"No one can confidently say that he will still be living tomorrow." - Euripides
She stood at the window. The sun was just coming up over the mountains. Something to the east was still smoldering, had been for weeks; must be burning through a gas main. The smoke cast a hazy yellow glow across the horizon in the thin morning light.
If you squinted a bit, ignored the broken windows and didn’t look down to the chaos of debris on the streets, from this high up you could almost imagine that things were normal. She could almost imagine a steaming mug of coffee between her cupped hands, the smell of bacon and eggs…
The proximity alarm started beeping.
Darcy sighed, turning to the line-up of hastily wired LEDs. The green one on the far left was blinking sluggishly. She should look for new batteries. And something was up in the parking garage. Probably nothing to worry about, but the trip wire was going to need to be reset and this sort of run was good practice for the others.
She tiptoed quietly into the living room where three teenagers were sleeping, sprawled out on the expansive sectional sofas.
Say what you will about the zombie apocalypse, she thought ruefully, but it made for killer rent on penthouse apartments.
Unfortunately, even this high up with twelve floors below them cleared wasn’t enough to make a person feel safe anymore. Especially not a person with her limited resources and immense responsibilities.
Three sets of eyes were blinking up at her over the back of the sofas, alert and awake. Apparently it wasn’t even enough to make these kids feel safe enough to sleep through the soft beeping of the alarm.
Little things hit her hard, sometimes. She hated that they had learned to wake up ready to fight. They should be rolled up in their beds, hollering at their mothers for five more minutes.
She swallowed past the lump in her throat and smiled reassuringly.
“Just the parking garage,” she whispered, not wanting to wake the others still asleep in the apartment’s three bedrooms.
“Michael, you’re up.” She said, feeling nauseous like she did every time she took one of the kids outside the relative safety of the apartment. “Katy, Jack, will you keep watch? Let the others know where we are when we wake up?”
They nodded solemnly, all three pulling themselves upright.
Michael crawled reluctantly out from under his blankets but walked purposefully to the rack of weapons by the door. He strapped a blade to his belt – they all slept in their clothes these days – and buckled a handgun in a holster to his hip.
Darcy picked up the long barrel rifle she favoured and bumped him encouragingly on the shoulder. “Ready?”
“Ready,” he said with a determined focus.
“Alright, you take the lead,” she said, taking a firing position facing the door.
Blade drawn, Michael turned the line of locks as quickly as he could and pulled the door open. With efficient movements he stepped into the hall, looked right and left, and called “clear”.
“Lets move out,” said Darcy, “Katy?” she turned to the 15 year old who had moved up behind her.
“Got it,” she said.
Darcy moved out the door and heard it close and the locks flick behind her.
They made it down 12 floors without incident to the makeshift gate they had wired across the stairwell once they had cleared the floor. It wasn’t as secure as she would like it, but it was wired up to motion sensors and it had to be mobile. 12 weeks, 12 floors. Another 13 weeks and they’d have the whole building secure. God only knows what they’d do when that was done, but she couldn’t think about that now, or the fact that even canned food went off eventually, or that their rainwater stores were dangerously low.
No, she was going to focus on teaching Michael and the others what skills she could, keeping them alive, and clearing 13 more floors.
“Okay,” she said, taking a deep breath and channelling what she remembered from every stone cold SHIELD agent she had ever known, “you know the drill. We’re hitting the unsecured floors. All the stairwell entrances she be blocked, but we never trust that, right?”
“Constant vigilance,” said Michael with a sloppy salute and a grin.
Darcy rolled her eyes but said “wands at the ready,” and they shimmied under the gate.
They made it almost down to the second floor before a broken window somewhere let in a stagnant breeze and the smell hit them in the face. Only moment later, they heard the raspy groans and shuffling of a walking corpse.
The walkers weren’t particularly good at climbing stairs, which Darcy wasn’t about to call a blessing based on the state of the world, but at least it could be worse. The thing coming towards them moved as if by accident, every so often its uncoordinated motions brought it upwards.
It had seen them now though, and was starting to get a bit more energetic. Whoever it used to be, they had clearly died in the first wave, almost four months ago now. It had hit that point of decomp that none of them ever really seemed to move past, and the clothes hanging off of it were nothing more than stinking dirty rags.
