Morning number five. The first traces of unobstructed light streaked across the horizon, as dawn approached from beneath the canopy of dark grey clouds, setting their bases on fire and glowing luminescent gold.
Silhouetted rotting faces slowly turned toward the east, the nameless mass of former humanity momentarily distracted by the sun’s radiance. They did not comprehend, or were inspired by, the majestic arrival of a new day, but the dead could sense the light and it resembled what they detested shining forth from the living, only without the promise of blood—dawn, unfortunately, was not a suitable placebo, or perhaps they could’ve chased that sphere forever until either their temporal shells betrayed them, or their corneas simply burned out staring up into it.
As was the case with moonlight, lightning storms, and twilight times, the dead became calm during these periods of natural soft light, as if disconnected or disrupted for a short time from the maddening drive to feast upon the living. No one could explain this ‘state’, but perhaps the time for such inquiries was long past, leaving just another strange mystery behind in an alien world where all questions were slowly fading into the background, like echoes, until silence consumed them all.
The collective dead looked almost… peaceful… swaying back and forth, staring off into the east, thoughtless, emotionless, as natural in an unnatural world as trees, plants, or the flowing and ebbing tides once were in ours. They were now just another attraction to behold—not a threat, but not an invitation, either. Just part of the unnatural scenery, playing out before an indifferent morning on a distant planet... void of life.
From the rooftop facing north, above the back of the library, one lone shadow stared off toward the nearest structure, seventy-five yards away. Three quarters of a football field’s length full of the dead, stood between the back entrance of the library and the neighboring office building plaza, specifically one designated alley running down the center of it, which would serve as the escape route… should everything go according to plan.
At the back of the alley, was a chain link fence with a dumpster in front of it. The plan was to make it to that dumpster, use it to scale the fence, and safely escape on the other side. The alley would serve as a bottle neck, as the horde pushed in behind them, jamming the narrow space between brick walls with the dead, and hopefully reducing the number of savages they had to manage until everyone was free.
Crazy Jim stared down at the countdown timer on his wristwatch. Tony had set it for ten minutes before sending him up to the roof.
“Three minutes!” he muttered to himself, excitedly. He stood there for a moment, confused, and trying to remember what the timer was for, or what he was so damn excited about.
Then he remembered. “The books! Of course!” He scurried over to the first of three large library return bins full of outdated encyclopedias and every law book he could find. Each bin was resting on the narrow ledge of the building, one to the far left, one to the right, and the last one directly above the rear library door. Sitting near the center bin was a full gallon gas can and a large box of matches. He grabbed the gas can and matches, ran over to the bin on the left, and started pouring gasoline into the first bin. “Just remember what Tony said,” he reminded himself. “Everything is real and so is the plan.” He quickly doused the remaining two bins with gasoline and then looked at his timer again.
Jim was delighted when Tony told him his part in the plan. He laughed like a giddy school kid as he ran over to the left bin and removed a match from the box. He looked at the timer again.
“Ten seconds! Nine… eight… seven…”
When he counted down to five seconds, Jim lit the match and dropped it into the bin. The books lit up immediately. He waited just long enough for the flames to start rising out of the bin and then he gave it a healthy shove until the bin tipped over the edge, spilling burning books over the side of the library and on to the heads of the unsuspecting dead. The burning bin came crashing down last, right on top of an old woman, setting the ancient zombie on fire. There were several others also on fire as the dead waved burning limbs into the air, igniting the clothing of some standing next to them. Several of the dead’s heads were ablaze.
The second bin on the right came crashing down fifteen seconds later, having the same effect.
The first few ranks of the dead at the front began to move off toward the right and left, distracted by the flames and irritated moans of the burning dead.
That’s when the third and final bin came crashing down directly in front of the library door, causing the dead to scamper back, the first rank already on fire.
Jim leaned over the edge and yelled down, toward the open second floor windows as instructed. “Operation Book Bombs Complete!”
The rear door to the library opened and Alysa stormed out, bowed raised at the closest dead. She started firing arrows in an arc to keep the dead away from the door as the others pushed the barricade vertically through the doorway until it was clear, and then laid it on the ground.
Tony was the second one outside as he immediately began picking up the heavy barricade from beneath. “Alysa! To me!” he shouted.
The archer ran back and quickly helped put the barricade straps over Tony’s large shoulders. “Okay, go!” he said, letting her know he had it balanced.
“Ready!” she called back through the doorway, as she stepped in front of the barricade to launch more arrows into the distracted herd. Her assault, as well as the burning book bombs were keeping a fifteen-foot space clear in front of the door.
The other four exited the doorway dressed from head to toe in duct taped book armor. Mark, Wendy and Nine were all carrying the family crest shields in one hand, and modified coat rack spears in the other. Diane was the only one armed with a gun. In fact, she had four loaded handguns taped to the front of her book fashioned breastplate, all within easy reach and disposable.
