Jergen

Freya’s laughter still haunts me five years later. It is so very difficult to imagine such a melodic and lilting tone spilling from her mouth, a beautiful giggle as she executed poor Donaldson. At any other moment in the history of man, such a laugh would incite thrilled joy, but not after the Fall, not in that situation. Donaldson shrieked, bellowing in pain as he fended off his assailant, blood dripping from the ragged wound on his exposed hand as the zombie staggered backward, the creature already repositioning itself for another lunge. He remained collected until the very end, leveling the barrel of his rifle toward the beast, crooking his finger, and watching the thing fall into a wrecked mass on the ground. Sickly wet trails of brain and grime trickled down the wall behind the creature, and all I could do was stand frozen in shocked silence, watching as the others in our team struggled to fight off the incoming wave. My hands itched to reach for my medical bag, to dress the man’s wound, treat it with peroxide, alcohol, iodine, anything!

No, no. Poor Donaldson was already dead as soon as those teeth tore in the meat of his left hand between the thumb and forefinger. He often boasted of how he would take out the deadhead that brought him down, and I am proud to have witnessed his moment of glory. The others shouted, screamed, discharged their weapons into the wall of human flesh coming at us from all sides. Donaldson turned, embracing his fate, somehow willing to have his life ended with a Valkyrie’s saving grace. I saw the look in his eyes as he turned, and he looked eager if anything.

Freya–that other creature–she… Why couldn’t I have done anything? Why can’t we save those infected with the Ereptor virus? Why? It shifts through the body so quickly, faster than any known disease in all of medical history. We know how it attacks, but there’s nothing we can do to stop it. Even as he turned to meet Freya, black spots blossomed on the skin of his mangled hand. He held the hand against his chest so as to keep the blood from infecting the rest of us, gritting his teeth as he looked into his savior’s eyes.

She laughed at him.

The sound made my soul lurch, and I took an involuntary step backward. My hand still itched for the medical kit–inasmuch as it’s become my own beacon against the post-Fall darkness–but nothing in my possession would stop me from hearing those beautiful tones. The rest of the team fell back a step, the giant Sasquatch shouting something over his shoulder, words drowned in the din of curses and gunfire. Freya’s lips moved to form unheard words. Donaldson knelt, slumping forward as he laid his rifle on the dim room’s floor. Both hands shook, more spots blooming on the skin. He looked up, and I saw the horror and confusion. I thought for a moment he may stand again to continue the fight.

That giggle crept through me again. I started to say something, but I stopped as she fired her pistol at the wounded Soldier. Donaldson slumped forward, coming to a rest in a protective pose around his weapon. Someone else shouted, but I could bear the insult no longer.

I sprang across the room in fewer strides than I thought myself capable, crashing against the Valkyrie and pressing her against the wall. Gunfire continued, but I detected a momentary break in the rhythm. Sasquatch, shouting again. No time for that. I held Freya pinned by her shoulders, and it was only then that I saw the madness in her. One of my hands balled into a fist, and I suppressed the urge to waylay her. I doubt I would have been able to anyway.

“Problem?” she said. I cringed at the beauty of her smile.

Words failed me. I stared into her eyes, watching as they flickered between myself and Donaldson’s corpse. Sasquatch shouted again, and I shouted back for him to shut up and keep fighting. I brought my fist against the wall, feeling my body tremble as I forced my eyes to keep looking into hers. “Why?” was all I could say. No outrage, no pity, only that one dumbfounded word. Why, and it hung between us for its own eternity.

She licked her lips and stopped looking to Donaldson, focusing on my alone. “You really want to know?”

Cheerful.

I shivered, but I nodded.

The roar of combat almost drowned her words from me, but I focused. We were the only two people in the universe. “He wanted to go to Folkvangr.” I furrowed my brow, but she continued. “Begged for it. Screamed for it! Didn’t you hear?”

I leaned in further against her, feeling a distant hand curling into a fist again.

“Do you pray for Folkvangr?” she asked.

I closed my eyes, bowed my head, kept myself from crying as I shook.

“It’s my place.” Her voice was distant. “I’ll take you there if you ask. I sent many before him.”

To my left, the team pressed harder against the undead. How many of the soulless ones were there? If they kept coming at us, they would soon block our exit. Someone else shouted something, but I no longer held the strength to respond.

“You need only ask,” she said. Her hands shifted between us, and I heard the metallic sounds of her readying her pistol. “Better if you scream.”

I pounded my fist against the wall and backed away. I itched yet a third time for my medical supplies, but a more distant part of me thought it more prudent to search for my own gun. What was the penalty for terminating a mad Valkyrie? No matter; I would have to do something. She would have killed us all if left to her own devices.

“Don’t hurt me,” she said in dulcet tones.

I fell to my knees somewhere near Donaldson’s body. The rest of the team noticed him already, but they had no time to react. If they reacted, they would join him. If they reacted, they would be no more than another treat for Freya.

A hand came upon my shoulder. When I looked up, she was kneeling before me. “You can’t hurt me,” she said. Freya leaned in close, and I felt the rush in my core that many men feel when so close to a beautiful woman. She pressed against me tightly enough that I expected to feel her chin cradle against my shoulder, but instead I felt hot puffs of air against my ear as she spoke in a whisper.

“I am a god.”

I closed the door behind me as I entered Pauper’s small office. A tiny lamp hummed quietly in the corner, casting the room in an eerie glow. In the old days, I imagined the room blazing bright as the sun, but having the lights back on did not yet give us leave to again waste energy. Pauper ruffled through a mound of papers on his desk, seemingly at random. One upward glance told me he would be ready in a moment, but he seemed to have better command of the situation than the man who stood twitching at his side.

I knew I recognized the man from somewhere, possibly another Medic, but he did not have the look of someone who spent much time out in open combat. He was starting to forget, starting to fall back into the mundane lives we all faced before the Fall. How long since he saw a loved one die before his eyes? How long since he looked at a human’s face–zombie or otherwise–down the sights of his gun? The left side of his face was swollen, though, bruised and purple. I wondered what happened to the man–did someone punch him?–but he kept his eyes down, hands unsure where they wanted to be as he rocked on his heels and shifted at Pauper’s side. The balding man sometimes raised his hand and opened his mouth, and on his fifth venture I noticed the gap between his teeth. A missing canine as I recall.

“Okay,” Pauper said. I snapped my eyes back to the man, but I held my tongue. Pauper’s summons already made me nervous; he was more suited to research and development than made me comfortable. I hardly thought of myself as a surgeon, but I’ve done my share of combat medicine and triage. Perhaps a few more hasty amputations than I want to think on as well. “I’ll be honest,” he continued. “It’s going to be rough.”

“We can handle it,” I said. A distant part of me doubted that we could. We were still reeling from a mission several months earlier, one where we lost a Soldier of our own and let the Valkyrie die. The Valkyrie died! And the Historian was the one left with her execution. Other squads were sympathetic to our failure, but I felt the weight of that special shame, carried it each day. Since the Fall, we ingrained ourselves to believe the Valkyrie would be the last person to die, but there we were, riding back to Atlanta with tails between our legs after an aborted mission. Valkyrie and Soldier dead, Historian locked away in therapy, and another Soldier out on bereavement.

We could handle it. We had to handle it. We had a number of successful missions since then, but high command no longer gave us difficult missions. If we could not handle Pauper’s request, then perhaps we really were cursed, as I heard some of the men whispering amongst themselves when they thought I could not hear.

“We need more samples,” Pauper said.

“Samples?” I said. “I saw dozens on the way in.”

Pauper shook his head. “They’re no good.”

“Why not?”

He cut his eyes to the balding man at his side before turning back to me. “Viral research is getting us nowhere,” he said. “We can’t cure it, and we can’t prevent it. We’re all lucky to be immune to the airborne variety, but that’s where it stops.”

“You’re dropping medical research?”

“Not quite.” Pauper splayed his hands wide against the desk, palms toward the ceiling. “We may find ourselves lucky, but I doubt it.” The man at his side fidgeted but held his silence. He opened his mouth for a moment, just long enough for me to see his tongue flick into the gap between his teeth, but then he resumed his study of his feet. “We’re looking into weaponry.”

I didn’t understand, but I nodded anyway. “What does this have to do with me and mine?” I asked. We fancied ourselves long-range scouts, pioneers of the broken tomorrow. Yes, we had a handful of failures, but I imagined we were otherwise successful. We had bad luck with Valkyries, that was all.

We were a disgrace, even if no one would say so.

“It’s a, ah, unique mission. You won’t be clearing anything this time.”

I arched an eyebrow.

“Oh, I imagine you will be, don’t get me wrong, but that’s not the purpose. We’re sending you on a retrieval mission.”

I thought for a moment. “The target isn’t a group of survivors, is it?”

“You’re smart,” Pauper said. “That’s why we’re sending you, and damn the track record you dwell on. We’re sending you because you’re smart, you and your team, and I honestly know that you’re one of the few most familiar with the horror of it all. Oh, don’t make that face, you know I don’t mean offense. You’re a smart bunch, and we know you’ll be cautious. Can’t have you shooting up the place indiscriminately on this one.”

“But you already have samples,” I repeated.

Pauper laughed. “What we have is a bunch of bullet-riddled, thrice-amputated meatbags. All we can tell is that they’re filled with stem cells and that they can grow parts and organs we’re not familiar with. Jergen, we’re looking for combat testing, but the ones we have are no good for that. Tissue samples, shit like that. We need one in here that’s at least less than half-rotten.”

“You’ll be hard-pressed,” I said.

“Again, that’s why we’re sending you.”

“Who else?”

Pauper shook his head again, not daring to smile. “You and your team. That’s it. Everyone else is focused on clearing north at the moment, or else they’re out in Alabama doing long-range settlement sweeps. Your team is still getting to know each other after–” He hesitated, and I felt myself flinch. “After Drayton,” he finished. “This will be a tough one, but I’m confident that you can get it done. I’m giving you this because I have faith in you.”

Because I need redemption, I thought.

“Fine, fine.” It would be a good chance to see how the new guys would hold up. Stargazer seemed a decent enough fit into our group, even if he did have his head in the clouds more often than not. Damn fine Soldier, though. Sledge was an excellent fighter as well, but I think Carter perhaps found him a bit… Well, pious.

“I have faith in you, Jergen. I think the seven of you can handle it.”

I looked to the man at his side again, then back to Pauper himself. The other man stood silent. “Who is the Valkyrie?”

The man at Pauper’s side raised a tentative hand against the side of his head, stroking fingers along his earlobe before letting his arm dangle at his side again. He opened his mouth, probed his tongue against the canine gap, then raised his hand to rub the palm over his bare scalp. It was altogether uncomfortable to watch.

“Come on, Jergen,” Pauper said. “You’re still hung up on that? How long ago was that?”

I said nothing.

“Patience,” Pauper said after a moment.

“Never heard of her.”

“She’s good,” Pauper said. “Keeps her head down, knows what she’s doing. Very professional. Clean psych record. We know your preferences–trust me, you made that clear to all of us–and we’re making sure to send you with one of the best. Try not to make use of her abilities, though.”

“Of course.”

“Great. You’ll be leaving in two days. Frankly, where you go is up to you. Find somewhere that’s mostly cleared but not completely. Remember that we need something whole if you can.”

I exhaled. “This is going to be a bitch, isn’t it?”

Pauper nodded. “You’ve got that much right.”

“We’ll get you the freshest zombie we can find then. You won’t even know it’s dead.”

Laughing softly, Pauper stood and extended his hand across the desk. “Knew we could count on you, bud.”

I leaned in and grasped his hand with mine, giving a few firm pumps before backing away. “You always can. Dismissed?”

“Dismissed.”

I turned to leave, and a hand came onto my shoulder as I grasped the doorknob. I looked behind and saw the balding man looking at me. Someone put the fear of life and death into him, and recently. “You’ll get us something we can use, right?”

I gave what I hoped was a winning smile. “You can count on us.”

The man gave a weak nod, and his grip tightened against my shoulder.

“Lay off him, Lloyd,” Pauper said. “He’s got you covered. She’s suspended anyway.”

Lloyd nodded and released me. I offered a quick bow to the two men as I closed the door behind me, turning again to the fluorescent hallway outside. As the door clicked shut, I heard one word that refired my doubts about the mission’s success.

Freya.

Carter swore loudly as he staggered over a broken chunk of pavement, coming to an awkward halt against the burned-out shell of a Chevy Malibu. He steadied himself against the car’s driver side, repeating his curse before laughing at himself. The troublesome bit of asphalt skittered across the street surface until it bounced off the tire ofa  car several feet away.

“Damn roads try harder and harder to eat me every time I step foot outside,” he said.