“Lets not waste bullets,” she said as they paused on the landing. “Clean and quick, right at the temple.”
Michael nodded, looking a bit pale, but he gripped his blade, and moved forward slowly and deliberately.
They had learned early on that the dead tended to mirror you: if you tried to get sneaky and unpredictable, you usually ended up dead from something like a sneaky and unpredictable bite to the ankle. But if you were slow and predictable, they don’t actually predict but they move slower, so it generally worked out better all the way around.
Case in point, Michael was able to cleanly plunge his knife into to walker’s temple without the thing making so much as one good lunge. It crumpled to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut.
“10 points!” said Darcy in a hushed cheer, feeling genuine pride in Michael along with the slight tinge of nausea that still hit her every time, even though she knew they weren’t people anymore. “This was probably the asshole that woke us up this morning, but we’ll do a quick sweep while we reset the alarm.”
Michael blew out a breath, “Out into the garage?” he asked shakily.
“Out into the garage,” Darcy said steadily, “it’s gonna be fine. It was good and clear when I came in yesterday. Only one of the sensors at the fence went off. Can’t be too busy, right?”
They pushed through the broken door into the fenced in area of the garage. A couple of walkers on the far side turned and began sluggishly pressing against the fence, but they were too far off to be any concern. She could see the problem off to their right. The fence had never been meant to keep much out. It really just set off the resident parking from the rest. A loose panel had fallen in, probably because a few of the dead had piled up against it. She had seen it before. You get more than a couple moving in the same direction and they couldn’t seem to turn around. Only one of them seemed to have found a way in, probably through the long, skinny broken window next to the door. There were four more milling around in the fenced in area, but they had heard the door open, and weren’t milling anymore.
“Alright,” said Darcy, giving Michael’s arm a reassuring squeeze, “what’s your plan.”
“My plan?” the things weren’t moving too fast, probably because they were standing still, but Darcy was still itching to move. She held her position though. Michael needed to think this through himself.
“Your plan,” she nodded.
“How many knives d’you have on you?” he asked tentatively.
“Good idea,” said Darcy. “Let’s say I only had one I could throw without leaving myself unarmed. Which one?”
“Farthest,” Michael pointed to one of the dead.
Darcy pulled a small throwing knife off of a row strapped to her thigh, balanced it carefully in her fingers, and flung it. She wasn’t really a great shot, but you didn’t need to be at about 15 meters. The farthest walker went down with a thud.
“Next,” she let a bit of the tension in her voice seep out, they were getting too close to let Michael take his time.
“Split ‘em up and take em down,” Michael suggested with only the barest hint of a question.
“Good plan,” Darcy grinned, “go!” They ran away from each other to opposite corners of the fence. The zombies picked up their speed, but they split, two following Darcy and of heading after Michael.
She didn’t wait until they caught up with her, instead turned and brought her arm around, knife swinging in wide arc until it found its first target. The second one went down moments later, her blade flashing in and out in a blur.
She looked up to see Michael looking ever so slightly triumphant over his own target.
“Victory dance?” he called over to her in a low town.
“Victory dance!” she called back.
It was important to enjoy the little things.
They made short work of wiring the fence back together and re-setting the alarm and then made the exhausting trek up to the penthouse without incident.
“Darcy,” a hushed chorus of whispers greeted her as she walked back in.
Everyone was up then.
Seven nervous faces bleeding slowly into relief looked up at her from the table. Seven ten year old kids who shouldn’t have to worry about whether the only adult left in their lives was going to make it back every time she went out.
She forced a smile, “morning everyone,” she said as she closed and locked the door behind her and Michael, “did you guys get breakfast?”
“Yep,” Tess chirped, followed by Danny’s sour morning face with “Beans.”
She laughed in spite of herself, “that’s what the brits eat for their breakfast Danny-boy, so you’re basically the Queen.”
There were upsides, sometimes, to getting stuck with a group of seven grade school kids and three teenagers when the apocalypse hit. Mostly the crushing, awful responsibility of it was what she felt, but sometimes they were still just kids, and that made her feel like maybe she was doing okay.
“Alright team,” she said standing at the head of the table, “who’s got KP today?” three little hands shot up, “and who’s on garden duty?” two excited hands waved in the air, they loved the rooftop garden, decorative greenery long since replaced by vegetables. “And who’s on patrol?” the last three hands went up with much less enthusiasm.
