. He tried to slow his pulse down and let the lactic acid dissipate from his arms and back. He looked at the other puncher, squatting down and watching him closely.
The other puncher pulled her helmet off. Smith was surprised. You didn’t often get female punchers. She was pretty in a rough kind of way. She didn’t look very old, maybe twenty, but weathered already. Quarantine zone refugee, almost certainly. She smiled.
“You’ve got the rooftop view, how’s everyone else doing?”
“Hard to say. I know that Thompson got eaten by the runners. Everyone else is somewhere in the buildings, except for the ox down by the gate. I wasn’t expecting the runners. Not so many anyway.”
“No one was. They wanted us to go through the buildings.”
“How’d that work out for you.”
“I’m out here, aren’t I?”
“You’ve done the rooftop routine before.”
“Yeah. Not here. The producers don’t like it. Last time I ran right over one of the snipers.”
Smith grunted, laughed a little. He knew what she wanted. She stared at him.
“Nothing, just…you’re Skullcrusher Smith.”
“I just never thought I’d be in the same tournament as you.”
“You’re making me feel old.”
“You are old.”
That was true. Smith would be thirty seven next month. He was the oldest active puncher by at least five years. It wasn’t a profession that lent it itself to longevity.
“What do you want?” he said.
“Terrific. Me too.”
“We can help each other.”
“That’s not how the game works.”
“Yeah, well, maybe you should have thought about that before you climbed up here.”
He laughed at that and stood up. Stay down too long and he’d cool off, cool off and he’d slow down, slow down too much and you ended up as zombie chow. He looked over the edge of the building. The runners looked up and clawed at the wall, tried to climb. They were far enough from the tanker that he hadn’t caught their attention.
“We’re wasting time up here,” he said.
“This is a three key tournament. No reason that we can’t help each other get them.”
“The producers won’t like that.”
“Yeah, well, fuck those assholes.”
He laughed. She nodded her head at his leg.
“Plus, I think you’re coming up lame. You’re not going to be able to outrun the runners, and I don’t think you’re going to be able outrun Hiller and Stahl, either. You need me.”
“All right,” he said, “what did you have in mind?”
“We take a straight roof run to the turnaround. You go in and grab the keys, and I’ll take the runners away from you. We meet back up at the gates. I’ll even let you go first.”
It was a good plan. It would probably be against the rules if this thing had any, but hey, like the girl said, fuck the producers. Smith put his helmet on. He didn’t figure the plan would survive contact with the other punchers. But it was good enough for now. Someone running distraction was always good.
The only real problem was the main roads, or what had been main roads. The gaps between houses and buildings to the turn around was usually less than ten feet, more than close enough for them to make the jump between them. But the main roads were thirty or forty feet across, at the very least.
Smith looked down at the road. He could see the tournament crew waiting for them, with plenty of runners locked in cages. They looked up at them.
“They’re going to let them out as soon as we start going down,” he said.
“Fuck, well, that’s problem, isn’t.”
Smith looked down the road, over to the other set of the crew in the distance.
“We get down fast enough, I should be able to lead the runners over and down before the runners from the other side get to us,” she said.
He didn’t see much of another option. They gap was small, and he could see plenty of handholds on the building across the street. He looked at her.
He had to give her credit; she got down the side of the building a lot faster than he could have done it. He had a strong suspicion this was how she’d survived in the QZ. If she survived all of this, he’d have to ask her.
True to form, the ground crew opened the cages on the runners. They were fast, and she had to drop a good fifteen feet from the building to the ground to stay ahead of them. She hit the ground hard and rolled, came up right to her feet. She barely had five feet between herself and the runners as she sprinted away. She disappeared around the corner and the runners followed.
Smith went over the edge as soon as the first runner went by. Runners this fresh would be so consumed with the chase that he didn’t figure they’d see him. The problem, of course, is that runners were drawn to movement, and the dozen runners from the other side would be coming right for him.
He dropped off the building like she did, but without the grace. His leg screamed and he took a limping run at the other building. That move on the hood cost him, and he was slower than he should have been. He barely got across the road before the runners were there, but he managed it.
He pulled himself over the ledge of the building, and she was waiting for him. He could feel her smirk straight through her helmet.
“Show off,” he said.
“I’ve had a lot of practice.”