Keeper sniffed. “You’re going to blame your clumsiness on highway maintenance?”

Carter splayed his hands wide before readjusting his AR-15 in its shoulder sling. “All I’m saying is that if GDOT would get off their asses and give this road the repave it so desperately needs, I wouldn’t be eating gravel on half these trips.”

“You should contact your congressman tomorrow,” Keeper said.

Carter and Keeper were in the lead as usual, alongside Ogre and Sasquatch. Stargazer and Sledge held the rear, scanning behind to make sure no deadheads caught us unaware while we watched boisterous Carter. The group naturally fell in that way. I think Stargazer and Sledge still felt like outsiders; we’d been together for three years by then, so I suppose the camaraderie would be intimidating on its own. Sasquatch moved forward to make another joke at Carter’s expense, but our rear guard only watched with distant interest. Although they rarely made a move to join the rest of us, I knew from private conversations that both men were more than intelligent and capable enough.

That left Patience and myself in the middle surrounded by a ring of Soldiers. Her beauty may not have been overwhelming, but she was attractive in a prim and quiet way. In her late twenties, she somewhat reminded me of my wife at that age. Part of me did long to speak with her at length for that very reason, but I reminded myself that she was a Valkyrie, and that my luck as such had been utterly atrocious. Instead, we plodded along in silence, she with her head down and casting the occasional glance forward, and me with an eye on Carter–and the other five, for that matter–to make sure he did not break his fool neck. like the others, he was an excellent Soldier, but he was prone to bouts of jackassery when bullets weren’t flying.

The weight of medical supplies in my backpack was heavy enough that I often wondered if I could convince Sasquatch to add it to his load, but I kept it and prayed that my burden would never lessen.

Atlanta was dead; there was no arguing that. How busy would the corner of Piedmont and Andrew Young have been three years earlier? Much of the reanimated had long since been exterminated, but this was still downtown Atlanta. Sweeps cleared much, but Atlanta held millions before the Fall. Cars stood in orderly lines as though there never had been a panic. Stretches of interstate descended into madness, but downtown only lied in wait.

Carter bent and scooped the troublesome chunk of pavement and laughed before sending it sailing through a fourth floor window in the Georgia Department of Labor. The laugh and sound of breaking glass echoed through the dead streets. I suppressed a shudder, but no one said anything. Patience cut her eyes to me quickly, but then resumed her emotionless scanning of her feet.

Moss covered the roads all over uninhabited portions of Atlanta. In places it crept up the sides of the city’s skyscrapers, giving the edifices a green hue even at a distance. I never spent much time in the South (a handful of vacations in South Carolina, but those were always along the coast), but locals assured me it would be only a matter of time before kudzu swallowed the city whole. I’d seen enough of it three months ago in Drayton, saw the way it strangled the life out of the trees it met. Perhaps kudzu is the zombie of the plant kingdom.

Several tattered umbrellas swayed in the breeze as we climbed the hill past the Department of Labor. Tables sat empty and overturned, and I saw that many of the umbrellas had blown away entirely in previous storms. Six held fast, frayed cloth blustering in the breeze, grimy with the look of mildew.

“Too cold for this shit,” Carter said, rubbing his hands together for emphasis.

“And you haven’t even recited you atheistic doctrine to Patience here,” Ogre said.

Carter barked a laugh. “I thought I’d leave it to you. Surely you’ve memorized it by now.”

“You keep changing it,” Keeper said. “What is it this week?”

“Fuckin’ corn syrup.”

Sasquatch grinned before the uncontrollable laugh spilled through. The others joined in, but none asked him to elaborate. I found myself smiling with them, a part of me wanting to hear this rant of his, and another thinking that he made it up on the spot but would somehow find a way to tie it in to his beliefs. I turned to see Stargazer and Sledge talking quietly between themselves, looking backward every five seconds or so to make sure we were not surprised. When I looked to Patience, she still held her eyes focused on the mossy pavement.

Carter looked over his shoulder at me, then back to the road ahead. “Why downtown, Doc?”

I pointed ahead to the open sky. “Peachtree Plaza,” I said. “The Westin used to stand over there, but it… Ah, it fell during the Fall.”

“And?”

“And I think there were probably some zombies in there when it fell. I checked with Records, and it looks like there was never a mission to clear zombies out of the rubble. The surrounding streets, yes, but no one ever went through the Westin wreckage. I thought it would be as good of a place as any without having to make a long haul.”

“And we’re walking this thing back to Emory?”

I nodded. “That’s the plan. We’re going to restrain it, and I’m going to try sedating it.” I had horse tranquilizers and syringes among my medical supplies, but even I had not thought of how exactly to get them in whatever zombie we did find.

“If it was never cleared, there may be more there than we bargained for,” Sasquatch said.

“Perhaps, but I’m hoping most were crushed during the collapse.” There would have been living humans in the falling building as well, and the thought made me grimace. Logic always felt cold. “If we can get to the Westin lobby, we might find one trapped behind blocked doors. Most of these buildings here are clear, but Westin might have been spared.” I sighed. “I hope so anyway.”

“Sounds like a suicide mission,” Carter said.

I wanted to chastise the man for being so blunt in front of the new team members and the Valkyrie, but I wondered if he might be right. Maybe Command realized we were cursed and sent us into the city to be rid of us once and for all.

No, of course not.

Patience never spoke, only kept her eyes on the road. I wanted to speak with her, but that track record with Valkyries never left my mind. The situation may see that she put a bullet through my skull. I wondered if I would beg as Freya once suggested.

I shivered, but only Patience saw.

She studied me for a moment, then looked back to the road.

We crested the Courtland intersection and noticed for the first time how far the sun had slide down the western horizon. I checked my watch; almost 5:30, and the rays slanted long. A chill breeze reminded us all that winters in the South were cold enough, even if they rarely trapped people inside with feet of snow. Our gear was insulated, but only lightly so. None of us wished to stay out in the cold or trudge toward the Westin in the dark. I cursed myself for not driving the men out sooner. We waited until after noon, but I thought perhaps a late start would save us the trouble of returning to the Emory Perimeter after spending the night with a zombie. This would not be a single-day mission after all, but I would press the men as hard as I could to keep it from going over two.

“Let’s set up camp for the night,” I said. “We’ll finish this tomorrow.”

“Good idea,” Carter said. He craned his neck, looking at different towers in the area, but he could not seem to make up his mind. I looked again to Patience; I would not claim to know anything about downtown Atlanta. I knew it was green–maybe not a bright green, but green nonetheless–but I didn’t know if local hotels would be primary strike targets for previous missions.

Stargazer stepped forward and paused at my side, looking left, south. Sledge came to my right and looked north along Courtland. “How about that?” Sledge said. He inclined his head toward and elevated walkway, leading away from a tall building.

I nearly shook my head when I saw the motel. “The Marriott?” Mar iot arq is if weather and decay had anything to say about it. I imagined the missing letters lying worn and flat against the ground in front like a giant’s discarded Scrabble tiles.

“Maybe,” he said. “I’m really just tired of walking uphill if I’m going to be honest.”

Carter snorted at that but showed nothing less than agreement when I looked at him.

“I’d like to see what’s in that building with the walkway,” Sledge added. He pointed up to the long, covered walkway that ran along the street in front of the Marriott and in the direction of the Westin. “We have sleeping bags unless anyone’s more interested in sleeping in a rat-infested bed with moth-eaten sheets.”

Others nodded their agreement, so we descended north along Courtland until we came most of the way to the next intersection. I spied the delinquent R, T, and U missing from the Marriott sign, but there was no trace of the M from the Marquis half. Odd, but I let it go. I still cannot imagine where it went.

The building Sledge indicated was the Peachtree Center Athletic Club. After a quick scan, Sasquatch declared the area clean, so we made camp, stayed up late, and later slept behind locked doors.

The young woman twisted on the stool before me, eyes trying to see my own as I held the tongue depressor in her mouth. I craned my head forward, tilting the flashlight with my other hand to better see the back of her throat. The action in itself was unnecessary; the pattern of spots along her skin belied her true condition, though none ever wanted to hear such a flat diagnosis. No doubt that it was the Ereptor virus—the Dots, as most called it—but patients lined my waiting room to hear a professional opinion. No doubt a Google search told them they all had lymphoma. Even as I sat before her, I wore a mask over my mouth and wore double latex gloves over both hands. Perhaps I did not instill the greatest confidence in my patients, but I had to take my own precautions against the outbreak.

She coughed feebly, and I withdrew the depressor from her mouth.

“Sorry,” I said, wheeling myself back slightly.

The woman held up an apologetic hand. “My fault,” she said, turning the hand to her chest. “Just needed to catch my breath.”

“I understand.”

On the countertop next to us, my cell phone hummed loudly, dancing a jig over the surface. I sighed, but otherwise ignored the device. I’d given my private number away to far too many patients in my day, and I knew I would have  no fewer than forty missed calls and voice mails waiting for me when the day ended. It was already well past four o’clock, and I expected to be seeing patients until past eight. At least I had Christmas behind me.

“Are you going to get that?” she asked.

I turned to the phone as it stopped its dance. “Looks like I missed it,” I said with a grin. “Besides, we still need to get you checked out.” The phone buzzed again once to indicate yet another voice mail, and then it was silent.

The Ereptor virus blazed a path across the nation. Yes, the mortality rate was low at that point, but the symptoms were severe enough that the medical community expected the worst. Not many deaths, but I expected to hear that several thousand died all at once any day now. This on the heels of a declaration of war against North Korea after the terrorist attack on Akron, and public outlook appeared dismal at best. People were afraid, and that kind of stress always leaves a disease with an easier path. I’d seen plenty of outbreaks in my years as a doctor, but the Ereptor virus would be my first pandemic. As it struck the lungs and bronchial tubes, people lined up to see their EENT. I may have gotten away from my practice by eight that night, but I would have considered myself lucky not to be called in to pick up slack at the local ER.

My patient—I remember her name was Patricia—held a hand up before her eyes and turned it over, leaning in closely to examine the spots on her flesh. “Do you—“ She closed her eyes, licked her lips, and started again. “Do you really need to check me out? We both know what this is.”

I pursed my lips and nodded. “You seem to be handling this better than most others I’ve seen,” I said.

Patricia smiled. “Thanks. I’m trying. So what’s the word?”

“Well, from a preliminary examination, I can tell you that it’s the Ereptor virus.”

“The Dots?”

“Yeah. Yeah, the Dots.”

“I already knew that,” she said.

I leaned back on my stool and propped an elbow on the countertop where my phone rested. “I know you did.”

She nodded and leaned back on the small cot, crinkling the paper as she put her hands down. “Is it as bad as they say?”

“I’ll be honest with you. I don’t know.”

Her brows furrowed, but she seemed to understand.

“There’s a lot we don’t know about it,” I continued. “We don’t know if it’s fatal. Signs so far seem to point to it not being fatal, but that may be optimism. It’s early to tell yet.”

“Am I . . . going to die?”

Damn, the woman kept striking at the heart of the conversation.

“I hope not,” I said. “It depends on if you want honesty, or if you want the sugar-coated answer.”

“Honesty, please.”

It wouldn’t be easy. I wanted to tell her she would be fine, then sit back as she yelled at me to give her antibiotics. So many people yelled that a-word at me in the past weeks that I was tempted to prescribe Flintstone vitamins to get them all to shut up and leave me be. Many of them got the antibiotics they wanted, but I wanted to tell them all how useless the pills would be.

“We don’t know if it’s fatal,” I repeated. “It’s an aggressive virus, though.”

“How does it happen? The news doesn’t keep the story straight.”

I drummed fingers on the countertop, but kept myself from falling into my nervous habits. “Well, what we’ve seen so far is that it shuts down body systems. Rather slowly, it seems. Liver and kidneys are usually the first to go, but there are many patients in hospitals now able to keep going. So far the virus seems to leave the circulatory system intact. It will not shut down the respiratory system, but it does constrict everything.” Patricia coughed into her hand again, and I hoped it was a hypochondriac reaction to a list of symptoms. “Patients report moderate to severe headaches. The brain doesn’t die, but there have been reported instances of psychosis. Nausea, sweating, other symptoms.”

She closed her eyes and shook, but I never saw a tear leak through. Then she opened them and looked to me again. “Thanks,” she said. I raised an eyebrow, but she smiled and continued. “No, really. Thanks. I know it was hard to tell me all of that, and I appreciate the honesty. There were a lot of sick people out there, though, so I guess we’re all in this together.”

I wanted to say that we were, but I felt fine.

A knock came at the door, and I ignored it. Leave it to the same fate as the phone. Patricia looked to the door then back to me, but I kept my eyes on hers to let her know she was my patient now.

