The sound of the siren wakes Liam up one morning. He spends a minute disoriented, rubbing his face and trying to smash down his mussed morning hair with his fingers, before he snaps awake and realises that whatever’s going on, it must be important. They rarely send runners out before daylight except in emergencies; their radar equipment is often faulty and there’s too much risk of being ambushed in the dark. He listens as a loudspeaker system outside repeats the call for those being sent out.
“Runner two… runner five… runner six…”
Liam hears his number and rolls off the makeshift cot that’s been set up for him in one of the barns. He’s new to the roster of runners at the camp, so he’s usually only sent out on supply runs, but he has the feeling that isn’t what’s going on this morning. He pulls on trousers—somewhat threadbare, as their clothing stocks have been running low as of late—and a shirt, and heads out, careful not to wake up any of the seven other people who share his living quarters.
At the gate, he’s outfitted with the usual gear: a set of headphones so that whoever’s in the comm office can give him directions, a backpack with a tin of food and a bottle of water and plenty of room for anything he might pick up during the mission, and a small, loaded pistol. The siren signals again, this time to indicate that the main gate is about to open.
Liam takes his place next to runners two and five, a brunette girl he’s seen around the camp a few times and an older woman who gets sent out on most of the missions. Liam heard she’d been in the military before. Liam had run cross-country all through school, so he figures they look for people with skills that could translate to keeping them all safe from zombie attacks.
The gate opens and they head out, Liam and the girl directed by the military woman to head north. It doesn’t take long before there’s a crackle of static and the comm begins to broadcast. Liam wonders who is in the booth; usually when he goes out on supply runs it’s his mate Niall, but that’s during the day and anyway he expects it’ll be someone with more experience for a more urgent mission.
“Yeh, hello,” the voice on the comm says, and whoever’s behind it may be more experienced but he doesn’t sound any older than Liam or Niall. Liam tries to place the voice, to figure out if he’s run into the boy around camp, but he sounds unfamiliar, although it’s hard to tell through the static-filled communicator line. “Hello Priya, hello—“ there’s a sound of rustling papers and then the voice continues, “Alice, Liam. You two haven’t been out on one of these before, have you? I’m Zayn, and I’d really like to, uhm, get the three of you back home all right and not… y’know, zombies.”
“What’s our mission, Malik?” Priya, the only one of the runners with a microphone asks.
“Right,” Zayn says. He sounds a bit flustered, and Liam wonders if it’s the other boy’s first time on an emergency mission as well. “The lookouts think they saw flares to the north. It’s probably nothing, and it’s only about five kilometres out, but we can’t pick much up on the cameras at night so we need you to take a look.”
Liam nods and then feels stupid when he realises that Zayn had just said he couldn’t see them.
They come to a stream and Priya waves them down a few metres to where the water is shallower, and they keep running. Zayn comes back on the comm just before they hit the five-kilometre mark to tell them that there’s been nothing picked up on the scanners, zombie or otherwise.
“The major says to have you check out the area and then come back before you get noticed,” Zayn reports. “We have to conserve the fuel for the communicators so I’m going to be turning this off unless you call in, Priya. But if anything happens, call.” There’s a pause, and then he says, “Alright, Liam?”
Liam is startled to hear Zayn address him. He doesn’t know why Zayn singled him out and he doesn’t know how to respond, knows that Zayn can’t see or hear him, so he nods in Priya’s direction and she relays his response. Zayn signs off again a moment later and leaves them alone in the night.
They spend about twenty minutes bumbling around in the dark. It’s too risky to use torches or light matches, and they keep as quiet as possible so as not to draw attention from anyone, dead or otherwise, who might be wandering through, so not only does Liam have no idea what he’s looking for, but he has no idea where Priya and Alice are either.