The second half of the roof run was trickier. They were moving outside of the business section of town and into what had been residential. The houses here were old, and that meant that they were close enough together to make the jumps from rooftop to rooftop.
The problem with that was that they were house rooftops, and that meant a couple of things. For one, they hadn’t weathered the years of neglect nearly as well as the buildings behind them had.
Smith very nearly fell off the roof of one of the houses when the old shingles proved to be attached to the house by force of habit rather than anything else. She, at least, had the decency not to laugh as he scrabbled, kicking shingles off the roof. It probably was funny, if you weren’t the person it was happening to.
Smith paused for a second on the roof to get his bearing, and heard someone running. He looked over into the street, and Stahl was running. His leathers were scratched and torn, but he was moving fast.
Smith grabbed a couple of shingles, took aim and chucked them at Stahl. He missed, but Stahl looked over, stumbled briefly. It wasn’t much, but it was enough for a runner to catch up. Stahl drove an elbow into the runner’s face. It was enough to slow him down.
Smith figured that Hiller was probably still active, somewhere in the buildings. He was smart and strong, and if Smith could dodge the booby traps, then so could he. The tanker was either dead back at the gate or, much less likely, was still back there waiting. Either way, not something that needed to be considered right now. He jumped to the next roof.
They were within spitting distance of the turnaround. It’d been a hotel, at some point. The keys were in there, somewhere. They wouldn’t be hard to find. Watching people blunder around in the dark didn’t make for an exciting game.
Smith was coming down off the roof when Hiller made it to the turnaround. Smith risked a quick look back and didn’t see any runners close enough to matter. He sprinted for the turnaround.
He was two steps in the door when Stahl hit him in the face with a two by four. He went down on his back, hard. Even with the helmet, he had to shake off the stars. Stahl drove the board down hard, trying to spear Smith in the throat. Smith jerked his head just enough and the board scraped down against the side of his neck. He didn’t have time for it to hurt.
He brought arm up hard, causing the board to slide. Stahl overbalanced and stagger forward, trying to catch his balance. Smith grabbed him by the belt and heaved and Stahl went out the door, sliding forward on his chest. Smith saw runners coming as Stahl pushed himself up. Smith slammed the door shut and jammed the board underneath the remains of the door knob, kicked it until it stuck. He heard Stahl thump into the door outside. The board held. It wouldn’t hold for long.
The inside of the turn around was well lit, for once. Smith took a couple of deep breathes and looked at the floor. True to form, there was an arrow painted on the floor. Smith followed it to a fire door.
The shambler wasn’t much of a surprise. Smith punched it so hard that its head fell off. He could practically hear that at home crowd cheering over that. He wondered how damn old it had to be for that to happen. Smith had one foot on the step when he paused. Something wasn’t right.
There was a place where an ax used to be, a cubby hole in the wall. It was closed, nailed shut, but it had been painted recently. Somebody had fixed it. Spray painted the glass. Smith got a finger hold on the door and popped it open.
Beneath the helmet, Smith smiled. Christmas came early this year.
The ax was solid steel, heavy, and the blade looked razor sharp. He took a second to admire it before the door burst in behind him. Stahl staggered in, runners tearing at him. Smith slammed the door behind him and tried to kick the shambler’s body in the way, but it had the consistency of rotten fruit and it was like kicking mud.
He took the steps two at a time, his leg screaming with every step, and he was at the first landing before the door burst open. Runners, no sign of Stahl. The first one in slid in the shambler juice. Smith didn’t wait around to try his luck.
The arrow lead to the third floor. Smith could hear the runners coming up the stairs, that fucking screaming moan echoing up at him. He held the door open with one foot and swung the axe down hard on the handle of the door. The vibrations nearly caused him to drop the ax, even through his gloves. The handle dropped to the floor and Smith stepped through the door.
The first shambler bit his shoulder. This one was evidently fairly fresh, because it actually hurt. It didn’t penetrate, no chance of that, but it hurt. He knocked it clear with an elbow and then slammed the ax into the side of its head. He saw the weird light go out of its eyes as it slammed into the wall.
He yanked the ax, but the thing stayed on it.
He looked over his shoulder and two more shamblers were there, right within arms reach. He let go of the ax and put up his hands. Punchers punch. These were in pretty good shape, as shamblers go. They’d decayed enough that they weren’t able to muster up the kind of speed the runners could, but they were solid enough that he wasn’t going to be able to punch their heads off.
