Our story opens where countless stories have ended in the last twenty-six years: with an idiot—in this case, my brother Shaun—deciding it would be a good idea to go out and poke a zombie with a stick to see what happens. As if we didn’t already know what happens when you mess with a zombie: The zombie turns around and bites you, and you become the thing you poked. This isn’t a surprise. It hasn’t been a surprise for more than twenty years, and if you want to get technical, it wasn’t a surprise then.
When the infected first appeared—heralded by screams that the dead were rising and judgment day was at hand—they behaved just like the horror movies had been telling us for decades that they would behave. The only surprise was that this time, it was really happening.
There was no warning before the outbreaks began. One day, things were normal; the next, people who were supposedly dead were getting up and attacking anything that came into range. This was upsetting for everyone involved, except for the infected, who were past being upset about that sort of thing. The initial shock was followed by running and screaming, which eventually devolved into more infection and attacking, that being the way of things. So what do we have now, in this enlightened age twenty-six years after the Rising? We have idiots prodding zombies with sticks, which brings us full circle to my brother and why he probably won’t live a long and fulfilling life.
“Hey, George, check this out!” he shouted, giving the zombie another poke in the chest with his hockey stick. The zombie gave a low moan, swiping at him ineffectually. It had obviously been in a state of full viral amplification for some time and didn’t have the strength or physical dexterity left to knock the stick out of Shaun’s hands. I’ll give Shaun this much: He knows not to bother the fresh ones at close range. “We’re playing patty-cake!”
“Stop antagonizing the locals and get back on the bike,” I said, glaring from behind my sunglasses. His current buddy might be sick enough to be nearing its second, final death, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t a healthier pack roaming the area. Santa Cruz is zombie territory. You don’t go there unless you’re suicidal, stupid, or both. There are times when even I can’t guess which of those options applies to Shaun.
“Can’t talk right now! I’m busy making friends with the locals!”
“Shaun Phillip Mason, you get back on this bike right now, or I swear to God, I am going to drive away and leave you here.”
Shaun looked around, eyes bright with sudden interest as he planted the end of his hockey stick at the center of the zombie’s chest to keep it at a safe distance. “Really? You’d do that for me? Because ‘My Sister Abandoned Me in Zombie Country Without a Vehicle’ would make a great article.”
“A posthumous one, maybe,” I snapped. “Get back on the goddamn bike!”
“In a minute!” he said, laughing, and turned back toward his moaning friend.
In retrospect, that’s when everything started going wrong.
The pack had probably been stalking us since before we hit the city limits, gathering reinforcements from all over the county as they approached. Packs of infected get smarter and more dangerous the larger they become. Groups of four or less are barely a threat unless they can corner you, but a pack of twenty or more stands a good chance of breaching any barrier the uninfected try to put up. You get enough of the infected together and they’ll start displaying pack hunting techniques; they’ll start using actual tactics. It’s like the virus that’s taken them over starts to reason when it gets enough hosts in the same place. It’s scary as hell, and it’s just about the worst nightmare of anyone who regularly goes into zombie territory—getting cornered by a large group that knows the land better than you do.
These zombies knew the land better than we did, and even the most malnourished and virus-ridden pack knows how to lay an ambush. A low moan echoed from all sides, and then they were shambling into the open, some moving with the slow lurch of the long infected, others moving at something close to a run. The runners led the pack, cutting off three of the remaining methods of escape before there was time to do more than stare. I looked at them and shuddered.
Fresh infected—really fresh ones—still look almost like the people that they used to be. Their faces show emotion, and they move with a jerkiness that could just mean they slept wrong the night before. It’s harder to kill something that still looks like a person, and worst of all, the bastards are fast. The only thing more dangerous than a fresh zombie is a pack of them, and I counted at least eighteen before I realized that it didn’t matter, and stopped bothering.
I grabbed my helmet and shoved it on without fastening the strap. If the bike went down, dying because my helmet didn’t stay on would be one of the better options. I’d reanimate, but at least I wouldn’t be aware of it. “Shaun!”
Shaun whipped around, staring at the emerging zombies. “Whoa.”