The knock returned, and Patricia shifted uncomfortably. “I should probably be going now,” she said.

“Nonsense,” I said, standing. “We’ll get you some kind of medicine before you leave.” My mind screamed that there was no medicine to give her, none to make her feel better anyway. More Flintstone vitamins, and I would shove her out the door to keep the line moving. “Let me take care of this, and I’ll be right back.”

The knocking came louder, and I flung open the door, stepping out into the hallway with anger blazing. My office clerk Janet stood before me, wringing her hands. Still no spots on her skin, so I was thankful for small miracles.

“What?” I said. “I’m in there with a patient. What do you want? What’s gone wrong now?”

She grabbed my hand and rubbed a thumb over the back. “Bruce,” she said.

Anger burned out of me, and I squatted a bit to get on her level. “What is it?” Less anger in my voice, but she had to know I had a patient on the other side of the door. “What’s wrong?”

“Dr. Kurosawa called from St. Anne,” Janet said. “It’s Dana.”

“Shit,” I whispered. I spun around and opened the door again, rushing to the countertop with my phone on it. Patricia squeaked as I reentered, but she said nothing. I thumbed the phone onto life, then quickly tapped the security code to unlock the device. 28 MISSED CALLS, it said in a blocky text. A symbol pulsed at the top of the screen indicating voice messages, but those could wait. Had the phone really rang so many times without my checking it?

I scrolled through the missed call list. Many of the older ones were from numbers with which the phone was not familiar. Most likely former patients of mine. The newer ones, though. Dana, Dana, Dana, St. Anne, Dana, Kurosawa, Kurosawa.

“Is everything all right?” Patricia asked.

I turned and raked my free hand through my hair. “Yeah. Yeah, I think so.” I hoped she wouldn’t fault me for breaking a vow of honesty.

“I can give you a minute if I need to,” she said.

I nodded absently, returning to the phone’s home screen, this time to notice missed text messages. The latest one was the only one I needed. “Dana is in ccu. Might be bad.” That one was from Kurosawa as well. How could she have gotten sick so quickly? She was fine when I left her that morning. A glance at any of my patients through the day would have been enough to know she could not have hidden it from me.

“Sorry,” I said. I put my phone in my white coat’s right pocket instead of on the counter. “One moment, please.” Patricia nodded, and I looked into the hallway again. Janet stood before me wringing her hands. “Reschedule the rest of my patients today.” Her eyes widened, but I pressed on. “If anyone gives you trouble, refer them to John.” Several other doctors shared my practice, and I knew they would be as busy as me, but I had to do something. “I have to get this straightened out.”

“John’s packed too,” Janet said.

“Then do something. Whatever it takes. I’m finishing up here and heading to St. Anne’s.”

She tried to respond, but I closed the door in her face and turned back to Patricia.

“Dr. Jergen,” she said, “really, I can wait. If you need to take care of family stuff, I understand.”

“It’s not fair to you,” I said.

Patricia smiled weakly before holding a hand to her mouth to cough in. “It’s not fair to any of us. If you need to give me pills, give me pills. If not, I’ll get some chicken soup and wait to go to the hospital.”

“I can’t ask you to do that.”

“You’re not asking me to do anything. I know what a mess the hospitals are in now.” I forced myself not to flinch. Dana was in CCU, and I didn’t want to think about the mess hospitals were in. If I knew Kurosawa, he probably pushed a patient into ICU to make sure Dana would get the treatment she needed. “I’ll take care of myself.”

I nodded, barely hearing anything. “I, ah, I’ll write you up a prescription.”

Patricia laughed at that. “Will it be better than sugar pills?” she asked.

Hard to argue with that. “Doubtful. Would they make you feel any better?”

“Doubtful. I’ll grab some Tylenol at the pharmacy and do what I can.”

That wouldn’t help, but I couldn’t tell her that. “I’ll call you if we find out anything.”

She smiled and bowed slightly at the waist. “I’ll await your miracle cure. If there’s nothing else, I’ll leave you to your troubles. Thanks so much. Dr. Jergen.” Patricia stood, gathered her purse and coat, and opened the door of the room, heading into the hallway.

“Wait,” I said.

She turned around, raising an eyebrow and forcing a smile.

“Stay safe out there.”

Patricia laughed. “Thanks,” she said. “You too.” She turned again and walked down the hallway and out into the lobby.

I never got word of her death, but it was inevitable. I remembered her name and looked for her months later at Emory, but she was gone.

I took my coat and walked out the back door of my practice.

When we returned to the streets the next morning, water formed thin sheets of ice over the streets’ many puddles. Thick clouds filled the western sky, but overhead remained clear. Carter clapped his hands together and rubbed them back and forth for a moment, but everyone held their silence as we progressed toward Peachtree Plaza. Too cold for banter, but not as cold as I remembered back home before the Fall.

We walked along what a sign in the street named John Portman Boulevard and kept an eye on Sledge’s walkway. It seemed intact for the most part, but that was its own bad sign. I hoped it might have broken off on one end so that we could find a way to climb inside and check for zombies inside without having to go through one of the connecting buildings. If the attached buildings had not been cleared, we would have to clear them ourselves to get in. If they had been cleared, then whatever squadron did so would have found any shufflers in the walkway to be easy prey.

The men sniffed and yawned, and I must admit I did much the same. My old days as a doctor saw me up at all hours of the night, so I was largely used to early mornings after fitful sleeps, but I still enjoyed sleeping in when I could.

“I don’t like those clouds,” Sasquatch said, tilting his head towards the west.

“Worried it might snow?” Keeper asked.

“Yeah.” He raised his hand to stifle another yawn.

Keeper sniffed. “Won’t stick.”

“No,” Sasquatch said, “but we’re not geared for those temperatures.”

He was right, there. I wore a thin layer of body armor covered in what I considered the day before to be a thick jacket. Southern winters always came late, but locals said that did not necessarily mean that such weather always waited until the end of February.

“Ice won’t be good either,” Sasquatch added. “A slip in the wrong place can break a leg.”

I laughed. “I’ll get you guys fixed up if you twist an ankle.” The other men nodded at the comment, visibly relieved, but I wished the smiles did not feel so fake. Ice was a problem after the Fall; it was hard to think about the number of broken bones stationary Medics mended during the past two winters. We were within a few miles of the Emory Perimeter, but those miles were spread through a network of Atlanta’s streets. One broken leg would not be an issue—we could surely haul one of the Soldiers a few miles on a makeshift gurney—but two might well cause a mission abort. “At any rate, keep an eye out. Stay safe, because I don’t want to waste my supplies just yet.”

Smiles melted away, but the men looked more confident. Patience herself never betrayed emotion, instead keeping eyes on the pavement before her. At least she would spot ice before it caught her.

We came to the next intersection in front of the Hyatt, where another walkway jutted out diagonally onto the side of the road that we followed. “There,” Sledge said, pointing to a gentle slope of stairs that seemed to join up with his idea.

Sasquatch shrugged. “It could make the trip a lot easier.” He turned and looked along the length of walkway but did not appear to see anything interesting. “Worth a shot, anyway. I’d rather do this than tackle Westin.”

With guns at the ready, we climbed the outer stairway. We crested the top and turned to look down the walkway interior. Sure enough, there were a few corpses beneath a scattering of glass shards. True corpses; these would bother no one soon. Shot, by the looks of it. Past soldiers during the original clearing must have been thankful for the bottlenecked targets.

I wished that they had taken the time to mark cleared buildings with spray paint.

“Bah,” Sledge said. “Waste of time.”

“We can check the Hyatt,” Ogre said.

“Another waste of time,” Carter said. “If they cleared this out, they would have gotten the hotel too. Probably the walkway heading over to it, but I think we would have heard something by now.”

“I agree,” I said. “They at least would have cleared the lobby, and I don’t think we should go higher than the third floor anywhere with just eight of us.”

Sasquatch sighed. “Westin it is, I guess.”

“Come on,” Carter said. “It’ll be easy. Big adventure, just like the old days.”

“I thought we were trying to get the old days behind us.”

“We are, but it’s still a damn adventure, man.”

They kept their banter up as we returned to the stairs and made our way down. We turned on the road west again. Even a block over, we saw the wreckage Westin left behind. Glass and steel littered the intersection ahead, and the building on this side of the block leaned at a precarious angle of its own. We would have to skirt around both ice and glass now. “Pain in the ass,” Sasquatch muttered, shifting the weight of his pack on his shoulders.

“Be careful,” I said. “It’ll be rough, but this will be easy.”

Carter snorted, saying, “They think we’re cursed, so we get mop duty. ‘Bag a live one!’ They’re all fucking alive. They just want a pretty one. This really is like the old days, except we’re a pack of runts on the hunt for a popular kid.”

The rubble crested against another small overhead walkway. We made our way up the slope and turned back to look inside the open path. Nothing.

The rest of the way to the next intersection was a tangle of huge slabs of stone interspersed with smaller bits of glass, steel, and furniture. The upholstery had rotted away heavily in the past three years. I doubted even vermin would make a nest in it in this state, but a rat scrambled sliding across a glass pane just ahead to prove me wrong.

Patience gasped.

The Soldiers all raised their weapons and turned to look at her, already scanning every direction to find the threat. Nothing moved, so we all followed her line of sight. There, under an intact sheet of glass was a skeleton, clad in a white dress smattered with polka dots. The eye sockets stared skyward. The mouth was open like an open maw of horror, and the bones of its forearm were pressed against the forehead.

I did not think this corpse had ever been a zombie. I took a tentative step forward, wondering what it must have been like in that high floor, watching Atlanta jerk haphazardly before sliding along another block. Something must have crushed her legs or pinned her down but did not kill her. How long had she lived, staring at the stretch of sky and hammering against the glass? It was scratched on the inside, but she never even made a crack in it. The rubble in it would have been too great for anyone to move. Did survivors see her as they fled the area? Not even a zombie could get to her in time to release her from her own mind.

I thought of Dana as I reached out and took Patience’s hand. “Don’t think about it,” I said.

Patience turned to me and nodded. “Yeah,” she said. That was it. She started moving forward again. We all exhaled and kept our pace, grateful that we were spared yet another episode with a Valkyrie. She never looked back.

We turned south and made our way down the mountain of rubble that coated the next street. The shade cast by buildings to the east brought chill winds, and we huddled ourselves tighter and wished our armor was a little thicker. Weather prediction was not what it used to be, and we did not want to burden ourselves–or Sasquatch, most likely–with bundles of warmer clothes just in case. Breath misted before us. Carter was actively rubbing his hands together and whispering curses to himself. I wished we could have stayed back at the athletic club until the day warmed some more, but I could not let this turn into a two day mission, and I wanted to be most of the way back to Emory Perimeter before nightfall.

The street emptied out into another intersection. I could barely see the machinehead of a giant guitar sticking up from the rubble attached to the building to the east, but I had no idea what it meant. I turned instead westward to see the broken stalk of the Westin. At least the entire thing had not come down. The back side of the building still stood, at least to the tenth floor or so. Otherwise, it looked like the top had fallen through the streets, and then the remaining front face slid off against the concrete piles.

Ogre nodded his head forward to what remained standing of the tower. “Are we heading that way, or do we drop off the south side here and work our way around? There would probably less to deal with going around.”

“That also would have made the back way more attractive to the Soldiers before us,” I said. “We are just mopping up, but all that’s left dirty is in the hard to reach places.”

“Christ,” Carter said. We stayed on the rubble and made our way to the jagged remnant.

For what it was worth, not all of Westin Peachtree Plaza fell, although the rubble covered most of what remained. The front entrance was definitely out. We used the buddy system as well as we could on the ascent with the larger of us helping the smaller. I hefted myself onto another slab of concrete and turned to offer my hand to Patience. It relieved me to see her ginger steps, keeping an eye down to make sure her footing held before yanking hard on my arm and pulling herself up. Not all the Valkyries were so careful. I hear Freya’s chuckle again and know that some actively seek death in their own way. When Patience joined me on the slab, her footing slipped, and she pinwheeled her arms in an effort to stay upright. I was on her in the next breath, wrapping my arm around her back and pulling her close to keep her from tumbling down. She smiled, whispered a thanks, and waited on me to make the next step. I wondered if maybe she should not have been Sasquatch’s charge, but I could see myself losing my grip on Carter. Even if he did survive the fall, we’d have to hear about it for the rest of our time together.

“It levels out a bit up here,” Sasquatch called. He was some distance ahead of us, already on one knee and stretching his hand down to Carter. Still wearing that heavy pack of his. Sasquatch would have made multiple trips to carry the whole team up one by one if we’d needed. Patience and I were directly behind Sasquatch and Carter. Those two wanted to remain on point. Carter ran his mouth a lot, but he really was our best shot. Below us, Ogre was hefting Stargazer up another mound of rubble. Even further below were Sledge and Keeper. We were second in line in case if one of us slipped and fell. We couldn’t let another Valkyrie die, not on our watch, not with our luck. Ogre looked up at me, so I shrugged, which he returned before planting his gloved hands on another concrete slab. I turned and away and did the same.