It wouldn’t be for lacking of trying.
He hit the nearest one with a hard right, and he could feel its jaw disintegrate. A hard downward kicked shattered the knee of the other one, and it lurched to the side, suddenly mechanically unstable. He swung the side of his fist into its head and it went down.
He stepped inside the first shambler’s reach and jammed his thumbs into both it’s eyes. They squished like jelly and released with a wet slurp. Another half dozen shamblers were coming down the hall behind it and he pushed that one down to the floor.
The runners were scratching and banging on the door. He wasn’t sure that the handle trick would work to begin with, and he definitely wasn’t sure how long it would hold before the sheer weight of them would knock it down.
He planted one foot on the head of the shambler he’d take out with the ax and got two hands on the ax handle. It was like pulling the ax out of a stump. He got the ax out and looked at the shamblers coming at him.
There were four cameras that he could see, in the hall. This was meant to be a showcase moment. He spun the ax in his hands and smiled. If they wanted slaughter, then he was going to give it to them.
He drove the spike side of the ax into the brain of the first shambler he could reach, and then yanked it towards him. The momentum popped the ax free.
He planted his feet like a batter at the plate and swung as hard as he could at the next one coming, the ax singing through the air at neck level. The thing’s head bounced off the wall and landed at his feet. He kicked it as hard as he could and it actually smack into the face of a shambler down the hall. Highlight reel material, right there.
He drove the spike of the ax into the next one, but they were crowding up on him now, so he kicked one in the chest, knocking down the other two. The ax came free with a slurp as the next shambler tried to get up.
He put his foot on its chest and leaned in, pushing it down to the floor. The ax came around and the top half of its head went away. Something was gnawing on his ankle.
He turned around and the shamber with the gimp knee had belly crawled to him. He brought his heavy boot down on its head again and again. This was probably a bad idea, and he slipped in the gore. He went down to one knee, on his bad leg.
Not fatal, but the last two shamblers were up on their feet. He could hear the blind one running into the wall behind him. He grabbed the ax with both hands, brought it up over his head and through it. It was a good shot, and he split the uprights, the shamber’s face splitting in half. It dropped down face forward.
He grabbed the last shambler’s arm and broke it at the elbow. They didn’t feel pain, but a useless arm is a useless arm. It reached for him with the other one so he broke that too. He grabbed it by the head and slammed it into the wall, shoving it’s head into rotten drywall.
Smith turned and looked at the door to the stairs. The blind shambler was scratching at it. Shit. The handle would still work on this side. He walked down the hall and slammed it’s head into the door frame. Once, twice. It stopped moving and he propped it up against the door.
He didn’t rush going down the hall. He took deep breaths, getting his oxygen back. He kicked the shambler over and pulled the ax free. Not as hard as it was last time. He looked back at the fire door. It was starting to bend in as the runners started throwing themselves at it. No time to fuck around, then.
Smith followed the arrows to a reinforced door. It was retrofitted, and Smith turned the handle and pushed the arrow open with the ax handle. It wasn’t enough, and he through himself against the wall to avoid the runner that was inside.
It came up short, a metal collar and heavy chain keeping it in the room. It slashed at him and opened a long shallow cut across his chest.
He slid back and out of the way. He looked at the runner, straining against the chain. Fucking producers.
The thing’s hands had been hacked off, replaced with long metal knives. That was new, and it didn’t make Smith happy. He touched his chest and his fingers came up red. Not a serious cut, but it could lead to infection if the thing had any of its own blood on it. He looked at the runner and realized where the keys were.
The runner, quite helpfully, had a big red k painted on its forehead. This was going to be tricky, even with the ax. The chain gave the runner just enough space to get into the hallway. He couldn’t easily get past it, and there wasn’t much point in doing so.
He glanced back at the stairway door, which was starting to bend in. He swore to himself and got a good grip on the ax. He tried coming in at head level with the ax, but all he managed to do was peel off a chunk of the runner’s scalp. The runner slashed at him again and he got a stab wound in the rib for it.
It didn’t feel serious, but that was dumb luck, and he wasn’t having much of it. He took the ax in one hand and step closer to the runner, it slashed at him and he batted the arm to the side. He tried to get a grip on its wrist and chop at it with the ax, but he didn’t have the leverage. He hurt the arm, but he didn’t disable it.