He jumps when somebody taps him on the shoulder, and the person—who turns out to be Alice—claps a hand over his mouth before he can yell. “Come on,” she whispers. “Priya says we’re heading back.” Liam follows her back to the edge of their search area, and in the darkness he can just make out Priya’s silhouette. They begin to run again, following her back in the direction of the camp. The night is almost through; to their left the sky turns hazy at the edge of sunrise, and Liam’s shoes are growing damp from the dewy grass.
Zayn comes back on in their headsets. “Don’t suppose you’ve found anything,” he says. Priya confirms, and Zayn says, “Nobody’s seen anything else on the radar. Or… sonar. Whatever they use up here. Are you on your way back?” Another confirmation, and he tells them he’ll be ready to signal for the gates to be raised when they make it back to the boundaries of the camp.
He signs off again, and Liam keeps running.
Liam’s next run is two days later, a supply mission. Some scouts the evening before had found a shop about ten kilometres to the west that had looked untouched by either scavengers or zombs, so Liam is tasked with going out there and seeing what he might be able to bring back. The siren sounds, the gates are raised, and his comm turns on as he begins to run.
“Gooood morning ladies and gentlemen. I’m Louis ‘The Tommo’ Tomlinson and I’m here with my esteemed colleague Harry ‘Curly’ Styles.”
“Um, hi, everyone. We’ve gotten some good news this morning—“
“Two spare cans of petrol for the generator! Thanks very much to our runners for that find! That means we’re back on the air, playing you the best of young Mr. Styles’ embarrassing music collection.”
“You said you like my music collection.” “I said I like the owner of your music collection. Not the same thing at all, Harry. Anyway, stay safe today everybody, avoid zombies, and for now let’s play another song.”
“Hey, buddy,” Niall says. Then he raises his voice to a falsetto and says, “Hello, Niall!” Liam shakes his head and chuckles at Niall’s terrible impression of him, and almost trips over a tree branch. Niall must have a camera on him because he laughs at that and says, “When are you going to earn a mike, mate? It’ll make these runs way more exciting.”
“Because you’d get fuck all done, Horan,” another voice says over the comm. Zayn Malik.
Liam wonders what he is doing in the comm office at that time of the afternoon; from what he knew about the comm operators they pretty much stuck to their time shifts. Liam hopes it’s not another emergency, even if the last one had luckily not involved any encounters with the walking dead.
“Right, that’s true,” Niall replies, laughing. He addresses Liam again: “I’ve got to go to hospital. Just a check-up,” he says cheerfully. “So I’ll be leaving you in Zayn’s capable hands for this one, Li. See you at supper, mate.”
Liam hears Niall get up and then Zayn comes on. “Hey,” he says. “I’ve got you on camera and you’re heading in the right direction, so just keep running.” Liam waves a hand in confirmation, assuming that Zayn can see it, and continues in the direction of the abandoned shop.
“You’re fast,” Zayn says, after a while. “You must’ve been a runner before… before all this, yeah? They tested me out as a runner when I first got here but I’m not so fast. Or, uh, brave. So they put me on radio. Which is—oh, shit. Company to your right.”
Liam glances to the side and he sees it. Off in the distance, across the field that stretches out before him, a figure is coming in his direction. It’s too far away for Liam to get a good look at it, but it has the dragging, lurching walk that means zombies.
“Just keep going, man, it’s moving slow,” Zayn tells him, which isn’t really reassuring, but Liam keeps running. As long as it’s just the one, and not a whole pack of them, he can outrun it or take it out with the gun if necessary.
Liam reaches the shop, and tries the door, which is, unsurprisingly, locked. “Looks like there’s a broken window around the side,” Zayn tells him, so Liam makes his way around the building to where one of the shop’s glass windows has indeed been smashed. It must have been from bad weather or some other natural cause because the items in the window display appear to be undisturbed, and Liam starts to gather up everything that looks useful and stuff it into his knapsack. The shop appears to have sold sporting goods in a previous life because he finds some trainers, a few water bottles, and some running shorts.