I worried over all the glass left behind, but much of it was in chunks large enough to avoid. Westin had once been entirely encased in mirrored windows, and they all made for dangerous wreckage. If a pane was dangerous enough to cause a nasty cut but too small to warrant a detour, we would stop and fling it aside. The suits would absorb some of the smaller pieces, but I worried I might have to make with some hasty battlefield stitching once were at the top.

The height was dizzying by the time we came to Sasquatch’s level area, but only because I’ve never had a head for heights. The world swam for a moment before I felt Patience’s light grip on my forearm. When I looked down to her, she shook her head. “You’ll be fine,” she said. That was it. The wreckage really was flat enough to walk on here, and she went ahead of me to wait at the next incline, which appeared to be the last. Indeed Sasquatch and Carter were both already upon it, stretching and unloading some gear so that Sasquatch might enjoy his well-earned rest.

Though flat, the area was still on a slight incline. By the time I met Patience, we were around the ninth floor or maybe as high as the twelfth. I looked over my shoulder to see Ogre coming to the last crest and turning around to aide Stargazer. I looked up again and wished that I could see either of the Soldiers ahead of us, but it wasn’t worth crying out over. I started my climb and finally hoisted Patience over for the last time just after noon.

Sasquatch sat waiting for us on the floor of a series of hotel rooms that were now open to the sky. Though this was the top of the remaining solid structure, it was still littered with debris of varying sizes. Carter lounged on a moldy looking bed positioned next to an impressive array of rebar. The sheets may have been white once, but now they were faded to a hideous brown with years of exposure. Perhaps years of bird droppings as well, but I was not interested enough to ask him to roll over so I could check.

Half walls jutted up at regular intervals, and there were still a few standing doors in the middle and on the back side away from the face’s collapse. Patience stepped behind me into an open-air hallway and we came to Sasquatch. He said that he felt rested enough to go on. I asked him if he was lying, and he said that he wasn’t. He was a strong, bull-headed man, but he was one that knew his limits; if he had exhausted himself, he would have told me. I still checked his hands and knees for lacerations from the glass. It was cold enough for him to have been cut without realizing it. He passed, as did Carter after the moment it took him to get off the disgusting bed and cooperate.

Another fifteen minutes passed before everyone was on the same floor as us. The only one needing attention was Sledge, but the cuts on his knees were shallow enough that I splashed some alcohol on them and was done.

We reconnoitered and panned out over the hotel floor. No zombies up here at least. Any that had remained most likely would have wandered over the edges even before the establishment of the Emory Perimeter. With the floor opened into an unfamiliar layout, we struggled to find the stairwell down. If it had been covered in the collapse, we would need to find a way to punch through the floor and start from the next one down, hoping that one fared any better.

“Jesus!”

It was Carter that shouted. We looked up and rushed toward him, scampering over ruined furniture and concrete as we did. “What is it?” Ogre shouted. Carter was looking down at something.

When we got to him, we saw that he stood on the lip of an elevator shaft. “Almost fell in,” he whispered.

We looked down alongside him into the black abyss. Even with the sun high in the sky, it was impossible to see down for more than a few floors. I could see the entrance that led to the floor beneath us–with a militaristic 8 printed beside it–but the doors were closed. My familiar vertigo returned, so I backed away from the maw. Patience gave me a knowing look before returning the elevators with the others. They were opposed to using it to access the lower floors. If they were in favor of it, I would refuse. Rappelling would be too dangerous. I doubted more than three of us would know how anyway, if that. I would refuse that method, but I wanted them to arrive at the decision themselves. Which they did.

When they backed away from the hole, I reminded them to be careful. None of us knew how many elevator shafts there were, and a wrong step onto a thin layer of debris could send any one of us into the next one. We would look for stairs, and that was it.

Patience and I stuck with Sasquatch as he retrieved his flashlight and moved into the part of the floor that was still partially under what was left of the tenth floor. Sasquatch whistled as he does when trying to draw out the zombies, though I’ve personally never seen that it was very effective. At any rate, nothing groaned back. Only a small percentage of the ninth floor was enclosed, but Sasquatch decided to check the rooms anyway. There were ten remaining in total.

The first eight were empty, and Sasquatch commented after the first that the locks and knobs had been broken. He leaned a shoulder into it while keeping his rifle at the ready, and the door yawned open. He went in to check the bathroom and found the door in much the same condition. In more carefree times, we could have opened the doors with a single finger, but we were careful enough to let Sasquatch do his job without comment. “Look at that,” he said, pointing about halfway down the door. “Bootprint. We’re not the first ones here.” He screwed his face up and looked back into the hallway. “Dammit.”

“Come on,” I said. “We still have some more to check.”

Seven more rooms, all with the bootprints on the door and with broken locks and knobs. The bathrooms were all empty as well.

The eighth room was different. The zombie lay dead across the bed, sheets and blankets bunched up as though he had been thrown. He wore what would have once been a sharp business suit, all black and white. His shoes were dull, though I could imagine that they had been shined recently before the Fall. Sasquatch approached looking through his sights and went so far as to poke the corpse before letting his guard down and checking the bathroom. “Dead,” he said on the way past us.

I crossed the room to examine him. He wore his business suit, but his hand was wrapped in a pinkish bandage. That must have been where he had been bit. I could imagine him returning here afterward, dressing the wound while watching the news. Dressed as he was, I wondered if he dressed this way as a means of having his own funeral. Perhaps he had lain on his bed and died, only to come back as one of them. As it stood, his body had emaciated some time ago, and now little more than a skeleton remained. The window on the far side of the room held, though, so he hadn’t been as exposed to as much weather as some moving zombies I’d seen.

Sasquatch startled me as he returned to my side. “Found this,” he said, passing me a small cylinder.

I looked at the brass shell casing for a moment before passing it back. “Can you tell anything about it?” I asked.

He shrugged. “5.56,” he said. “Could have been us or the National Guard. M16 or AR-15. I guess it could have been a SCAR, but I wouldn’t bet on it.”

Never before had we been so brokenhearted to see a dead zombie. We left the room, and Sasquatch checked the final, tenth, intact room. No luck. We moved back through the hallway into the open daylight. Sledge was waiting for us at the exit. “Find anything?” he asked. Sasquatch tossed the 5.56 casing, which Sledge caught. He studied it for a moment before exhaling in defeat. “Damn, we might be out here longer than I thought.”

“There’s still a lot more to check,” Sasquatch said.

“Yeah. Can’t get too brokenhearted over the first casing we find.” He jerked his head to where Stargazer stood, still with gun in a ready position while the other man scanned the open floor. “Come on. They found the stairs down.” We crossed with little resistance to Stargazer, who only nodded before leading us down, away from the sunlight’s warmth. I spared one parting look at our mother star. It was still as early as 1:30. We still had a few hours left, but just barely.

Sasquatch kept his flashlight on as he took point, followed shortly by Carter. The rest of us huddled in the middle while Stargazer backpedaled down, keeping his rifle pointed at the last square of sunlight. We rounded a corner, and even that was gone.

We came to the eighth floor with little fanfare. There was a small, vertical slit of a window cut into the door from the stairs, but it was too dark to see inside. Next to the door was a lever for the building fire alarm alongside a fire extinguisher in a glass case. Sasquatch pushed and pulled on the door handle to no effect. He put his shoulder against the door and leaned in, but it held fast.

“Locked?” I asked.

He sighed and looked through the window. “Barricaded,” he said. “We can get through, but it might take a while. Your call, doc.”

If it was still barricaded, that was a good sign that the ones that came before us left the floor alone, as long as there wasn’t another way in. The floor plans were broad and surely allowed for multiple stairwells. “Last resort,” I said. “I’d rather get one closer to the ground anyway.”

“Good deal,” Sasquatch said. He took a stick of chalk out of his pocket and draw a large question mark on the door. It didn’t want to stick on the paint, but enough of it did that someone could make it out if they knew what to look for.

We turned down the stairs and came to an identical door with a 7 at its side. Sasquatch pulled on the handle, and the door slid open. We followed in after him, chasing the swishing light he cast ahead. Stargazer still drew the rear, holding his light behind us to avoid surprises. As was our usual routine, we checked the hallways first. A room-by-room would take longer than we needed, though I guessed the rooms here would be preserved enough that we could make a decent night on some beds if it came to it. The thought of spending the night in a building just over one-tenth of its intended size gave me the creeps, though. Besides, there was no way the remaining stump could be stable.

The silhouette of Sasquatch’s head bobbed ahead. “I see light,” he said. We followed him until the hallway opened onto a large balcony that ran a circle around a large, open pit. Light did filter in through windows on the far side, though it was only dim through the mountain of rubble that covered the entrance. Much of the glass had broken, but concrete chunks peeked through the open gaps.

Not feeling as afraid of high places while indoors, I ventured forward and put my hands on the railing. Others did the same–except Sasquatch, Patience, and Stargazer–and peered into the open hole. “What the hell is that?” Carter asked. “Flooding?”

At the bottom of the hole, we could make out a pool of murky water. Even in the dim light we could make out the layer of film and algae that coated it. It remained perfectly still and probably had not been disturbed since the Fall except for the constant evaporation and condensation. I wondered if it even rained in here during the warmer months. “Looks like part of the floor sunk in on the far side,” I said.

Carter leaned far enough over the railing that I fought the urge to stand back and yank him back down. Finally he sighed and stood back. “Hell of a fountain,” he said.

“If you have the right imagination for it,” Keeper said, pulling away and standing with us.

“Zombies?” Sasquatch asked.

Oh, right.

We leaned over the edge again and scanned further away from the pool. There was a pile of… something almost at the front desks, but it was too hard to say what it was. Whatever it was didn’t move. “There’s something,” I said, pointing. The others followed my finger and looked at it, slowly nodding. “If it’s all the same to you, I say we check it out before we try the rest of the rooms up here. If something is down there, we won’t have to take it down any stairs, and we can probably find the way to employee access for the parking garages.”

Sasquatch nodded. “Any objections?”

No one said anything, so we turned away to return to our previous stairwell. Patience spoke up. “There’s an open staircase over there,” she said, pointing.

Sasquatch turned and shone his flashlight on it. She was right. More than right, actually. There were several open staircases spiraling down from the balcony. With even a little extra visibility, this would be the better way to go down. The internal staircases were fine with the flashlights, but they still felt claustrophobic. Sasquatch took the lead again and brought us to the staircase. He shone the flashlight down to check for signs of collapse and seemed satisfied as he took his first tentative step. The carpet squished, but the step itself looked solid. We trailed behind him, winding down the stairs. He held the same routine at each landing, shining his flashlight down and then tiptoeing onto the first step. He swept his flashlight once to the other staircases and revealed that ours was the lucky one. Large chunks were gone from the one to our left. The one on the right looked solid until the third floor, and then it was open all the way to a tangled heap on the lobby carpet.

Ours kept going down until Sasquatch came to the bottom with a splash. He grunted at the sudden sound, but he held his composure. “How bad?” Keeper asked.

Sasquatch tapped his feet in the puddle and ventured ahead a few steps. “Pretty bad,” he said. “The floor beneath seems solid enough, so we should be fine. Just know that if you need to move in a hurry that everything’s wet here.”

Indeed it was. I felt my boot stamp deep into the ruined carpet, glad that the soles and leather were thick enough to keep my socks dry. Patience followed after myself and Carter, then the rest of the team was down. “Want an eye on these stairs?” Stargazer asked.

“Nah, stay with us,” Sasquatch said. “Easier to keep track of everyone that way.”

We left the stair base and ventured into the lobby. Stargazer kept his eyes behind us, burning his rifle’s flashlight, zigzagging brightness across the dim interior. “Check that pile,” I said, pointing to the mound we had seen from the upper balconies. Sasquatch had rein of the patrol, but they would all investigate where I told them if I made a point of it.

Carter bent over and retrieved something from the water. “Bullet casing,” he said, holding it up in the light. “More 5.56.” We all sighed. It was a bad sign, at least for us.

Of course the pile was a heap of corpses. It looked as though they had been burned, but in a controlled manner. A sweep of Sasquatch’s flashlight revealed a long trail of smoke damage up the nearest interior wall. It was hard to see even through the thin layer of water, but there was a neat ring of char about the bodies. A few bricks stood in a semicircle on the far side. I would estimate there were some twenty bodies in the pile, most with skin sloughed off or eaten by insects or vermin over the intervening years. An eyeless skull stared back at me with its mouth agape. I wondered how many people would have sought refuge here in the midst of the Fall, but I never thought to ask how soon the Westin collapsed. There were people at the Emory Perimeter that would know, but many native Atlanteans were loathe to talk about it.