She still felt conflicted about that. Part of her wanted to keep them all safe and sheltered up here for as long as she could, but she knew it couldn’t be forever, and as the weeks marched onwards, rescue was looking pretty much impossible. And this was the world they lived in now. One ten year old on watch in the apartment, two more out patrolling the top floors, practicing how to properly work with a partner to move around corners and clear a hallway.
“Katy, Michael, you’re in charge today. When chores are done, school’s in session, right?”
“Right,” they echoed back.
Well, she could still hold out some hope that reading, math, and history would still be valuable to them, right? If nothing else, it gave them all something to do all day.
“Jack,” she looked at the other teenager, “we’re going out.”
Jack was 17, tall and lanky but starting to grow into his height. Darcy knew she put too much on him, but he was the closest thing to another adult that she had. That plus the fact that he had crazy paintball and FPS skills from Before meant that he came on supply runs with her.
Hell, he probably was better equipped than her with her childhood growing up familiar with guns out on the farm and a crash course in crisis survival that SHIELD had made her take after Puente, but he didn’t have whatever it was that made people take charge, take action when the shit hit the fan.
Apparently, Darcy did.
“Okay, let’s roll through the last of the supplies at that corner store and then I think we’re going to need to hit something in the mall.”
Being stuck in a big city wasn’t as bad as zombie movies before they became real life would have you believe. A lot of people with money got out fast when the airports were still open and this whole thing was a rumor that only people with enough money to act on paranoia believed. A lot of the people stuck in the city died really fast, close quarters and panic. It meant that there were a lot of supplies available. Darcy was pretty sure they were the only living people in their city block. There had been a small group one block over, but she hadn’t seen any sign of them in weeks.
Moving through the silent city streets, they saw a few small groupings of walkers, but were generally able to just avoid them rather than take them out. They cleaned out the last of the supplies left in a corner store they had cleared and locked up last week, then they shouldered their half full packs.
“Okay,” said Darcy, standing at the door and looking down the street to the glassed in entrance to the downtown mall. “Let’s head for the main entrance. Hopefully if we can stick to the well-lit areas around the atriums, keep good visibility. We’ll stick to the stores with easy exits.
“The mall, Darcy? You were serious about that?” Jack raised an eyebrow.
That was the downside of being caught in a big city. Not many living people, hordes of the dead. The mall wasn’t a bad instinct for hiding out, lots of supplies, but also lots of people and too much street level glass to be defensible.
It must have been a massacre when it was hit.
“Yes, the mall, seriously,” she said in a no nonsense tone, “There’s probably one of the only untapped Wal-Marts left on the west coast in there.
Jack looked a little bit terrified, but he put on that cocky grin that was coming easier and easier to him that made Darcy worry a bit more every time she saw it. “Punk Rock,” he said, and led out down the street.
They made it in without much trouble. There had been four or five walkers milling around at the entrance, but they had taken them out efficiently and without much noise. Walking around the edge of an atrium, they could see dozens of the dead shuffling around on the lower floor. Poor bastards had probably thought it would be safer down there when they were alive, but there were no exits.
“Darce,” Jack pulled her up short by the straps of her pack, his voice a harsh whisper in her ear. She froze, following his arm to look to the edge of the throng of the dead down below them. There was something happening, they were turning blindly towards something, moving faster, more and more of them shuffling out from stores and other hallways into the atrium they were looking down into.
Then she heard the sound of boots running on the debris strewn floor and a hard to identify sort of high pitched pinging sounds.
There was someone alive down there.
She looked ahead of them, the Wal-Mart was just up ahead. There were only two of the dead between them and the store, plus however many were lurking inside of course, but she could see the aisles of canned food from here. She looked back down into the atrium. She could see a figure now, running out into the atrium. He had a brace of knives strapped across his back, dispatching the dead with cold efficiency, but he was running out of weapons fast, and the dead just kept coming at him. One person and a knife could take out about 5 of those things in close combat, maybe more if you were very good, but there must be almost 50 by her count, closing in. He certainly didn’t have 50 knives he could throw to keep his distance.