Then Zayn comes back on the comm, tone urgent. “Liam,” he says, “a whole pack of zombs is on its way, about a kilometre out. Grab what you can and start running, alright?”
Liam doesn’t look around to see where the walking dead are coming from, he just shoves a few more articles of clothing in his pack and turns to run. He considers drawing his weapon but he has never shot the gun except in training and he’s faster without it in his hands anyway.
Zayn talks to him as he runs back, updating him on the location of the zombies, how far away they are from Liam and how far away Liam is from the camp. They haven’t seemed to have noticed him, Zayn reports, which is an advantage, but they’re still heading in his direction so if they do become aware of his presence they’ll be going straight toward the camp.
“Just stay quiet and keep running,” Zayn reminds him. “Four more kilometres.”
Liam’s starting to get tired; even years of cross-country track haven’t prepared him for running from the undead with a full pack on his back, and the food supplies at camp are such that meals are small even for the runners, who need a lot of energy, but he’s getting close and he keeps telling himself he can rest when he gets through the gates.
He comes up over a hill and sees the camp ahead of him. “Good,” Zayn says, “You’re almost there, Liam, keep going; I’ll have them raise the gates for you.” This time he doesn’t sign off right away, keeps talking until the gates are up and Liam is jogging through them, stopping when he’s well within the boundaries of the camp. Liam sits down and watches as the gates are closed once more. “Well done, mate,” Zayn says, “Get some rest.” Liam nods, although he doubts Zayn still has a camera turned on him.
Liam stays on the ground for a few minutes, catching his breath. When he stands up, he considers going over to the communications station to meet Zayn in person, but he still has to drop off the supplies he collected and anyway they’re not really supposed to interrupt the comm officers while they’re on shift. Instead, he gives his headset and gun to the gatekeepers in charge of sending out runners, goes over to the camp’s main building and hands over his backpack to one of the residents whose job it is to inventory all of their supplies for rationing, and then heads over to hospital to see Niall.
“Runner six… runner eleven… please report to the gates.”
“Song’s over. Would you like to say something to the fine people at home?”
“Not really, no.”
“As you wish, dear boy. Don’t say I didn’t offer you anything. Wait, what was it we were told after our last show?”
“More information, less innuendo.”
“Ah, yes, that was it, wasn’t it? Well, we just want to say a massive thank you to everyone out there for listening and especially to the runners and the gatekeepers for making sure we don’t all get eaten by our neighbours.”
“Now we’re going to play you another song and come soon. Back. Come back soon.”
“Very good, Haz; no innuendo there at all.”
When Liam arrives at the front of the camp, there’s a surprise waiting for him. “You’ll be the lead on this mission, runner six,” the gatekeeper says. “Have you used a microphone before?”
Liam shakes his head. The gatekeeper puts it on him and then pulls the head of the mike toward herself, pushing a button on the headset. "Malik, is it working?" she asks, and then Zayn's voice is in Liam's ear.
"Wha's happenin’, Liam?" he asks, as the gatekeeper pushes the microphone back in front of Liam's mouth.
Liam pushes the button, says, "Hello? Zayn?"
"Hello, Liam," Zayn says, sounding satisfied. "Ready to run?"
Liam nods, and then remembers that he can actually answer Zayn now. "Yes," he says. Zayn gives the order to raise the gates, and Liam is off with runner eleven, a stocky boy who stays in the living quarters next to Liam's, close behind him.
Zayn seems determined to make up for their previous one-sided interactions, chatting with Liam and asking him questions. It's small talk; they can't be sure who might be able to listen in from outside the camp so there's no discussion of previous or upcoming missions, and almost nobody talks about the time before the dead began to reanimate so neither of them say anything about their histories, but Zayn asks Liam about being a runner and tells him a bit about the way the various communicator devices work.