He choked up on the ax and charged the runner. He felt one of the knives slide beneath the skin underneath his arm pit, felt warmth spreading. He slammed the top of the ax into the runner’s face, using it like a battering ram. He felt the thing’s sinus collapse, and he pushed it back.
Smith dropped the ax and pinned both of the runner’s arms beneath his own. He stepped in close and drove his head into the runner’s. Dull crunch. He reared back and did it again, slamming his helmet into it so hard that his vision went white.
He blinked it off and he felt the runners go limp. He dropped it to the floor. He checked the wound under his arm. He was bleeding pretty good, but the wound wasn’t deep enough to kill him. At least, not directly. He could feel himself slowing down. Even with the stimulants in the mix, he was fighting fatigue.
He stepped into the room. No more runners, but he did find Hiller, or what was left of him. He’d gotten into the room and released the runner, but without the ax, well, he’d ended up a ground beef. Smith dragged the runner into the room and closed the door behind him.
The door locked from the inside. Thoughtful, that. He took off his helmet. He needed to wipe the brains and blood off, he couldn’t half see. He sat the helmet on the floor and pulled off one of Heller’s boots. The sock was soaked in blood. He frowned and pulled off the other boot. The sock was sweaty but clean enough. He wiped off the helmet and heard the stairway door bust open.
He put the helmet on and grabbed the ax. Waited by the door. No place to run to if they got through. He could hear them scratching and throwing themselves at the door, a pounding like an erratic heartbeat, but the door was holding.
He scanned the room. There was no obvious exit. No windows. He was going to need to make his own exit, but that wasn’t necessarily a problem. First things first.
Cutting the runner open with the ax was hard work. He needed to make sure that he didn’t splatter any of the thing’s fluids into any of his open wounds. He wasn’t sure he was already infected. He wouldn’t show symptoms for twenty four hours.
He couldn’t use the knives the runner had for hands for the same reason; no handles and he was pretty sure the beyond razor sharp blades would slide right through his gloves. He needed to dig down to the thing’s stomach with the spike on the ax in slow and steady chops.
The key, at least, was in the runner’s stomach, where he thought it would be. He pulled out the key, covered in blood and bile and what he was pretty sure were parts of Hiller. He wiped it off with the sock and unzipped a pocket and stuck it in.
Now, he needed to get the fuck of here. The pounding on the door was steady. He knew the runners could smell the blood and gore in here, and they would stop until something else distracted them. Stahl was probably dead, Hiller was extremely dead, at least for another few hours, and the girl puncher was outside. No cavalry coming. The runners would keep slamming at the door until they’d smashed themselves to pulp or the door came down.
Smith looked at the door. The door was pretty much indestructible, from the looks of it, but it was stuck in walls that had gone twenty years of Pennsylvania winters without any tending to. The runners would be in, sooner rather than later. He needed to get out.
He pried the chain that was holding the runner back considered his options. He could chop his way into the rooms on either side of him, but he was pretty sure that the next room over was going to have another key runner in it. The other side was going to be open to the runners. One option left. Smith was going down.
Smith chopped down through the floor. He looked down through the hole. The room below him was empty. He dropped down through, trying to be quiet. The room was lit, and there were camera. All part of the plan. He wondered what other escape routes production had considered.
He stepped into the hallway and he heard them coming. He crossed the hall and closed the door behind him. He wedged a half rotted chair under the doorknob. It wouldn’t take the runners long to find him. They would smell the blood. He kicked out the plywood over the window and stepped out onto the ledge. He was only story off the ground. No problem.
He saw her waiting on the roof of the building across the street. He didn’t see any runners. The moaning and the blood meant that they were probably all in the building. That wouldn’t last. It was a straight run to the gate, but there was no way that he was going to be able to outpace that many runners.
He slid away from the window and signaled to her. A runner can snarling out of the window that he had just busted his way through. It grabbed at him, but it tumbled off of the ledge. He got lucky; it landed on its head. Well, that was one.
“Need some help?” she said.
He looked at the runners in the window, who ripping into each other trying to get to him. He slid further away from them. He thought about grabbing one and pulling it out the window, but he figured that he would end up going down with it.