Unfortunately for Shaun, the addition of that many zombies had turned his buddy from a stupid solo into part of a thinking mob. The zombie grabbed the hockey stick as soon as Shaun’s attention was focused elsewhere, yanking it out of his hands. Shaun staggered forward and the zombie latched onto his cardigan, withered fingers locking down with deceptive strength. It hissed. I screamed, images of my inevitable future as an only child filling my mind.
“Shaun!” One bite and things would get a lot worse. There’s not much worse than being cornered by a pack of zombies in downtown Santa Cruz. Losing Shaun would qualify.
The fact that my brother convinced me to take a dirt bike into zombie territory doesn’t make me an idiot. I was wearing full off-road body armor, including a leather jacket with steel armor joints attached at the elbows and shoulders, a Kevlar vest, motorcycling pants with hip and knee protectors, and calf-high riding boots. It’s bulky as hell, and I don’t care, because once you factor in my gloves, my throat’s the only target I present in the field.
Shaun, on the other hand, is a moron and had gone zombie baiting in nothing more defensive than a cardigan, a Kevlar vest, and cargo pants. He won’t even wear goggles—he says they “spoil the effect.” Unprotected mucous membranes can spoil a hell of a lot more than that, but I practically have to blackmail him to get him into the Kevlar. Goggles are a nonstarter.
There’s one advantage to wearing a sweater in the field, no matter how idiotic I think it is: wool tears. Shaun ripped himself free and turned, running for the motorcycle with great speed, which is really the only effective weapon we have against the infected. Not even the fresh ones can keep up with an uninfected human over a short sprint. We have speed, and we have bullets. Everything else about this fight is in their favor.
“Shit, George, we’ve got company!” There was a perverse mixture of horror and delight in his tone. “Look at ‘em all!”
“I’m looking! Now get on!”
I kicked us free as soon as he had his leg over the back of the bike and his arm around my waist. The bike leapt forward, tires bouncing and shuddering across the broken ground as I steered us into a wide curve. We needed to get out of there, or all the protective gear in the world wouldn’t do us a damn bit of good. I might live if the zombies caught up with us, but my brother would be dragged into the mob. I gunned the throttle, praying that God had time to preserve the life of the clinically suicidal.
We hit the last open route out of the square at twenty miles an hour, still gathering speed. Whooping, Shaun locked one arm around my waist and twisted to face the zombies, waving and blowing kisses in their direction. If it were possible to enrage a mob of the infected, he’d have managed it. As it was, they just moaned and kept following, arms extended toward the promise of fresh meat.
The road was pitted from years of weather damage without maintenance. I fought to keep control as we bounced from pothole to pothole. “Hold on, you idiot!”
“I’m holding on!” Shaun called back, seeming happy as a clam and oblivious to the fact that people who don’t follow proper safety procedures around zombies—like not winding up around zombies in the first place—tend to wind up in the obituaries.
“Hold on with both arms!” The moaning was only coming from three sides now, but it didn’t mean anything; a pack this size was almost certainly smart enough to establish an ambush. I could be driving straight to the site of greatest concentration. They’d moan in the end, once we were right on top of them. No zombie can resist a good moan when dinner’s at hand. The fact that I could hear them over the engine meant that there were too many, too close. If we were lucky, it wasn’t already too late to get away.
Of course, if we were lucky, we wouldn’t be getting chased by an army of zombies through the quarantine area that used to be downtown Santa Cruz. We’d be somewhere safer, like Bikini Atoll just before the bomb testing kicked off. Once you decide to ignore the hazard rating and the signs saying Danger: Infection, you’re on your own.
Shaun grudgingly slid his other arm around my waist and linked his hands at the pit of my stomach, shouting, “Spoilsport,” as he settled.
I snorted and hit the gas again, aiming for a nearby hill. When you’re being chased by zombies, hills are either your best friends or your burial ground. The slope slows them down, which is great, unless you hit the peak and find out that you’re surrounded, with nowhere left to run to.
Idiot or not, Shaun knows the rules about zombies and hills. He’s not as dumb as he pretends to be, and he knows more about surviving zombie encounters than I do. His grip on my waist tightened, and for the first time, there was actual concern in his voice as he shouted, “George? What do you think you’re doing?”
“Hold, on,” I said. Then we were rolling up the hill, bringing more zombies stumbling out of their hiding places behind trash cans and in the spaces between the once-elegant beachfront houses that were now settling into a state of neglected decay.