"We've just gotten this microphone," Zayn says, "That's why I'm on this shift, I'm the one who tests them out. Keep running, and we'll see how far the signal reaches." He instructs Liam to keep runner eleven informed on the quality of the reception on his end, as the other boy is taking notes on the equipment's usefulness.
“Three kilometres out,” Zayn continues. “So have you always been a runner?”
“I wanted to be in the Olympics,” Liam tells him. “I used to run every day and I’d—I used to, like, pretend I was being chased?“ He pauses to catch his breath, to remember. “Not by zombs, Just by…” he pauses again. “People.”
“I got kicked out of school for fighting,” Zayn says, seeming to know what Liam was trying to imply with his sentence. “Twice, actually. You wanted to be in the Olympics?” he changes the subject back to Liam before Liam can ask more about Zayn’s apparently rough childhood.
“I was the fastest boy in Wolverhampton,” Liam says. “At least until I was about fourteen. So yeah, I thought I was going to run in the Olympics.”
“You’re from Wolverhampton,” Zayn says. “Do you miss it?”
“Course,” Liam says. “What about you, Zayn?”
“Four kilometres out,” Zayn says, and then responds, “Grew up in Bradford."
“Oh, I’ve been there,” Liam tells him. “It’s—“ he can’t remember anything about Bradford, all the cities and places he used to know blurring together, apart from his hometown, into one vague, indistinct before. “It’s nice.”
“It’s… it was, where I grew up,” Zayn says. Then he changes the subject quickly again, starts asking Liam rapid-fire questions about what kind of music he listens to, which football team he supported, if he’d had any pets before, interspersed with reminders that Liam ought to be telling runner eleven about any problems with the communicator and declarations of how far Liam and runner eleven have travelled.
They don’t get anywhere near as intense or honest in their conversation as they had while touching on their childhoods a few kilometres back, but Liam and Zayn fall into an easy rhythm. Liam feels as though they’re friends, as though they’ve been friends for a long time.
It’s nice, he thinks. Zayn isn’t goofy like Niall, who Liam sees the most outside of his runs, but Liam thinks it’s Niall who is more out of the ordinary in the camp, managing to be—or at least to act—light hearted and upbeat even in the face of a zombie invasion. Zayn isn’t carefree like that and doesn’t try to act like he is, but then, Liam can't be carefree like that either. Not anymore.
Liam’s just over seven kilometres away from the camp when he tries for honesty again, says, “I like being able to talk to you, Zayn,” and Zayn doesn’t respond. Liam glances over at runner eleven, who nods to indicate that he could hear Liam on his own headset, but they’re clearly out of range of the comm office. Liam takes a few steps further, says a few random phrases, but there’s still nothing from the other end of the line.
“I’ve lost you,” Zayn says then. “Come back to base, runner six.” Runner eleven—silent, watching, recording—nods in acknowledgement and turns back.
After a moment, Liam follows. Once he’s back in what he believes is the range of Zayn’s equipment, he turns his microphone up all the way and says, “Zayn?”
“No need to shout, Liam,” Zayn says. Liam had thought that turning the microphone up might make it reach further. He has no idea how they work, really, so he turns it back down. He is also unprepared for the relief that washes over him at knowing that Zayn can hear him again. Liam’s never missed having a microphone before, always secure in the fact that he could hear the orders that came from the comm office, but after speaking to Zayn over the course of the last seven kilometres, those few seconds where they had been cut off felt strange, foreign to him.
“Come back to base, runner six,” Zayn says again, and Liam finds himself smiling when he hears him. “You’ve done good work today…oh, fuck. There’s a sort of a script we’re meant to be reading for these types of missions and the second page has gone missing. Well, alright, Louis probably wrote something dirty on it and then threw it out or Harry took it or—anyway, just come back, Liam. And runner eleven,” he adds, an afterthought.
“Got it, Zayn,” Liam replies, and runs.
“Liam, I—uh—“ Zayn’s voice crackles with static over the headset. “I’ve just lost the camera on you, mate. One of the zombs must’ve taken it out.”