She was fast, he’d give her that. Seeing her scuttle down the building was even more impressive seeing it from over here. She was on the ground in seconds. She sprinted across the road and into the building.
She came holding what looked like a leg, or least the foot and calf. Probably Stahl.
“Hey! Hey assholes! Dinner is here.”
The runners in the window forgot about Smith and dived out the window. They hit the ground hard. That was good. She backed away, still spraying blood. Around. None of the runners that had taken a dive could still running, but that didn’t stop them from moving towards them.
They flooded out the front door, tearing at each other as they tried to get out to her. They slipped and staggered on the bodies of the runners from the second floor. She hurled the leg into the face of one of the runners and turned and ran. The runners followed.
He didn’t have long. He dropped the ax to the ground, where it landed in the back of a runner that had broken both legs jumping down. It didn’t seem to notice but Smith figured it would look good on camera.
She got about three blocks away before she climbed up what used to be a street light. She jumped from there to a second story window, catching the edge with her fingers. He thought for a moment she was going to lose it, but she pulled herself inside the building and disappeared.
One of the runners turned and sniffed the air, and then looked right at Smith. It ran.
He dropped the ax midway up the house. He tried to use it to help him climb, but it wasn’t happening and he didn’t have the time. It dropped to the ground but it didn’t hit any of the runners. Smith didn’t have time to be disappointed.
He was bleeding, and that was a problem. It meant that unless he went in the buildings again, the runners were going to follow him, and that might not be enough. Runners couldn’t think and they couldn’t really climb, but they could smell blood a long dawn way off.
He looked down at the runners. There were seventeen of them that were still mobile. He didn’t give a shit about the dumb ones that had broken their various appendages and heads going out the window. Those seventeen were the problem.
If the tanker was still alive, then there were the three of them definitely alive. He knew one of the punchers he didn’t know, Thomas, Tomlin, something, was dead on the street. Hiller and Stahl were runner chow. There were two possible other punchers left. Probably dead in the buildings, but maybe not. He had no idea if any of the other keys were running around. Too many unknowns to worry about. Fuck it.
He could hear the runners on the street, following him. That was going to be a fucking problem when he came to the halfway point. He ran, but he didn’t rush. He had the key. He just had to survive.
She was waiting on the rooftop about the main drag. She had her helmet off. She looked almost bored. She looked like she should be smoking a cigarette. She smirked.
“It took you long enough,” she said.
“I’ve got the keys, I don’t need to rush.”
“You got two?”
She held out her hand. He shook her head.
“We have a fucking deal.”
“Yeah, we do, and I still need you.”
She swung at him. He stepped inside it and drove an elbow into her jaw. She spun, she staggered, but she didn’t go down. She grabbed her helmet and swung again. He ducked it and she nearly fell as the momentum carried her around.
She caught her balance and she turned to look at him.
“Do it again, and I will crack your skull open. You’ll distract the runners just fine if you’re dead.”
“Give me my fucking key.”
“At the end.”
She put her helmet on and didn’t say a word. Smith glanced over the edge of the building at the runners. Getting across the road and up the other building was going to be a problem. He could fight off a couple, but not seventeen. He bit his lip. He turned to her.
“You take that side of the building, go halfway down. Let the runners get close enough to taste you. I’ll head over to the other side and then draw their attention.”
“How can I trust you?”
He could feel the hate through the helmet. Hate was fine. Anger was fine. Just so long as it didn’t make her sloppy before she got the job done. She went over the side. No ledges here, so she went down to the window sill. The runners slobbered and moaned. Jumped at her, fingertips leaving bloody stains on the brick, their fingernails long gone.
Smith was down the other side of the building and halfway across the street before the runners came. Not all of them, not yet. He found a handhold, something that was probably used to hold up an awning, back before the virus. He hauled himself up and it snapped. He fell back down into the runners.
He hit the ground flat on his back and got the wind knocked out of him. He felt like his back was broken, but he knew he hadn’t fallen anywhere near far enough for that. He didn’t have time to think about it before the runners began to tear at him.
Smith didn’t have a lot of time. He felt a runners grabbing at the shallow cut on his chest. It tore at him and the leather and the fabric underneath tore. He jammed his fingers into the runner’s mouth and it bit down hard. He pulled it down on top of him.