She should just keep moving, let him be a distraction and get what her kids needed. Maybe he’d be okay. He certainly looked like he knew what he was doing, and he looked like he was still relatively healthy. She could see two longs blades strapped to his legs from here, the incoming dead were thinning out and he was cutting through the group around him. She could almost make herself believe it, but the group was closing in too tight and the dead didn’t wait until you were finished with one of them before walking up behind you and taking a bite.
“Ahhhh shit,” she swore with enthusiasm before dropping her pack to the ground, checking to make sure her pistol was strapped tight to her hips, and drawing the two curved blades she wore at her thighs.
“Go fill the packs,” she ordered Jack in her best no nonsense tone. “I’m not here when you get back, you take what you can and you go home.”
“Darcy,” said Jack in a careful tone, “I don’t think…”
“No argument Jack,” she said firmly. “That’s a person down there. What if it was you or me?”
Jack clamped his mouth shut, his jaw clenching tightly.
She smiled at him, and reached out to wrap a steadying hand around his arm. “Things may be messed up, but we’re still humans, right? We do what we can.”
“Right,” he said, forcing a stiff smile, “I’ll see you in a minute.”
Darcy didn’t look back at him, because otherwise she might not go, and whoever the guy down there was, he was losing ground fast.
She took a deep breath, rolled her eyes upwards for a moment and said “you owe me one,” to whoever might be listening, and jumped up onto the rail of a long since broken escalator.
She skidded down the metal bar and jumped to the floor with a crunch of broken glass and debris. She could see the man in the centre of the horde notice her with a blank sort of shock, but the swing of his arm didn’t even break. At least he wasn’t panicking. She nodded curtly at him, and began cutting her way through the mass of the dead towards him. Slow and deliberate as they turned towards her, one after the other, breathing slow and even to not let the shoulder to shoulder line of walking dead terrify her into making a mistake, eyes flicking back to make sure they weren’t behind her.
By the time she made it through to the man at the centre, the ranks were thinning, probably only a dozen of the things left. There was a clear hole behind her and plenty of fallen bodies making obstacles for the dead still trying to move towards them. They could make a run for it, they were going to be okay. The man raised his eyebrows at her as she moved in beside him, striking out at an aggressive specimen getting a bit too close for comfort. She must have been a sight. Close fighting like this always meant an unpalatable amount of gore.
But that wasn’t it. He tilted his head towards the few remaining walkers as if to say “ladies first”. She rolled her eyes, but he had a point. Better to leave the place clear than count on being able to make a clean run for it.
She wearily stepped in front of him, moving slowly towards the remaining dead, watching her steps carefully for biters on the ground. Wasn’t more than a minute between the two of them to finish off the rest.
They stood almost shoulder to shoulder, breathing heavily as they waited to see if more would come. But there was only silence. Darcy let the iron tension in her shoulders drain just a bit.
“So,” she said, turning to the man beside her, “you come here often?”
It wasn’t much of an opener, but witty repartee after almost dying was a lot harder than the movies made it look.
“First time,” he said with a tight, sharp smirk, “don’t know if it’s really my sort of place.”
Darcy grinned. “Darcy Lewis,” she shoved her blades into their sheathes and stuck out a hand.
“You’re shitting me,” he said in a shell-shocked tone.
“Uh, no?” she dropped her hand, looking at the man warily. Under the grime and gore and a week or so of scruffy facial hair, now that she looked, he did look a bit familiar.
“You were at SHIELD for a while weren’t you? Working with Foster?” he went on intensely.
“…yes….” She stared at him, searching through all the faces she remembered there. She couldn’t imagine why she wouldn’t remember him more clearly, with blue eyes like that.
“You never met me,” he said in answer to her unspoken question, “but I was there.”
“You were SHIELD?” she asked, getting a bit excited in spite of herself. This was way less likely than running into a grade school friend on vacation or something and, given his skillset, probably way more useful.
“Sort of,” he said, “the one nice thing about the end of days? It’s actually kind of nice not to be recognised.”
She peered at him closely; the beard was obscuring his jaw line, and his eyes were a more tired and dulled blue than they should have been, but the number of faces at SHIELD that would actually be identifiable to anyone who they left alive was very very small, and it hit her pretty quickly.
“Holy fuck you’re Captain America!”