“Get in formation!” Nine yelled. “Just like we practiced! Don’t look at them! Stay focused or we’re dead!”
“We’re out of time!” Alysa yelled back.
The smoke and flames from the smoldering dead began to clear as the dead started to reform their ranks.
“Let’s go!” Tony shouted. The bulk of the weight from the arrow barricade was now resting on his shoulders as he lifted it up just above his knees, leaning into it as designed, using the built-in handles to lift it upward, with his forearms resting flat against the inside wall of the barrier. From within the arrow, it looked like Tony was hunched over with his fists raised in a backhanded boxing position.
Alysa stopped firing, slung her bow behind her back and stepped inside the arrow barricade with Tony. She leaned her shoulder in to help him push as she drew a long hunting knife to fend off anything slipping beneath the barricade. Herself and Tony were the only two who were not in full book armor, opting for mobility, rather than protection, they were only covered in book armor from the knees down.
The others quickly pushed in behind the arrow barricade with Diane at the center, back to back with Tony.
The other three brought their shields together, one left, one right, and one directly at the rear, leaving just enough room for their spears, extending outward, to push back against the dead trying to rip the shields away.
“We’re in position!” Nine shouted back from the rear shield. “Go!”
Alysa looked over at Tony. “I hope you’re as strong as you look.”
“Lady… you have no idea,” he said with a wicked smile. Tony looked over the top of the five-foot tall barricade with the built-in wedge that spanned eight feet across, ironically resembling a large open book with the spine facing outward to form the arrow, and let his eyes adjust to twilight shadows coming through the smoke as the dead started reforming their ranks. Fuck me. I’m so close to shitting my pants! This is insane.
“The smoke will conceal our initial charge, giving us the element of surprise… and hopefully mask our scent.” Alysa was speaking more for Tony’s benefit, clearly seeing the terror fill his eyes.
He nodded and crouched down. “On three!” he shouted.
The others moved in tight behind the barricade, connecting their long shields together, and preparing to move backwards into Tony, providing additional force from the rear. Diane became immediately claustrophobic as she was securely pinned in between the shield bearers and the arrow.
“One!” Tony braced his feet to get a running start. There were no rear stairs to contend with or any other obstructions, other than the dead, to interfere with their charge.
Wendy, Nine, and Mark were holding their shield straps and spears so tight, their hands started to go numb.
Tony let loose a growl and pushed the arrow forward with surprising strength.
Alysa pushed beside him.
Diane tapped her one hand on Nine’s shoulder to signal them to move in tandem as they marched backwards, keeping their formation as tight as possible. The hunter did what she could to turn on the move and keep from getting crushed in the middle but still able to reach her handguns tapped across her chest armor.
They could hear the moaning dead before they struck the first rank.
The arrow barricade started plowing through them as Tony picked up good speed. The dead either fell back as the barricade pushed against them, or they bounced off the wedge and were spun off to the side. At first the resistance was minimal, like a car striking pedestrians in the roadway. The dead were still scattered in the front from the book bombs. Tony tried to keep the barricade as low as possible as he pushed forward like a raging bull. The primary concern was if any of them fell beneath the barricade, causing them to stumble over the dead and lose momentum.
“This is working!” Nine yelled over his shoulder.
“Stay focused!” Alysa yelled back. “We’re about to hit the central horde!”
Tony didn’t like the sound of that. He didn’t dare look up over the barricade again, fearing he’d slow down at the sight. Instead, he continued to push with everything he had.
The moment they struck the congested dead toward the middle, Tony felt like he was now pushing a car out of the mud. They slowed down considerably, but were still pushing through the horde. Tony thighs were burning from the effort.
The dead were bouncing hard against the barricade now, getting riled up and screaming at the strange device disrupting their twilight calm.
“Holy shit!” Tony grunted. “I can feel them moving against it now!”
“We’re more than half-way there,” Alysa said, sweating from pushing. “Just keep charging! We stop… it’s over!”
The dead were violently thrown to the sides of the barricade and into the crowd. The dead pushed back against their off-balanced comrades as they hissed and growled at the shield bearers, slamming into their shields with incredible ferocity.
Several rotted arms started penetrating the gaps between shields as Mark, Wendy and Nine were not quite prepared for the first assault from the rear.
“Shit!” Wendy screamed, almost having her shield stripped from her as several frantic hands grabbed it and pulled. She held on tightly and pulled back, losing her spear to do so.
The gap between Wendy’s shield and Nine’s was increasing. They dead were pressing their distorted faces into the gap, gnashing their teeth violently at them like rabid dogs trying to breach a hole in a fence.
And then Diane was there, gun raised at point-blank range, firing into the faces of the dead until she’d emptied the magazine of the first handgun. She dropped it, grabbed another, and continued to fire.
This was enough for Wendy to regain control of her shield and close the gap.
Nine and Mark were thrusting their spears into dead flesh, trying to keep the savages off their shields.