“Military?” I asked.

“Maybe,” Carter said. “They would have been more concerned with disposal back then than documentation.” He spat. “Probably didn’t even count the bodies first.”

“Do you think this is all that was in here?”

He shrugged. “Maybe. Most of the people who were here would have died in the collapse. Survivors would have left through lower entrances after that.” He jerked a thumb to the inner face of the debris that loomed over us from the outside. “Looks like a shitty hidey-hole for survivors. Maybe there would have been decent food storage here, but I don’t think that would have been enough to keep anyone here for very long.”

“Where do you think anyone would have stayed if they did decide to risk it?” I asked.

“Somewhere without much public access,” he said. “Any place that had a lot of people then had a lot of zombies.”

“Employee lounge?” Sledge asked.

Carter nodded. “Yeah, I say we check there and the lower parking decks. Lounge first, though. We might find somebody that ran for a first aid kit.”

“Sounds good,” Sasquatch said. “Let’s go.”

We left the mound of bodies behind without another word. As we crossed the lobby to the front desks to search for keys and the lounge location, I turned and saw the way that Stargazer’s light lingered on that one burnt, open maw in the skull that stared at me.

“How’s she looking?” I asked. Of course I knew the answer. I was in CCU after all, staring at my wife through the plastic wall of her personal isolation unit. Her chest rose and fell slowly, which I knew didn’t really mean a thing, but it meant she was still alive. Alive for now. I saw the papers, I knew the mortality rate. High. Damn high. She wasn’t displaying psychosis either, so that was good. The damning blow, though, was the series of blotches that covered her skin like tattoos from an overeager artist. Her eyes were closed, and long black hair splayed about her like a shawl. There was no sign of struggle, but her hands and feet were restrained to the bed; there had been reports of aggression in those suffering from the Ereptor virus.

“Bruce,” Kurosawa began. I heard the pain.

I kept my eyes on Dana. “It’s what I’m supposed to ask, right?” A nurse finished examining her and scribbled something on Dana’s chart before blushing and scurrying by us out the door in a flurry of white. “I’ve been telling patients those damn sugar pills would help them for days now. Weeks, whatever. I know how it is. How’s Dana looking?”

Kurosawa shook his head. “You know that,” he said.

“Tell me.”

He rubbed at his eyes, but he never looked at me. I wouldn’t have noticed anyway, but I did see him turn toward Dana in my periphery. “She’s dying. They all are.”

St. Anne’s was stuffed to the gills, and more people waited outside for a chance at admittance. Even in getting to Dana’s room in CCU, I had to wade through a series of gurneys left in the hallways. The hospital had long since given up on trying to keep the airways sterile. People hacked up gobs of phlegm all along the halls. Even half the staff was laid out with the damn Dots.

Dana’s hand twitched in whatever dream she was having.

“How did it happen so quick?” I asked. “She was fine this morning, and I’ve spent all day talking to patients who have been sick with Dots for two weeks now.”

“Somebody bit her,” Kurosawa said. “Right on the ankle. She came to meet Trina for lunch, and one of the guys on the hall gurneys had a psychotic episode and flipped it on her.” Trina was a friend that Dana met through me, a nurse that frequented my practice. They got lunch together at least once a week. Panera Bread. I kept staring at her, not believing any of it. “I swear he was fine,” Kurosawa said. “I swear, dammit. We don’t leave the worst of them in the halls.”

I trusted him. I knew he would have moved the patient into isolation if that patient was out of his mind.

“By the time we got her ankle bandaged, she was already complaining of the headache. Fastest case of it I’ve seen so far. She said she was hearing voices and was screaming within a few minutes. We sedated her and got her up here as soon as we could.”

“Thanks,” I said. I saw Kurosawa turn at my side, and I shook my head. “I mean it, thanks. We’re about a week away from resorting to plague barges, and you got my wife her own room. It’s greedy of me, but I appreciate it.”

“It’s nothing,” he said.

“You’re wrong. It’s–” I cut off and planted my hands against my ears as that scream cut its way through me. Kurosawa and I were both on our knees in an instant. When I looked up, I saw Dana. She had awoken and thrashed until she flipped her bed in the time it took the two doctors to drop. Her right hand was on the outside of the bed railing, and I saw the way it bent at a frightening angle. Still, it jerked and twitched against her bonds. As I stood, Kurosawa was already on his feet and hammering a fist against the Nurse Call button, shouting something I tuned out. Dana’s face twisted into something unrecognizable, hidden beneath a long mat of hair that I still wanted to sweep away as I had so many times in the past. The hair fell away, and I saw what was left in her eyes. I saw the nothingness.

She was gone.

“Here we go,” Carter said. He jingled the keys as he put it against the lock, slid in the one for the employee breakroom, and checked over his shoulder. The rest of the Soldiers had their weapons at the ready, waiting for a zombie to spill out as soon as he turned the knob. Even Patience had her pistol out, ready to dispense with the mercy if it came to it. We learned months earlier that zombies do not always make noise when we approach. He turned the key and then eased the door open before stepping away and raising his rifle with the others. He sighed. “Well, that’s depressing.”

Carter pushed forward into the lounge and looked down at the corpse. This one had never been a zombie. A man of undetermined age sat in plainclothes at the couch with a break table in front of him. A gun lay on the floor between his feet, and his leaned back over the top of the couch to point to the faded smears that trickled down behind him. I tried keeping count of the suicides we discovered after the Fall but gave up once the number crept into the hundreds.

“At least he had a balanced meal of Funyuns and Dr Pepper first,” Carter said.

Sasquatch stepped forward and squeezed through the door to stand behind myself and Patience. “I guess that leaves the parking deck before we resort to the room-by-room then.” We all nodded. We didn’t want to do the room-by-room, but we had our mission. “Let’s head that way, secure a path to the exit, and see what we can do.” It was as good of a plan as any. We retreated from the break room and left the suicidal gentleman to his final meal.

The way to employee parking access was nearby. We did take it as a good sign that the break room needed to be unlocked. Perhaps whoever cleared the Westin earlier and left behind the mound of corpses in the lobby would have been sloppy elsewhere. Or perhaps they pounded on the break room door to check for survivors and our Funyun-munching friend said there were no zombies in there and that he wanted to be left alone. Maybe they heard the gunshot and left him alone.

Carter brought the keys up again and fumbled around for one until it fit the way to the parking deck.

“Remember, we’re doing this slowly,” Sasquatch said. “Fucking slowly. Got it?”

“Gotcha, boss,” Carter said. The lock disengaged, and he leaned against the wide bar that spread over the width of the door. It opened outward easily, and Carter fell back with the rest of us, propping the door open with his foot while holding his rifle ready. His head bobbed in Sasquatch’s flashlight. “I can see light over there.”

“That’s our goal then,” Sasquatch said. “Be careful. Jesus Christ guys, be careful.” Cold air rushed in front outside, and his breath turned to mist.

We fell out into the garage, and I stopped myself from raising a hand to shield from the late afternoon sunlight. Sasquatch gave a sharp whistle, and we all waited for a response. Something clanged against one of the nearest cars, and we all jerked in that direction. “Easy,” I said. “We’re here to restrain. Aim for the knees if you can. If you see it crawling, blow it away. We need a whole one.” The others relaxed a bit, which was never my intention. Something banged against the car again, and the tension returned.

Sasquatch gave a loud laugh. “Shit,” he said. He relaxed and pointed as a raccoon scurried across the concrete in the direction of the sunlight.

“Carter’s lunch,” Keeper said.

Carter laughed and lowered his rifle. “Over a diet of Funyuns and lead, you bet your sweet ass. Come on.”

Even walking to the relatively close exit felt like ages. Each time we passed a car, Sasquatch would call for a halt and tap his flashlight along the trunk, doors, and hood. I never imagined that there would still be so many cars at the Westin if the I-20 snarl was any indication. People either were not able to get to their vehicles or else saw how bad traffic was an resigned themselves to staying in Atlanta until the whole thing blew over. Even so, probably less than half the deck’s capacity populated the spaces. We inched forward, and again Sasquatch tapped his flashlight over a car’s trunk. “Anybody home?” he whispered. He moved up the sedan’s side and stopped when he went to tap against the window. “Shit,” he said. “Shit, shit.”

“What is it?” Sledge asked.

“Deadhead in this one. Dead.” Sasquatch kicked at the ground, and we heard the ping of a brass shell casing skidding across the concrete.

“Maybe they didn’t get them all,” Keeper said. “There’s a lot of cars in here. Keep looking.”

The sunlight grew closer as we worked our way down the path. I squinted, not sure if I wanted to believe what was out there. “Snow,” I said. It fell softly, still little more than a dusting.

“It keeps getting worse,” Sasquatch muttered. He looked back at me. “You’re sure Records said we never cleared this place?”

I shrugged. “That’s what I saw. We still don’t know if this is a job from some of ours. What I saw said they only cleared the surrounding streets, though.”

“Fucking National Guard,” he said. He tapped his flashlight on the next car but stopped with the jokes.

“I doubt they would have been interested in clearing the whole building,” I added. “They were probably just looking for a place to set up shop for the night and cleared out what they could.”

Sasquatch shook his head. “Doesn’t make sense that there would have been a dead one on the ninth floor, then.”

“Maybe they wanted to set up shop for longer than a night, then. Maybe one of them had a family member staying here when it all went to hell.”

He sniffed. “There’s a lot of maybes in all of this.” He looked in the window of a Nissan truck and shook his head. “I think it’s a bust.” Five more cars saw us at the parking garage exit with no luck. We could still check the other way and hope that previous teams only cleared from this point to the hallway we left earlier. We turned and looked back at the rows of cars. Nothing crawled out and scraped at our boots. The eight of us stood in the light snow, looking back at the Westin. Even there, we were close to the rubble that piled against the entrance. Maybe this would have made a good stronghold for a small group at the beginning of it all. A place like this would be nearly invisible from above. Perfect for the xenophobic.

A thud sounded from behind us. We turned and saw the security officer’s kiosk. “Check it out?” Carter asked.

“Probably that damn raccoon’s nest,” Sasquatch said.

“It’s a better lead than we have otherwise,” Keeper said. “Maybe we’ll strike gold and find a good one.”

“If there was a good one in there, he’d be slapping at the glass to get us,” Sasquatch said. He shrugged. “Check it anyway, and then we’ll head back in.”

“Roger,” Carter said. He went to the kiosk and looked inside through the side window. “We got one,” he called.

Sasquatch finally perked up again and jogged over to the kiosk, cursing loudly once as he slid in a small patch of ice hidden beneath the developing layer of snow. Southern snow often starts as rain in the forties, then plunges below freezing. If it does it at a bad time, even an inch of snow could clog the South’s former cities if it landed on another sheet of solid ice. Sasquatch stamped a boot on the layer of ice that he skidded over and looked over his shoulder with a glance that told the rest of us to be careful.

The Soldiers shuffled out of my way as I approached the kiosk. Sasquatch shone his light inside as I studied through the glass, trying to keep my breath from fogging the whole thing over. “He fell down and got stuck,” I said. “He’s under the shelf. I guess he’s been in that position since the Fall.”

“Viable?” Stargazer asked.

“Doubtful,” I said. “Parts have probably atrophied by now. I wouldn’t be surprised if only half of him crawls out.”

Sasquatch and Carter stood next to the door while the other four Soldiers spread out with me and Patience at their rear. All except Sasquatch brought their rifles to bear while he closed his hand around the door handle and looked back. “Popping it now.” He twisted the handle, flung the door open, and stood with the others as the zombie fell onto the pavement.

What used to be a guard scrambled quickly toward our group. Though I expected to see him with his bottom half left in the booth connected by a loose trail of intestines, his legs held fast. “Easy!” I said. It was struggling to get to its feet, but zombies always had a tough time of that. The zombie finally got a knee under itself and managed to rise. There was some wear and tear, most of which I supposed was through a few years of heating and cooling outside the booth, but the poor guy looked good otherwise. It moved slowly; I thought it might still have the pent up reserves of energy that they all seemed to have during the Fall, but this one shuffled quietly. “Looks like we might have a winner,” I said. “Sweep him.”

Keeper did the honors, approaching the guard and kicking a foot out at its shins before yanking his leg back and darting away. The zombie guard fell to the pavement with a feeble groan. His head made a loud clack against the asphalt. I winced at the sound, but the thing still writhed before us.