“Harry’s feeling under the weather today so it’s just me this afternoon. Don’t worry about him—I can hear you all worrying. Don’t. He says don’t as well. Actually he’s just about lost his voice, so he hasn’t said much of anything today. Quite peaceful, really. I’m joking. But honestly, don’t worry. I’ve made him some soup… well, he’s made himself some soup. If I made it, that’d be a reason to worry. He’s made himself some soup and he’s having a lie down. He’ll be back on his feet soon enough, though. In the meantime, here’s another song from the collection. Harry likes this one.”
Liam’s not sure a camera would do any good; there’s no light where he’s running—where is he running?—he can’t see ahead of him, can barely see his own hands in front of his face. He hears a deep sigh from Zayn’s end and echoes it, inhaling until his lungs are full and then exhaling, running all the while.
It’s their third run together since Liam was equipped with a microphone, and to lose that, out here in the dark, with zombies in every direction, hits him like a blow. He crosses his fingers and hopes that they don’t lose the headset that allows him to hear Zayn too.
“I don’t even know if you’re still alive, Li,” Zayn continues. “I saw runner eight get bit before we lost the cameras.” Liam doesn’t want to think about runner eight, who had wished him luck and began running in the opposite direction to get as far away from Liam as possible before she turned, to keep him out of danger.
“There were at least thirty zombies on the radar before we lost that too, and someone—someone who’s a lot smarter than us, said that when a group gets that large, others just keep coming. They hear the moaning, right?”
Liam knows exactly what he means. He can’t see anything, but he can hear them, the moaning, staggering noise of more and more zombies drawing closer. It sounds as though they’re coming from all directions, and with each stride he takes he’s afraid that he’s about to come crashing into a member of the undead ranks, or feel the teeth of a crawler sink into his leg.
“So you’re most likely dead,” Zayn says, “Or undead. Either way, you probably can’t hear me, but I’ll keep talking. In case. I know you’re out of microphone range but if you’re lucky you’re still in range of the headset. If you’re really lucky you’re still around to listen to it.” He pauses. “Shit, what do I say? If Louis and Harry were here they’d keep you entertained. Never shut up. You’ve got me. Sorry. I’d offer to go find Niall but I don’t want to leave you alone. You know, if you’re not thinking about how much you want to eat my braaaains.” Zayn draws the word out, manages a half-hearted laugh before he falls silent again, then coughs and repeats, “Sorry.”
Liam thinks that, all things considered, he’d prefer Zayn to Louis and Harry, who would undoubtedly be cracking jokes in an attempt to make him feel better, but whose brand of humour wasn’t really a good defence against the hoards of the undead who were most likely coming at him from all directions.
“Do you have any siblings?” Zayn asks. His voice sounds faint, like it’s farther away, and Liam wonders if it means that he should change directions, if he’s heading away from the signal. He checks the compass stashed in his pocket and decides to keep going. “Niall said he thought you have sisters. So do I. Or, well, they’re not at the camp, so I reckon maybe I don’t anymore.”
There’s a long pause after that, long enough that Liam begins humming to himself, anything to fill the silence so he doesn’t have to think about what Zayn has just said. He stops when it realises it could draw the zombs to him, and Zayn begins speaking again a moment later anyway.
“Left you hanging there, Li,” he says. “I wonder if Lou and Harry leave their music in here, I could play you something.” Liam hears him shuffling around, moving stuff in the comm office. He hears Zayn humming, singing under his breath, and he wishes there was a way to let him know he wouldn’t mind hearing Zayn, rather than a CD or a record or whatever they’ve got up in there. Zayn comes back on and tells Liam that he couldn’t find the music.