The runners began to rip at it, trying to get through it to get to him. He felt it go limp as the spine ripped away and he rolled hard against the legs of the runners, his full weight against them. They didn’t have human reflexes and he heard bones crunch.
Smith got to his feet, but barely.
He grabbed one of the runner by the throat, got his other hand on its crotch. He hefted it up and threw it at the other runners as hard as he could. They went down, but not for long. More runners were coming around the corner. He punched one of the ones he hadn’t gotten when he used the other runner as battering ramming, it went down hard and his hand was numb.
Smith jumped up, grabbed a handhold where the bricks gave way to wood. He curled his legs up just in time and two runners smashed into the wall. He put his feet on them as they rose and used them to step off. He got hand on the window ledge. A runner grabbed him by the ankle. He felt another slip off his boot, the gore preventing it from getting a hand on him.
He pulled up as hard as he could, and he was loose from the runner. He got into the window frame, getting his feet underneath him. He stood up. One of the runner leaped and got the same handhold on the window ledge. It heaved itself up and bit him in the crotch.
Smith pushed back away from it as it got a mouthful of crotch. The window had been boarded from the inside, but not recently. Smith fell through it, landing hard on his back. He felt a nail go in his back.
The runner came through the window howling and moaning. He managed to get his feet up before it got to him, and for a second it looked like he might be going to play airplane with the fucking thing. He kicked it off as hard as he could.
He was hoping to kick the thing out the window. It bounced off the side of the window and came straight back at him like a basketball on the rebound. He was halfway up and it was on him again.
It tore his leathers open even more, and almost its teeth in his chest before he got his hands on its chin and forehead. He torqued and moved, smashed its face into floor beside him. He got it in a headlock.
It tore at him with its hands, and he squeezed its head as hard as he could. He bucked as hard as he could. He strained until he heard its neck pop, and then he twisted as hard as he could. He dropped the runner to the side and lay on the floor panting.
The runner looked at him, its jaws worked. He severed the spine, so it was harmless, but they didn’t die unless you destroyed the brain. He could see the hunger in its eyes, and it tried to bite him. It was disgusting, and he was disgusting.
He finished it off by smashing it’s skull with his heel. No point except that he was pissed off that the thing had tried to bite off his dick. He was wearing a cup, but it was the principle of the thing. He wiped his feet on what was left of the rug.
The room he was in had a hole cut in the wall. He looked up at the corners of the room. Cameras were tracking him. He gave one the finger. He stepped into the next room, keeping an eye out for any traps. At this point, he need to get to the damn gate, and he wasn’t keen on going through the building to do it. On the other hand, he needed to get past the runners. If the girl didn’t lead them down to the gate, they’d keep trying to get at him through the end of the building or they’d head down to the tanker. Either one was good.
He was halfway there when he hit another trap, of sorts. It wasn’t much of one, as they went. There was a door. It was the first honest to god door he come across since this happened. He opened it quickly.
Smith couldn’t tell immediately how many shamblers were there. They all looked old. Runners didn’t stay runners for very long. The virus kept their muscles and bodies working in ways that they really shouldn’t, but they didn’t heal, not really, unless they consumed a lot of human flesh.
After the first twenty four hour or so, the cumulative damage started to show, and they began to rot. They kept going, kept walking, but they got dumb and they got slow. They weren’t much of a threat, individually, but enough of them could overwhelm a puncher, and a lot of first timers ended up dead because they didn’t realize how easy it was to get surrounded.
Smith was not a first timer. He stayed in the door way, which meant that he only had them coming from direction. He planted his feet and fired off a series of punches to the first shambler. The last caused its fragile skull to pop and he stepped aside as it fell.
He grabbed the next two and slammed their heads together hard, then again and then shoved them against the other shamblers. He felt the blood sing in his arms and shoulders and he smiled. This job wasn’t all bad.
There were eight of them. More than enough to cause a problem, but these were at least a couple of months old. He beat one of them to death, or whatever passed for death for these things, with its own arm. He was on the last one when the girl stepped through the other door.
“You’re going in the wrong direction,” he said.
“You’ve got my key.”
“Is that tanker still alive?”
“The big guy? Yeah. It looks like a bomb went off by the gates. There are stacks of dead runners and shamblers. I’m beginning to respect the strategy.”
Smith looked at the torn leather on his chest.
“Yeah, me too.”