Sasquatch knelt and planted his knee in the zombie’s back. It howled even louder, but Sasquatch paid no mind, instead taking his pack off and pulling a set of handcuffs from one of the pouches. We went with women’s cuffs since the radius was smaller, and we didn’t want to take any chances. Keeper knelt and held down the zombie’s left arm at the elbow with his knee, then reached down and pushed its hand palm-down into the pavement. Odds were that the zombie’s fingernails weren’t long enough to scratch through our clothes, but the intervening years left them long enough that I feared that might not be a guarantee. Sasquatch twisted his body and held down the right arm while Carter moved into position and snapped the first half of the cuffs around the wrist. Keeper and Sasquatch then worked together in joining the wrists. The union would have been extremely painful for a human, and I was amazed that the shoulder didn’t dislocate. With the wrists together, Carter snapped the other half of the cuffs on, and the zombie was finally bound.

With the hands taken care of, Sasquatch retrieved the hood from his pack. It looked almost like an executioner’s hood as he got it into place. He pulled a set of drawstrings from the base of the hood, and it sealed tight around the zombie’s neck. He yanked hard, tied the strings together, and the zombie was ours. Sasquatch stood, nudged the guard in the ribs with his boot, then pumped a fist at the sky. “Fuck yeah!” he said. He was ecstatic; our excursion had drained him mentally and physically, and this seemed to bring his old self flooding back. Sledge began clapping, and Sasquatch turned to execute an overly extravagant bow.

The Soldiers all shouldered their weapons, but I noticed that Patience held on to her pistol. She kept her eyes on the zombie, never smiling during Sasquatch’s celebration. She never said anything to the others. I looked to her to see if she would give me another of her sidelong glances or even a hint of a smile, but there was nothing. She only stared at the fallen zombie and kept stroking her thumbs along the gun. At least she kept her finger off the trigger.

Valkyries.

I fought back another memory of Freya and knelt before the zombie. It still thrashed and twitched, but Sasquatch was at my side in a moment holding it in place. I ran a thumb over the zombie’s uniform, careful not to get myself infected in the process. “The fabric is torn here,” I said, rubbing a thumb alongside a missing bit around the shoulder. The back of the shirt was stained in old blood as well, forming a dark brown patch within the blue that splattered wide across the guard’s back, winding its way around the left side of his abdomen and forming a huge pattern around his left buttock, crotch, and the backs of his thighs. Something didn’t look right, though. “Carter, will you get a pair of latex gloves out of Sasquatch’s pack for me?”

“Sure thing, doc.” He knelt behind Sasquatch and rummaged for a moment before pulling out a glove dispenser and handing me a pair. I took off my winter gloves and put the latex on, then ran a finger inside the fabric tear. Blood flaked off around the site, but… That was it. Just blood.

“There’s no bite here,” I said.

Carter looked over my shoulder. “Looks bit to me,” he said.

I rubbed my thumb over the blood, flaking it away until it was gone. The zombie squirming beneath me was becoming increasingly uncomfortable. The last of the blood chipped away, and I tore at the security guard’s shirt some more, spreading the rip. “How about now?” I asked.

Carter squatted beside me, hand on my shoulder as he looked at the bitten area. “The hell?” he said. The skin was blotchy, yes. Old, cold, covered in mold, as another generation might have once said. But there was no bite mark. “Must have gotten bit somewhere else.”

Sasquatch patted down what he could of the torso, while Sledge and Stargazer each took a leg. They found nothing and rolled the guard on his back. WAINWRIGHT, his identification insignia stated. While they searched the front of the body, the snow finally let up, stopping as Sasquatch looked up to me and shook his head. “That’s the only tear,” he said.

“Think he caught the airborn shit?” Carter asked.

I shook my head. “There was blood at the tear.”

Sasquatch looked up to Carter and said, “Had to have been bit.”

“There’s no bite, though,” Carter said.

“Once upon a time there was,” I said.

“What, they can regenerate now?”

I shrugged my shoulders. “No idea. I’m a field medic, remember? Come on, let’s try sedating him.”

Sasquatch rummaged through his pack some more and brought out a smaller case with some of my basic medical supplies. I popped it open and withdrew the stethoscope. I would not open his shirt to get skin contact, hoping that I could hear enough through the uniform to tell me anything significant. I put the chestpiece above his heart and listened. “No pulse,” I said.

“Will the tranq work then?” Keeper asked.

I shrugged. “Doubt it, but I barely know more about these than you guys do. I tend to the living.” Mostly. I used to tend to the dying. Even the dead a few times. Her eyes still haunt me from behind that then plastic membrane of her isolation unit. I shook my head and moved the stethoscope to the sternum base. I paused. “Diaphragm is working,” I said after a moment. “It’s weak, but it’s there.” I had the Soldiers roll Wainwright onto his stomach. I wanted to check his wrist for a pulse, but the hands were still bare; the cuffs held them tight, but the fingers flexed, with dangerous waggles of the nails. I went back to my case and brought out two rolls of bandages and set to wrapping his hands up like a mummy’s. It wasn’t a pretty job–the fingers still had a lot of play–but I was able to tie down a loose knot that would hold long enough for me to check the pulse. I checked it. Nothing.

“Then what’s the plan?” Stargazer asked.

I looked over my shoulder and saw the way Patience still rubbed her thumbs along her pistol. She was nervous. She didn’t want to be around Wainwright any longer than she needed. “Same as ever,” I said. “Leash him up and haul him back to Emory. It’s going to be dark soon anyway. Let’s get a move on.” I took the tranquilizer, jammed the tip into a dark spot on the zombie’s neck, and pushed the plunger in. It did calm for a moment, but then it resumed its squirming. The circulatory system wasn’t able to push it through.

“You tried,” Sasquatch said.

“Yeah. Yeah, I did.” I stood up, and Wainwright followed. He was slow, but mobile. “At least this way we don’t have to carry him,” I said. I don’t know if I meant it as a joke or not, but no one laughed anyway.

Sasquatch took the leash from his pack and snapped it in place around Wainwright’s throat. When he handed the cord to Keeper, Keeper accepted it as he might a viper. “You’re sure this is safe, right?” For emphasis, Wainwright bumped into Keeper and groaned from within the mask. The canvas rubbed in the direction of Keeper’s neck as if Wainwright meant to tear out a throat. “Jesus!” Keeper said, backing away.

“Here, I’ll take it,” Stargazer said.

“Sure, sure,” Keeper said. He handed the reins to the other man. “Take it.” He shook hands over his arms as chest in a subconscious motion of rubbing himself clean.

Even as Stargazer held the leash, Wainwright still angled toward Keeper. “I think he likes you,” Stargazer said. Sasquatch bellowed with a laughter that echoed through the deserted city.

“Just keep a tight grip on that thing,” Keeper said. “Jesus.”

As we moved along the block that would give us a detoured route to the Georgia Department of Labor. As we left the Westin behind us, the snow turned to rain. It was light–light enough that we could still push forward and not have to worry about catching our death from the cold as long as we got back to the Perimeter in time–but Carter still muttered something about “goddam corn syrup.”

Thunder boomed from somewhere to the west, where the sun would be setting soon behind the cover of clouds. We turned at the Department of Labor back onto Andrew Young and started over the bridge. As we began the ascent, I looked to the right to see a face of Georgia State University. I paid no attention to it on the way in, but I found the crest to the left of the name to be unsettling. It was fashioned in the form of a cutaway circle with a flat arc on the right side, and three wavy lines forming the left. Perhaps it was meant to be a flame of some sort in ages past, but all I saw were a thumb and fingers, the gnarled weapon of the zombies. I shook my head with the thought, but would not let it burden me. I turned to look to Patience again and saw that she held her gaze to the pavement beneath us with great concentration. At least she had holstered her pistol.

By the time we came to the other side of the bridge and sought Freedom Parkway, the rain started heavier. Thunder pealed again, echoing throughout the city. I looked back and saw a few distant streaks of lightning, but this rain was no different than what we played in as children.  I saw the men glancing at each other as if to say maybe camping out for the night didn’t sound so bad after all. But we all knew that Wainwright made us unpleasant. I doubt any paid attention to Patience’s reaction since we collected him, though. Keeping him alive unsettled her. I cursed Pauper in the depths of my mind, but I knew this was probably the first time she had been in the prolonged exposure of one zombie. We were around them often, but we never got up close and personal with them, never got to know them. “We’re pushing on,” I said. “Probably under four miles by now. I’ll make sure we all get something hot to eat when we get home.”

I thought they might argue with me, but they slowly nodded and redoubled their efforts. Four miles would be nothing for us, nothing for survivors. A sheet of rain washed over us as in defiance. We huddled closer and pressed forward. We finally made our turn onto Freedom Parkway. Under happier circumstances, it might have even been a pleasant walk, taking us through Freedom Park and past Carter Center, though we would have only a poor view of it and little desire to stop.

On the return trip, Sasquatch and Carter brought up the rear and kept Wainwright in tow, though he needed little provocation to keep moving. If we ever paused, he would have been in our midst, bobbing his covered head against us and flailing his shoulders with no understandings of bound wrists. Keeper and Sledge were in front them, and Patience and myself trailed behind Ogre and Stargazer’s lead.

Lightning struck close to us, crashing into a light post about a hundred feet away with blinding light and a deafening roar. Patience squeaked as she went to her knees with her hands over her ears, and I wish I could say that I did not do the same. Stargazer and Ogre each cursed as they backed away, already saying something about having to find a place to stay for the night. I opened my mouth to agree when I heard a scream from behind, followed by a single gunshot.

Still dazed, I leapt to my feet and ran to the back of the line. Carter lay on the pavement with a trail of blood streaming away from him, thinning in the flow of rainwater. Wainwright also lied on the ground, face down with arms spread wide as though giving Freedom Parkway a hug. Sasquatch stood with his pack and leash discarded, staring at Carter down his gun’s sights. Had Sasquatch shot him? I hardly knew which him I meant.

“Aw fuck,” Sasquatch said. “Fuck. Fuck it. Aw fuck.” His hands shook. He was in shock.

No one else saw right away what happened, and that was when Sledge tackled Sasquatch. The rifle skidded away down the asphalt. Sledge held one hand around Sasquatch’s thick neck and raised the other as if he were going to break the other man’s nose. “Wait!” I shouted, if for little reason other than not wanting to have to stop to fix the nose.

“Goddam it!” Carter shouted. He sat up, holding his hand to his face. Blood seeped from between the fingers. Keeper was on his knees at the man’s side, grabbing and trying to prize the hand away from his face. Carter wouldn’t let go. “Motherfucker!” he shouted. He relented and let Keeper pull the hand away.

I put a hand on Keeper’s shoulder and motioned for him to leave Carter alone. He looked from me and then back to Carter before nodding and doing as I said. “What happened?” I asked.

“He got at me,” Carter said. “The zombie, not Sasquatch. Jesus, Sledge, let the man go. Christ.”

“Let me see,” I said.

The hand fell away, and I saw. Long gouges cut across Carter’s right cheek, cutting and tearing along to his chin. “The cuffs broke,” he said. “I don’t know how, doc. I swear I don’t know how.”

I fought back tears. I wouldn’t be weak in front of a dying man. Not if I could help it. I wouldn’t be weak! “I… I’m sorry,” was all I said. It was all that came to mind. If I hadn’t been so lazy with the bandages. I could have tightened them to make sure. I thought we were safe. I thought we were safe. Fuck it, I never thought it would be an issue. I still had enough length in the two bandages tucked in my case that I could have wrapped his hands five times over.

“Don’t worry about the bandages,” Carter said. He coughed weakly and scrubbed his hand against the blood on his face, taking it away and frowning. He looked like he wanted to cry as well, but I knew he wouldn’t let himself. Not if he thought Sasquatch would laugh about it later. Months, years, however long. He wouldn’t let himself cry in front of us. “You couldn’t have known,” he said. “None of us could. Those cuffs were strong, doc. The bandages shouldn’t have been an issue. I would have done them the same way.”

I heard the distinct sound of a revolver hammer being cocked. I turned as much as I could away from Carter. I wouldn’t let myself turn away completely. “Move,” Patience said.

“Just a minute,” I said.

I looked back at her and saw the hesitation and doubt in her expression. Carter laughed dryly behind me. “You’ll get your chance soon enough.” He scrubbed his hand against the wound and winced. I understood they always hurt like hell. “Come on chirrens,” he said. “Everybody say your goodbyes and you can see me off.”

And that was what we did. One by one, we all squeezed his shoulder or gave him a short hug, saying a few parting words. Wainwright lay in the rain a short distance away. We hated to see him go, but this was a mission abort; we wouldn’t be going back for another sample until we first made our report to Emory.