Tony was sweating profusely as it now felt like he was pushing against an armored car, his legs going numb from the effort. And then he felt a strong push from behind as the dead slammed into the rear guard, giving Tony the illusion of super strength as the resistance waned and his charge intensified. “Keep it together!” he shouted. “They’re working against each other!”
Alysa was preoccupied with pushing and keeping the dead off the front of the barricade. She stabbed at several hands that had managed to grab on to the front, pulling the barricade down closer to the ground and leaving Tony exposed. Each time this happened, Tony felt all the weight on his shoulders, as he grunted and struggled to keep the barricade off the ground.
The dead were frenzied now. The ruse was up. They fought against the sides of the barricade and each other to get to the blood bags just beyond their reach. Fortunately, the bulk of the attack was coming from the rear as the sea of the dead before them were still caught unaware of the attack until the arrow penetrated their ranks.
And then all at once, Tony felt no resistance.
“We’re through!” Alysa yelled.
Tony dared a look, but continued to push his legs forward, fearing that if he slowed down, he’d stop completely as his legs cramped up. He could see the opening to the alley, just twenty yards ahead and off to the right. The dead were more spread out near the back of the horde, easily avoided, as Tony maneuvered the arrow among them, until he was aiming toward the mouth of the alley.
Once they reached the shopping plaza, Tony dropped to a knee, his exhausted leg and shoulder muscles screaming in pain. He was breathing heavily as Alysa quickly removed the shoulder straps so he could get out.
The others were still holding their shields up as the rear of the horde now became the front of their disorganized charge.
Diane was firing round after round into the dead, making sure they were within ten feet before firing, to insure accurate one-handed head shots.
When Tony was free, Alysa turned, quickly armed her bow and started firing arrows into the dead.
“Let’s move!” Tony shouted. “Into the alley!” He had already retrieved the rifle he’d slung around his back before the charge, scanning the alley ahead for any surprises. It was clear.
Mark, Wendy and Nine abandoned their shields and spears and started running awkwardly into the alley, ripping away their bulky book armor that was slowing them down.
“Go!” Alysa shouted toward Diane, who was still wearing her book armor.
The hunter nodded, understanding her limitations. Diane turned into the alley, running clumsily toward Nine, who was there to help her get the book armor off.
Alysa started backing into the alley, firing arrow after arrow into the coming horde that slammed into the narrow opening.
Tony was already at the dumpster before the fence, helping Wendy and Mark get up and over.
Nine and Diane were the next to arrive.
That left just Alysa to fend off the reduced, but still substantial number of the dead, pouring into the narrow alley.
Tony shouted over to her. “Alysa! Let’s go!”
“I’ll hold them back!” she shouted. “Get them all over!”
Alysa was a killing machine, each arrow connecting with deadly accuracy.
She reached back into an empty quiver.
Perfect! she thought, a devilish smile lighting up her face.
She had just enough time to raise her bow, holding it in two hands like a staff, as a large zombie reached in to bite her face, and bit into the bow instead. The archer released the bow and stepped back, her hunting knife already drawn as she stabbed the next one in the forehead, losing her knife. She was now fighting hand to hand combat with the dead as she punched and kicked against them, her martial arts skills just as lethal and fast as her ability with the bow. But she was clearly outnumbered.
They swung their arms, tried to grab, scratch and pierce her flesh with rotting teeth. She was quickly running out of steam. In a few moments, they’d overwhelm her. “So be it!” she screamed into the cannibals’ determined faces, preparing herself for one more glorious final charge.
Tony was there, firing his hunting rifle right beside her. He managed four shots before the dead were just too close. The big man growled like a maniac and started swinging the rifle down on the heads of the dead. He swung the rifle around again and again, somehow managing to stall the dead enough to allow Alysa to catch her breath.
For a moment, she just stood there, amazed by the incredible force the clearly exhausted man was exerting.
Tony yelled back, “Go! Now!” He screamed again at the dead and swung the rifle around so hard that it shattered on the jaw of a zombie twice Tony’s size. Tony then kicked the stunned zombie in the gut, knocking him back against the front of the line. Tony was about to charge again, but Alysa grabbed his right shoulder.
He turned, fist raised, eyes only seeing red.
“Down, soldier!” she said. “We have to move!”
He nodded as the dead resumed their charge.
Tony and Alysa ran to the dumpster, and helped each other up, barely avoiding the tangle of frantic arms that tried to grab at their legs.
From the other side of the chain link fence, the others were calling out to them while trying to distract the dead. Diane was firing what she had left from her handguns.
Both Alysa and Tony looked spent but managed to scale the fence and fall off the other side.
The others helped them to their feet and they ran, never looking back.
The dead quickly filled the back of the alley and pushed against the fence.
Minutes later the fence fell over and the dead poured through like flood waters breaching a dam.
But those precious few minutes were enough. They had escaped.