Most of California was reclaimed after the Rising, but no one has ever managed to take back Santa Cruz. The geographical isolation that once made the town so desirable as a vacation spot pretty much damned it when the virus hit. Kellis-Amberlee may be unique in the way it interacts with the human body, but it behaves just like every other communicable disease known to man in at least one way: Put it on a school campus and it spreads like wildfire. U.C. Santa Cruz was a perfect breeding ground, and once all those perky co-eds became the shuffling infected, it was all over but the evacuation notices.
“Georgia, this is a hill!” he said with increasing urgency as the locals lunged toward the speeding bike. He was using my proper name; that was how I could tell he was worried. I’m only “Georgia” when he’s unhappy.
“I got that.” I hunched over to decrease wind resistance a few more precious degrees. Shaun mimicked the motion automatically, hunching down behind me.
“Why are we going up a hill?” he demanded. There was no way he’d be able to hear my answer over the combined roaring of the engine and the wind, but that’s my brother, always willing to question that which won’t talk back.
“Ever wonder how the Wright brothers felt?” I asked. The crest of the hill was in view. From the way the street vanished on the other side, it was probably a pretty steep drop. The moaning was coming from all sides now, so distorted by the wind that I had no real idea what we were driving into. Maybe it was a trap; maybe it wasn’t. Either way, it was too late to find another path. We were committed, and for once, Shaun was the one sweating.
“Hold on!” Ten yards. The zombies kept closing, single-minded in their pursuit of what might be the first fresh meat some had seen in years. From the looks of most of them, the zombie problem in Santa Cruz was decaying faster than it was rebuilding itself. Sure, there were plenty of fresh ones—there are always fresh ones because there are always idiots who wander into quarantined zones, either willingly or by mistake, and the average hitchhiker doesn’t get lucky where zombies are concerned—but we’ll take the city back in another three generations. Just not today.
Zombies hunt by moving toward the sound of other zombies hunting. It’s recursive, and that meant our friends at the base of the hill started for the peak when they heard the commotion. I was hoping so many of the locals had been cutting us off at ground level that they wouldn’t have many bodies left to mount an offensive on the hill’s far side. We weren’t supposed to make it that far, after all; the only thing keeping us alive was the fact that we had a motorcycle and the zombies didn’t.
I glimpsed the mob waiting for us as we reached the top. They were standing no more than three deep. Fifteen feet would see us clear.
It’s amazing what you can use for a ramp, given the right motivation. Someone’s collapsed fence was blocking half the road, jutting up at an angle, and I hit it at about fifty miles an hour. The handlebars shuddered in my hands like the horns of a mechanical bull, and the shocks weren’t doing much better. I didn’t even have to check the road in front of us because the moaning started as soon as we came into view. They’d blocked our exit fairly well while Shaun played with his little friend, and mindless plague carriers or not, they had a better grasp of the local geography than we did. We still had one advantage: Zombies aren’t good at predicting suicide charges. And if there’s a better term for driving up the side of a hill at fifty miles an hour with the goal of actually achieving flight when you run out of “up,” I don’t think I want to hear it.
The front wheel rose smoothly and the back followed, sending us into the air with a jerk that looked effortless and was actually scarier than hell. I was screaming. Shaun was whooping with gleeful understanding. And then everything was in the hands of gravity, which has never had much love for the terminally stupid. We hung in the air for a heart-stopping moment, still shooting forward. At least I was fairly sure the impact would kill us.
The laws of physics and the hours of work I’ve put into constructing and maintaining my bike combined to let the universe, for once, show mercy. We soared over the zombies, coming down on one of the few remaining stretches of smooth road with a bone-bruising jerk that nearly ripped the handlebars out of my grip. The front wheel went light on impact, trying to rise up, and I screamed, half terrified, half furious with Shaun for getting us into this situation in the first place. The handlebars shuddered harder, almost wrenching my arms out of their sockets before I hit the gas and forced the wheel back down. I’d pay for this in the morning, and not just with the repair bills.
Not that it mattered. We were on level ground, we were upright, and there was no moaning ahead. I hit the gas harder as we sped toward the outskirts of town, with Shaun whooping and cheering behind me like a big suicidal freak.
“Asshole,” I muttered, and drove on.
END TRANSMISSION: FEED, CHAPTER 1