Sasquatch took a knee in front of the infected Solder and made a motion to grab Carter’s shoulder before wiping a tear away and hugging him. “You’ll tell Sharon what happened?” Carter said, muffled against the larger man’s shoulder.

“Sure thing, bud.” Sasquatch grinned. “I’ll even tell her about the evils of corn syrup if you want.”

Carter laughed. “It’d take too long to share at this point, you know?”

“Fine, I’ll make something up.”

“Atta boy.”

The laughter faded, and the gravity of it all sank in. Carter’s face slackened, and he wouldn’t stop rubbing fingers over the bloody wound. He looked down the stretch of Freedom Parkway, at Wainwright lying in the rain. Arms sprawled out with the length of chain in the cuffs broken. “Sucks we lost him,” he said.

“We’ll find another,” I said.

Carter though for a moment and shook his head. “No. I’ll do it.”

All of our heads snapped up in unison.

“You know you’ll never find another sample,” he said. “The guard was it. I don’t even have limbs missing. I’m the kind of zombie they were looking for. Those eggheads forgot how rotted they all are. Go on.”

“Carter, we can’t,” I said.

“Bullshit you can’t. Why not? You want to haul me back and plant me in the quad? Fuck it. I won’t see this mission fail.”

“No,” Patience said from behind. Her gun was up again.

“Stand down!” Sasquatch shouted.

“No!” she said. “It’s my job. It’s why I’m here. It’s why you brought me. Let me do my job.”

“You heard what Carter said,” Keeper said. “It’s for the mission. I hate it, but he’s right.”

I rose and walked toward her, hand outstretched. “It’s okay this time,” I said.

She shook her head violently. When I got close enough, I saw that not all of the water on her face was rain. “I have to,” she whispered when I was in range.

“Just put the gun down,” I said. I reached forward and brushed my fingers over the barrel. She drew it away at once, but then relented.

“It’s a mistake,” she said.

“Well tell HQ we made a special request, okay?” I looked back at the other men. “Right?”

“You obeyed the team leader’s order,” Sasquatch said. “They won’t fault you for that.”

Patience shook her head, then handed me her pistol before turning away. “I’m telling you it’s a mistake,” she said.

We let her walk away before we began planning. “Any more cuffs?” Carter asked.

“Yeah, I think so.” Sasquatch looked through his backpack for a moment. “Yeah, here’s a backup pair. Men’s, but you have thicker wrists than the guard.”

“All that pounding off,” Carter said, and we all laughed.

“Shut up with that,” Sasquatch said, still chuckling. “Come on, hands behind your back.”

Carter complied, and I stood behind to watch the process. Carter already wore motorcycle gloves, so keeping his nails away from the rest of us would not be an issue at least. “How’s that?” Sasquatch asked.

Carter shrugged. “Still a little comfortable. Can you tighten them down some more?”

“Yeah.” Sasquatch moved behind and clamped the cuffs down another few notches. “Better?”

“Hurts like hell, so yeah. Got any of your ball gags in that bag to keep me from biting.”

“Nah, I left my fun stuff back home.” Sasquatch didn’t have anything to restrain Carter’s mouth, though. He had brought a leather strap or two, but we had no way to hold it in place once Carter turned.

“Just grab the zombie’s sack. It’ll be fine.”

Sasquatch raised an eyebrow.

“It’ll be fine!” Carter repeated. “Not like I’ll mind in a few minutes anyway.”

Stargazer and Sledge went back to grab the sack, letting Wainwright’s lifeless head fall to the pavement with a thud before bringing it back. Lightning struck somewhere nearby again. I wanted to stay with Carter as much as anyone else, but health really would be a problem if we delayed any longer. Sledge stood before him and brought the sack over the top of his head, leaving the face exposed.

“May you find peace,” Sledge said, about the bring the sack down.

Carter barked laughter. “Here’s to oblivion,” he said. “Hang on one second before we make with the finalities.” Sledge stepped away sheepishly, leaving the sack on Carter’s head like a beanie. He thought for a moment and shifted his arms like he wanted to rub at his cheek again. “Oh yeah. Tell Heater I said hello. And, uh, bye too, I guess.” He laughed again, but he was crying. We all were. He looked to all of us in turn, even Patience. “I’m sorry it had to end this way. Just…” He was crying openly. “Make it out of this shit,” he said. “Make it out alive. Get through it. I don’t know how, but get through it. Okay, I’m ready preacherman.”

Sledge brought his hands up and grabbed the edge of the sack. “You know,” Carter said. “I hope there is some kind of god for me, and I sure as hell hope he’s more merciful and forgiving than the one I grew up on.”

Sledge smiled. “Amen.”

“Bye buddy,” Carter said. The sack came down, and Sledge tied it off before Sasquatch took the leash and we began the walk home. We were doing the right thing, but damn if Patience’s pistol didn’t feel heavy at my side.

When a nurse did not respond, Dr. Kurosawa stormed out of the room with a terse and unnecessary order for me to keep an eye on Dana. I nodded weakly before he left, then I knelt at her side and studied her through the plastic shroud. I knew she had not been sick that morning; she would have said something. I would have seen the spots that now wove random patterns over her soft skin. Her head thrashed from side to side in an effort to break loose of her bonds, but release never came. I held a hand out to her as though to touch her through the wrap, but I could tell she was gone. The void in her eyes was all I needed to see. Mercy would see her euthanized, and I wept for it.

A scream came from the hallway, and I took my eyes from Dana. She was already dead, but I found it difficult to grieve while she was still animated. Perhaps that left the situation as a medical anomaly in my mind rather than the loss of a loved one. Some part of me knew I was in shock, but I knew I could process the grief later. I spared Dana a final look before standing and walking toward the door. As I put my hand to the handle, Kurosawa ripped the door open from the other side.

“Come on,” he said. “We’re evacuating.”

“What was the scream just then?” I glanced down and saw the way he held his left elbow, wincing the whole time. “You’re hurt.”

“I just took a punch, I think.”

“Bleeding?” I asked.

“No, probably just a bruise.” He lifted his hand to show me. Everything looked fine, at least if the condition of his coat was a sign.

“Where do we go?”

He stepped away from the door, back into the hallway. He shook his head and looked in the direction he came from. “Not through there.” Another scream. A gunshot from somewhere. Not the CCU ward, but definitely from within the building. “We just have to get out of here,” he said.

I looked back to Dana, still twitching against the toppled bed. She howled, and I saw her muscles tense a moment before her right arm broke free of the straps. Another hand fell on my shoulder, and I looked back to see Kurosawa shaking his head.

“I… I know,” I said. Somewhere the grief did start to set in, but I knew I would have to mute it for now. I spared her a final glance and fled with Dr. Kurosawa. I spent much of the flight debating about whether or not to go back for Dana, but I saw those eyes. We came to a utility elevator, and Kurosawa exhaled with relief when it dinged its way up to us. The doors slid open, and he held his finger about the G that would take us to the first floor. He reconsidered and shifted to B2, which I knew would give us access to employee parking from beneath. I considered asking what he saw in the hallways when he went to search for the nurses, but he was shaking in shock of his own. Whatever it was had to be terrible, and the screams and gunshot proved it was nothing Kurosawa was imagining.

We ran up the ramp to staff parking and closed the distance to his Mustang. At least it was cold enough out for him to have left the top up. He cranked the car and threw it into reverse before shifting gears and taking us toward the exit. The ramp sloped up, but he cursed and slapped a hand over the steering wheel as we crept to a stop behind a long row of other vehicles. “Where is that guy going?” he asked, pointing. A narrow man in a Chevy four or five cars ahead opened the door of his car and started running up the ramp. “Ah,  the bastard abandoned it!”

“Move it or follow suit?” I asked.

Kurosawa shifted to reverse again and cursed once more as he adjusted the rear view and saw another car behind us. He rolled the window down and leaned out, shouting at the new escapee. “It’s blocked that way!” he said.

The person behind could not understand and stayed where they were. The doors of the car behind the Chevrolet opened, and a family abandoned their car, sprinting after the man who left us moments earlier. Then the car behind them followed suit, and the driver of the car behind us did the same. Kurosawa groaned as they sprinted past us without a second look. “Follow suit,” he muttered. We opened the Mustang doors and approached the slope on foot. “If it comes down to it, we can steal the lead car.”

We passed the first abandoned car–the first that we saw, anyway; there were several more ahead of that one–and I finally brought myself to ask, “What happened?”

Kurosawa shook his head. “I’ve never seen anything like it. The whole hallway was…bloody. Like something out of a horror movie. I watched Tamara Jackson die. A patient bit into her shoulder and took a plug out. She… fell, and he was on her, and I saw more blood.” He shook his head again and looked to me. “I’m not shitting you,” he said. “Hand to God.”

“I believe you,” I said.

“God, it was a dying patient, too. He was one of the early ones. He even had a room. I saw his charts. I was already thinking how to tell his family when Dana came in.” Another pause. “I’m sorry.”

“No need. This is beyond us.”

We crested the ramp and saw the outside world. The first drivers must have abandoned their cars when they saw the snarl that the parking lot became. A fire burned nearby, but it was behind the nearest treeline to the hospital, and we could not see the source. People ran in all directions, and we saw those in patient gowns darting between them. Biting, scratching, eating. A wave of nausea came through me, but Kurosawa’s hand fell to my shoulder again, and I felt my confidence return.

He pointed to a path behind a row of holly bushes that decorated the building’s exterior, and I followed him as he bolted. We rounded the side of the parking deck to see a police cruiser ahead of us, parked on the curb with its lights flashing. Any sort of authority would be nice, so we sprinted toward it. The doors were open, but no one was nearby. When we came to it, I peered through the passenger side and saw nothing. Kurosawa went to the driver’s side and fell to his knees. “Bruce!” he shouted.

I stood and ran to him. He knelt to where a cop lay on the pavement, pressing a hand against the officer’s chest and pumping. Blood bubbled up from an angry wound in the cop’s neck. “Get something for that gash,” Kurosawa said.

“It’s too deep.”

“We can do something!”

“You know it’s too deep.” He said nothing, and I found myself kneeling before the injured officer, taking my coat off and pressing it as a compress into the man’s neck. The man barely responded. I watched as his life spilled crimson across my white garment. He would need more medical attention than two doctors without supplies could offer, and the hospital was off limits.

Kurosawa cried out, twisting into a sitting position and scrambling back into the cruiser. I jerked my head up in time to see someone approaching. It was one of them, but this one did not wear a patient’s robe. She made shambling motions toward Kurosawa. I wanted to intervene, but I saw what the terminally infected could do. Without thinking, I reached a hand out to the cop’s side where his service pistol fell. It was a Glock, free of awkward safeties I otherwise would not have been trained to fire. I pointed at her chest and pulled the trigger. The bullet passed through with less reaction than I expected. She hardly staggered, then took another step. I shifted my aim up and put one through her head. I tugged the trigger again for the sake of a job well done, but the gun only clicked. She fell to the pavement in a heap.

Kurosawa said something, but I did not listen. I stood and walked to the corpse I made. It was never supposed to end like this. She looked familiar. I saw the clothes earlier that day, less than two hours ago. Blood stained her coat along her waist. She said she would go home and wait for my miracle cure.

Patricia.

Carter was not acting strange, though he did sometimes stumble. He was blind in that sack. We tried to cover as much ground as we could, though. It would be easier to transport him while he was still human. Sasquatch apologized several dozen times, but we never heard Carter’s response through the sack. We turned past Carter Center some minutes earlier and were on our way to Moreland Avenue. Patience shook at my side, wringing her hands. In the time since Wainwright’s untimely demise, the thunder and lightning stopped, and the rain turned to an icy mix. With the sun angling toward the horizon, the slush would soon return to snow. That much would be a nice change, but the roads were still wet with rain. If we were lucky, we would only have to skate the last half mile or so to the Emory Perimeter.

“You have to let me do it,” Patience muttered.

“That’s not the plan,” I repeated. She wrung her hands some more. Rain plastered hair against her face. She pushed it back in a messy tangle, and I saw the look in her eyes, that look that was already past hysteria and progressing to madness. It was familiar, but I did not want to revisit my bad experiences with Valkyries.

From behind, Carter suddenly fell and began screaming. The sack muffled it, but not enough. We stopped, but no one raised their weapons. It was not the plan. I found myself with a fleeting thought of corn syrup before the screaming seemed to erupt from within my own mind. I raised a hand to massage my temples, but that’s when Patience began screaming.

