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The Fear Masters (excerpt)

The first half rotted corpse came lurching down the stairs from the old 7th and Lex platform at 16:17, twenty two minutes after our train had ground to an abrupt and unexpected halt no more than twenty yards up the track.

At that point, I knew the day had officially gone straight in the dumper. Inconvenient power outage, subway train stalled two hundred feet under the world’s most sprawling radioactive ruin, something fresh out of a shallow grave coming towards me with obvious murderous intent – things had definitely gone from ‘all is well, all is well’ to ‘run in circles, scream and shout’ at terminal velocity.

Staring at what was left of the walking dead man’s face, my brain tried to gibber the 'z' word at me, but I told it firmly to shut up, mama was busy.

The dead man was shambling along at a fast walk, lurching like a drunken sailor but still covering ground steadily. Every couple of steps he’d let go with one of those growly 'rrrrrr rrrrr' sounds that all the zombies in the viewsees seem to come standard with. It was goddam creepy, if anyone asked me. Though no one ever did.

My ocular implants were already set to infra-red, so I knew that whatever this thing was, it had no body heat. It was a shock to see somebody who ought to be decently dead laboring up the tunnel towards me with pretty obvious murderous intent, but I don't freeze up when I'm scared. Not even with every dyed-blonde hair on my nappy black head bristlin’ like a shoe shine brush. My 'fight or flight' reflex was permanently hard-wired to ‘shoot, punch, claw and spit’ well before I hit puberty, and 13 weeks of boot training in Sumac Bay, followed by three years in a Middle Eastern hot zone and four more doing 'dirty' ops for Global Security’s top secret Science Sector had ground my instinctively violent responses down to a monofilament edge.

I had my window cranked down, my gun yanked up and an explosive round on the way before anyone else in our subway car had even realized there was anything untoward out there, much less lurching towards us with flesh devouring intent.

If I’d had any doubt regarding the nature of our attacker, it vanished as soon as I took my first breath of the outside air. The creep not only looked like a rotting corpse, but he smelled like one, too. The stench was enough to, as they say, knock a buzzard off a turd wagon, and it would probably have pole axed me, too, if I hadn’t been hardened to even worse sensory input by jungle training.

Eddie, who had been scanning behind us in the UV range, turned around just in time to see my first target’s head explode. "Myrna Loy, Myrna Loy," he murmured out of the corner of his mouth, "she don't know if she's a girl or a boy. I hope we find a WEE-pun on that corpse when it comes time to file reports, little darlin."

"Stop flapping your jaw, Eddie," I said, trying to keep the exasperation out of my voice. "Switch your ocs to IR and your clip to explosive rounds. And take a big whiff while you’re at it; it will put you in the picture faster.”

Eddie's typical whitebread from Alabama, all muscles and reaction time -- a good sort to have backing your play when the gumbo starts to splatter, but lord above, that boy can get on my last nerve when he's a mind to.

I mean, I can't help that my pop was a big fan of classic movies, nor do I really have any choice about which gender I prefer to share a hammock with on bivouac. I know Eddie thinks his heckling is harmless, but after a while, you get tired of repeating "Don't ask, don't tell". You yearn to present a more visceral argument. In my case, it wasn't my knuckles that ached to get into the debate so much as it was the edges of my palms and the soles of my feet... especially the spots where twenty years of kendo-karate training had built up all the calluses.

Eddie has three inches and about eighty pounds on me, and his arms are longer than mine, too. And, yeah, he’s probably stronger. But if he kept pushing my buttons, I had no doubt I could kick his meaty white ass all up and down that tunnel or any other one on the planet. I have a lot of quick, and a whole lot more mean, when I reach down deep to get a handful.

Eddie rolled his eyes at me, but dutifully clicked his contacts through to IR... just in time to catch sight of a well below room temperature mob spilling off the platform and shambling hungrily in our direction, 'rrrrrrrr'ing to beat the band.

He snarled something imaginative in Arabic that managed to be blasphemous, profane, obscene, and anatomically impossible all at the same time, while simultaneously hitting the RELOAD button on the side of his modified Ruger .38, dropping a clip of heatseeker and slapping in one of explosive rounds. By that time I'd dropped two more deaders with direct hits to their rotting faces and three others behind them, presumably from high velocity skull shrapnel. That only left maybe thirty or forty more walking dead lurching and growling towards us.

"Zombies, goddam it, ZOMBIES," I finally blew out past my clenched lips, "we're about to be inundated by a genuine horde of mother kinkin' ZOMBIES."

"What's the hazard bonus for that kinda action?" Eddie asked, actually flicking a tight smile at me as he started shooting. I was keeping my cool through an effort of will, but Eddie is one of those nutjobs – not uncommon in the military -- who is honestly baffled by the concept of fear. The way he's wired, 'bloodlust' is the closest he can get to it.

"Not fragging enough," I snorted back, keeping a tight grip on the little panicky butterflies that were trying to flutter in my lower intestine.

I kept firing until I'd emptied another clip. It took about four seconds; by that time, the only slightly diminished mob had covered about half the distance between the platform and our stalled subway car, and I'd come to the conclusion that we needed another plan.

"There are too spammin’ many of them," Eddie said, apparently reaching the same conclusion as I had. He didn't sound unhappy about it, just a little irritated at the realization. “And to think this started out as a pretty good day...”


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