Smith and the girl stepped out onto the street. Smith looked back, didn’t see the runners yet. He looked at the tanker standing right in front of the main gate. The girl was right, it looked like a bomb had gone off.
There were shamblers and runners both, piled up around the tanker. His back was to the gate and he was waiting. His thick, quilted armor was shredded and torn, and Smith could see the bite proof fabric underneath here and there, but he wasn’t bleeding or bitten.
If you could keep your feet and you were wearing enough protection, you could stand and fight the zombies. They weren’t smart, so you generally only had to deal with a handful at a time as they jockeyed for position. If you were strong enough, you could make it work. This tanker was strong enough.
“You got a plan?” the girl said.
“Kick his ass?”
She didn’t have much of a choice. If the tanker got Smith, she didn’t get a key, unless she could take it off the tanker, which seemed…unlikely. The tanker watched them watching him, raised and hand and beckoned. Bring it.
Smith brought it. He started jogging, picking up speed. He watched the tanker brace for it. Smith sprinted, getting as much speed as he could. He jumped. He planted two feet right in the center of the tanker’s massive chest.
The tanker slammed into the wall behind him, and Smith could hear him let out a woof of air. He grabbed Smith ankles with massive hands encased in what were essentially leather mittens.
Smith had anticipated the tanker actually having speed on top of it. What he intended to do was drive the asshole back or down and then get to the gate and get it open before the tanker could recover.
What actually happened was that he slammed the back of his neck and shoulders into the ground so hard the world went white. Everything came back into focus right as the tanker, still holding Smith by the ankles, slammed him into the wall.
Smith dropped to the ground, landing on something that used to be human. He’d felt a rib go when he hit the wall. Maybe two. Blood filled his mouth. He couldn’t move. The tanker lumbered over to him.
“Where’s my key, fucker?” the voice was prehistoric.
The tanker leaned over, ponderous in his armor. The problem with being a tanker was that the armor wasn’t conducive to agility. This fucker was fast, way too fast, but the weight of the armor and the lack of flexibility made it hard for him to get down to Smith. Which was something, anyhow.
The girl’s hands clamped over the tanker’s eyes.
The tanker roared and stood up. He spun and tried to smash her against the wall, but she was gone before he could. He hit the wall and staggered, but he kept his balance. He got his feet under him and came towards Smith.
Smith rolled over, pushed himself to his feet.
The tanker’s boot, at least a size fifteen, took him in the side, and Smith rolled. He bit down hard and tried to stifle a scream. He didn’t, as razorblade pain went through his ribs.
The tanker went to take a step forward and the girl was there, grabbing his other foot and putting as much of her weight into it as possible. She wished she had a fucking slingshot. She weighed maybe a third of what the tanker did. It was just enough to send him off balance. He stumbled, went down hard on one knee.
Smith got up on his hands and knees. He looked at the tanker, who was roughly in the same position. The girl came around the tanker and kicked him as hard as she could. It looked liked she was trying to kick a field goal with his head.
Smith was on his feet, and he looked down the road. The runners were coming. He dug in his pocket for the key. The tanker swung an arm at the girl, knocking her down. She hit the ground at a roll and came back up.
Smith almost had the key in the lock when she slammed into him. Unexpected, off balance, his ribs screamed. He dropped the key. She caught it, a second before it hit the ground.
There was nothing to say, so he didn’t. She put the key in the gate and the lock was open. Smith grabbed her, got a hand on her helmet. Once quick twist and she’d be gone. The tanker’s fist hit him hard enough that his helmet slammed into hers and hers slammed into the gate.
He felt the tanker’s hand clamp down on the back of his neck and he was rolled away. He tried to grab at the tanker but there was no angle for it. He managed to keep his feet, barely.
The girl heaved the heavy gate sideways, tried to get through but the tanker’s hand were on her and he picked her up threw her away from the gate. Smith slammed an elbow into the runner’s face and went for the gate. The girl was on her feet and sprinting. The tanker stepped over the line.
Smith got there just as the gate slammed shut. The girl screamed. Rage. Pure rage. The runners were there, a dozen or so. Smith put his back against the wall. The runners grabbed the girl, started fighting over her.
Smith raised his fists. He was exhausted, his ribs were smashed. Smith smiled to himself as the runners came.
He felt alive when his fist smashed the first one’s jaw