Hers was different, unrestrained. Her scream was primal, as though some part of her returned to the jungles of our most ancient ancestors. Something was wrong, terribly wrong. My knees cracked loudly as I fell to the pavement. I leaned forward and brought my hands forward in time to keep my face from meeting asphalt. The Soldiers were doing the same. What the fuck? I meant to shout, but all I said was, “Whuh?” Still Patience screamed, both hands on her head, doubled over as she squatted on her heels. Stargazer fell before me, jaw working silently as he stared at the Valkyrie. Sasquatch fell and curled into the fetal position. I saw the leash slack, and then it was gone. Carter was free and still standing.

“Fuck!” someone shouted once. Someone nearby. I fought the sounds, but I had two screams coming from within my head then. One man, one woman. They almost came together in a harmony. I concentrated and brought a hand under my body as I twisted. If I didn’t do something, we would all die. I thought of Dana, of Patricia. I thought of another woman I didn’t recognize, then I realized her name was Sharon. I thought I was a girl shooting my boyfriend as he rested against the side of a Dodge Charger just outside of Nashville. The kid was bit, and I had to take care of him before he turned. I loved him and would not let him be a zombie, not even for a second.  I was arguing with Doc Jergen about the evils of cortisol. I watched Dr. Kurosawa in his final moments well on our way to the refuge of Atlanta, screaming for our group to go even as he tried to shoot the zombie that bit him.

I thought…

I was…

I answered Patience with a scream of my own, though much weaker. If someone didn’t do something… I had to take initiative. I was not a fighter. I left that to the others. My hand tightened around the Glock’s grip. My vision blurred, doubled, tripled, quadrupled. A thousand Patiences stood before me, hands over their ears as they screamed. I kept my eyes on her as I raised my Glock.

I brought the butt down against the back of her head.

The screaming stopped. I had a moment’s respite of silence before reality seemed to buckle around the Valkyrie. The world shimmered as though seen through a fisheye lens, and the wave crashed over me. I sucked in air as I fell again, this time with no control over my body. I hoped distantly that I would not break anything as I collided with the pavement again. Patience fell before me, and I had another moment’s peace before blacking out.

I opened my eyes in the blackness and feared for the worst. The very worst. Then a snowflake fell on my cheek, and I knew I was still alive. More snow fell around me, around all of us. There was still some light on the horizon, but the sun would already be down.

“We tried waking you,” Stargazer said.

I shook my head. It still throbbed. “Just me?” I asked.

He shook his head. “All of us. I woke up first and thought everyone was dead. Then Ogre and Keeper. Sledge is fine. We were just waiting on you and Sasquatch. Oh, and Patience.” Stargazer stood and closed the distance to her. The men had covered her with one of their jackets. I looked at Stargazer again and realized it was his.

“Carter?” I asked.

“He was loose, but he stayed with us.”

“He’s…?”

“Gone,” Keeper said.

I nodded. He fought it well enough and embraced it better than I think anyone else could have or would have. Sasquatch stirred, and the other Soldiers went to help him, leaving myself and Stargazer with Patience.

“Do you know what happened?” Stargazer whispered.

I shook my head. “No clue. I’ve never seen that before.”

He pointed at the base of his nose. “You’ve got some blood,” he said.

I frowned and rubbed my forefinger over my lip. As I brought it away, I saw the dried flecks of blood in the dying light.

“We all did,” Stargazer added.

“If she wakes up again,” I said, “I don’t know what to expect.” I brought my medical supplies out again. We did not sedate Carter because we were waiting for his turning to progress. I took the syringe out and moved to Patience.

“I don’t like it<” Stargazer said.

“I don’t either.” Still, I put the needle into the inside of her elbow and pushed the fluid in.

“Sass is up,” Keeper said. I heard deep rumbling to accompany the notification and knew it to be true.

I looked back to them, then looked back to see Stargazer crouched on his knees and starting to stand with Patience in his arms. He grunted a bit with the dead weight, but he seemed to have her under control. “I’ve got this,” he said. With the rest of us rubbing our heads, we made our way back to Emory.

“I’m sorry it came to that,” Pauper said.

I slouched in his chair, still disheveled from the journey home. Lloyd was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps he was already in the research bays fawning over his new sample. “It was an oversight,” I said.

“Not your fault. Carter told you he would have restrained the initial sample the same way himself, right?”

“That doesn’t make it easier.”

Pauper leaned back in his chair for a moment, taking his hands from the desk and lacing them together over his stomach. “I know it doesn’t. But don’t blame yourself.”

Words wouldn’t stop me from that.

“Do you have any special requests for Carter? We made no plans of what to do with one of our own.”

I thought for a moment. “Let his name be his label. I don’t want anyone forgetting that a Soldier made that sacrifice. None of them should be nameless samples, but he sure as hell shouldn’t.”

“I’ll see to it,” Pauper said, leaning forward and scratching out a quick note.

“Don’t destroy him,” I added.

Pauper looked up. “I can’t guarantee that,” he said after a brief hesitation.

I stared into his eyes.

“I’ll see what I can do then,” he said, scribbling out another note. He finished and leaned back in his chair again. “Was there any trouble with the Valkyrie this time? You expressed concern.”

“She wanted to kill Carter,” I said.

Pauper interrupted. “Personal quarrel, or after he became infected?”

“After,” I said. “She was determined.”

“Killing him would have been her job,” Pauper said.

“It would have been, but this went beyond that. She had a bizarre reaction. Maybe a kind of psychotic break, but we all felt it.”

“What do you mean?”

I shrugged. “She had a strong reaction and began screaming. We all blacked out.”

Pauper’s eyes widened, and he was leaning forward again, already gripping his pen and writing faster than before. “Blacked out?” he said. “You’re sure?”

“As sure as I can be. She’s still sedated for now, but you can ask her about it when she wakes up.”

More writing. “I see.” He looked up from his paper. “I could use you with me when I go to talk to her.”

“Forget it,” I said. “You do that on your own.”

“You voiced your concern about certain Valkyries earlier.”

“I did, and I stand by those concerns. You go speak to her without me. I’m done with Valkyries.”

“I hope you reconsider,” Pauper said.

“I won’t.”

“I hope you will.”

“Can I be done with this now?” I asked.

Pauper exhaled before standing. “Sure. For now. You fill out your report tomorrow, and I’ll call you back in if I need anything else. You and your team have had a rough time, harder than I think any of us would have expected. I’ll put you on bereavement leave for a few weeks. Take some time off and sort things out.”

You screwed up, he meant. I knew we had blown our chance at redemption, even through sacrifice. I stood and followed him to the door. He put his hand on my shoulder as he opened us back out into the hallway. “If Patience is well enough to continue, I’ll keep her separated from you after a similar leave to check her mental state. I’ll make sure you won’t cross paths more than is necessary as well. They’re doing more sweeps around Drayton over the next few months, so I’ll see if I can arrange to have her stationed that way.”

That much would not be necessary–at least in my mind–but I felt myself nodding. The men would appreciate the distance between ourselves and her. I stepped away from Pauper and turned to bid him goodbye.

“Don’t think you failed,” he said. I opened my mouth, but he stopped me. “I know what you’re going to say. You guys went above and beyond the call of duty. All that jazz. These people will know Carter as a goddam hero for the rest of time. No one else would have refused the Valkyries’ duty. I know I wouldn’t. He’s a hero. You tell your men I said that and that I think you’re the hardest bunch of motherfuckers in the whole lot of us.”

I found myself smiling, but my heart still ached.

I opened the door back out into the chill night air as I left the building to return to my quarters. Snow still swirled and was even beginning to stick in some places. Keeper was wrong about that much, then. Small fires sputtered about the open pathways between the buildings, and the occasional group of residents huddled around them. Laughing, roasting meat, making sweeping gestures, telling stories. At one of the fires in my path, some Historian plucked out a classic rock melody on her guitar. At another time, I might have stopped to listen or even clap along, but it wasn’t another time. I passed by without a word, lost in my thoughts.

I worried about what it was like to turn into a zombie. Did they still know? I worried about whatever happened to Dana, if she was still trapped in that hospital room, perhaps still with three of her limbs strapped to the bed, or if a band of survivors seeking medical supplies ended her existence. I wondered. I wondered if Carter was still in there somewhere, or if he went to his Grand Oblivion In the Sky. For sanity’s sake, I told myself that he did. I thought he might prefer nothingness.

Somewhere Sasquatch and the others would be telling Sharon. They knew more about her and Carter’s relationship than I did. I considered us all close on some level, but they were separate. We were close, but they never sought me out between missions. We were of two different castes, it seemed. I knew they would deny it, but I knew that’s the way it was.

A hand closed around my wrist and pulled, spinning me around. I hardly consider myself a decent fighter, but I braced myself.

“Damn, don’t swing at me,” the woman said with a laugh.

I squinted in the dim light. “Siren?” I asked.

“You know it.” I looked over her shoulder at the group of people at the campfire I passed. With the Historian gone, they were looking for ways to keep themselves entertained. One man made a motion for Siren’s guitar, but he brought his hand back as though he feared touching the Ark Of the Covenant. Siren followed my eyes and then turned back to me. “They can wait a few minutes. It’s late anyway.” She patted a hand against my elbow. “How’ve you been? It’s been a while.”

I didn’t want to think about how our excursion into Drayton ended, but I could barely blame that on her. She didn’t know that Valkyries are the loaded guns we all keep pointed at our heads. I considered lying to her, but I hesitated, and she kenw. “Not good,” I said.

Her jovial tone melted away. “What happened?”

“Carter died.”

“Cortisol?”

I laughed in spite of myself. “Yeah. Mr. Cortisol.”

“Jesus,” Siren said. I raised an eyebrow and saw her blush. “Or… You know, whatever he would want me to say in that situation. Cthulhu. Is Cthulhu better?”

“Probably a little.”

“How did he die? If you don’t mind me asking.”

“It’s fine, just fresh. Happened today, you know.”

“Shit, I’m sorry. If you don’t want to talk about it, I understand.”

“It’s fine,” I repeated. “He sacrificed himself. Turned zombie.”

“Shit,” she repeated.

“I talked to Pauper earlier, and he said he intends to make sure Carter’s seen as a hero. I happen to agree. If I can ask a favor, would you mind spreading that around a little beforehand?” I nodded to the group of people around the campfire. “You know, to keep him honest.”

“Sure, definitely.”

“He turned zombie so we could finish our mission. He had the Valkyrie’s offer and turned it down. Tell them he turned zombie so we would know more about them.”

Siren nodded. “I will. I know I never would have made that decision.”

“Me either.” I looked toward my building, still feeling the cold creeping into me. “I need to get to bed, though,” I said. “It’s been a hell of a day. I don’t think I’ll sleep tonight, but I may as well lie down and close my eyes.”

“I know how you feel,” she said. I did not notice the bags under her own eyes until she said that. It was easy to forget that she did feel pain over the Drayton trip from months earlier.

We said a few parting words, both promising to talk again within a few days, and I turned away to return to my quarters again. I took no more than three steps when Siren called after me. “Hey,” she said. I turned around to see her shuffling her feet. “Do you ever think about Drayton?”

I nodded. “All the time.”

“Not like that. Well, not exactly. Do you ever think about moving there after it’s clear?”

I hadn’t thought of it, but it sounded nice. “Not until now. After today, I think I might. How about you?”

“I think so,” she said. “It’s part of me. I want to go back soon, you know?”

I looked at Pauper’s building and thought for a moment. If it meant security and distance from the red tape that sent us on the mission to the Westin, a smaller town might not be such a bad idea. “Going back sounds good,” I said. “Sure, why not?” I rubbed my hands together without thanking, and I saw the red flush her cheeks again.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to hold you. I know it’s cold. We’ll talk soon, okay?”

“Sure.” Another thought occurred to me. “Say, if you’re interested in Drayton, would you mind doing me a favor?”

“Anything,” Siren said.

“Would you mind keeping tabs on a Valkyrie out that way for me?”

She looked worried over that, but she still nodded. “Sure.”

“She’ll be doing sweeps around Drayton in the coming months.”

“Okay. What’s her name?”

“Patience,” I said.

She agreed. We said more goodbyes, and I turned away, walking home with thoughts of the dead in my mind. Dana stuck in her plastic tomb. Patricia, who waited for my miracle cure and only found a bullet to her head. Kurosawa, dying so the rest of us could live. Cooler, dying in defense of the Historian and Valkyrie he swore he would protect. Thief, whose only sin was hesitation.

Carter. Fucking Carter. Carter, the hero who gave his life so we would never have to risk our lives on that same damn mission again. Carter who, even now, is probably being poked and prodded by Lloyd and his cronies. Fucking Carter. Snow swirled around me as I worked my way through other campfires where no one called out to me or asked why I looked so damn sad. The snow did stick, though it never quite covered the green of the grass and hardly covered the concrete beneath my feet.

Is it ever a good day to die? Maybe. It was a cold and miserable day, but at least it was beautiful.

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