“I was meant to be studying English at university,” Zayn says. “But I always sort of fancied being a DJ. I had a name picked out and all. Well, just, DJ Malik, not, like, whatever. Mum and Dad never would’ve gone for it though. Not as a job. But now here I am. DJ Malik. Maybe there’s an upside to this whole end of the world thing. No, shit, that’s not true, forget I said that. Anyway, I would have been a really awful English teacher, so—Liam? Hey, something’s coming up on the radar; is that you? Hang on, I’m going to try to get a camera on—yes, there you are.”
He sounds like he’s getting excited, and indeed Liam can see the lights of the camp off in the distance. He speeds up, already exhausted but telling himself he’ll just have to push a bit further.
“You’re an absolute maniac, Liam Payne,” Zayn says, sounding a bit awed. “Just keep going. Keep going, yeah? I’ll have them raise the gates.” There’s a pause, “Wait, you’re still—are you in range of the microphones yet? Can you just… just say something to let me know you’re still you.”
“Zayn?” Liam says, pulling the microphone on the headset close to his mouth. He hears Zayn yell triumphantly into his ear, and he keeps running until the lights of the camp are close and he can see the gate coming up to let him in.
When Liam gets into the camp his first thought is to go see Zayn. They’ve never met face to face before, but Liam suddenly wants to see him, to say thank you for talking to him in the darkness. He looks around, trying to figure out where the communications office is, and then spots Niall. Before he can make his way over and ask how to find Zayn, someone grabs his arm.
“Come with me for debriefing, please, runner five. Standard procedure in the case of casualty or death,” Major Cowell says, and Liam has no choice but to follow. Two hours later he’s released, but when Niall takes him to the comm office Harry and Louis are in full-swing with their radio show, and Zayn is nowhere to be found.
Liam is called to the gate by the usual monotone voice that has announced the numbers of runners for as long as he has been at the camp. When he turns on his personal mission comm, he finds himself hoping to hear Zayn on the other line. Instead, it’s Niall who fills him in on the supplies they’re sending him out to try to find this morning, stocking up on med kits from an abandoned hospital a few kilometres off.
“So, basically, like… we’ve got a new segment for you today.”
“Right. We wanted to bring all of you out there something a bit more entertaining than just our banter. Not that our banter is anything less than entertaining, mind.”
“Louis and I ran through some ideas—read aloud Harry Potter, act out some of the best episodes of Doctor Who, provide football commentary…”
“We had a fantastic season lined up for you all. United’s nineteen ninety-eight season versus Arsenal’s from oh-three for the opener…”
“But the major nixed it. Wants something educational.”
“So we’ll be bringing you survival tips and stories for the rest of the week. Assuming we survive the rest of the week, ha ha.”
“Lou, don’t joke about that.”
Liam hasn’t had any word from Zayn since their last, late night mission just over forty-eight hours before. He’d been busy, with debriefing and the standard medical tests they gave anyone who had gone off radar in case of infection, and so he hadn’t had much time to seek out the boy on the other side of the radio line. Not that he even has the first idea where to look.
When Niall is finished giving him directions on where to go, Liam decides that asking Niall is worth a shot. However, he had asked somebody about Zayn the day before: the major who had listened to the story of his last mission, and Major Cowell had given him a hard look that made Liam think contacting the comm officers outside of missions wasn’t something usually done by runners. He decides to wait until he’s far enough for any short-range listening devices to be out of range, and picks up speed slightly on his way to the hospital.
Liam always keeps one eye on the landscape around him as he runs, knowing that the zombs can come from anywhere, can come without warning, but he usually tries not to look too closely. He doesn’t want to see the wreckage of houses, of schools, doesn’t want to see the places where people used to go about their lives, not worrying if they or their loved ones would be turned into raving, drooling undead creatures. Liam’s friends used to tease him about how sensible and mature and boring he was, but it’s kept him safe all this time. He wishes it could have kept them safe too.
“Liam?” Niall’s voice brings him back to the present, reminds him that he’s meant to be looking out for zombies. And not just for zombies, as far as danger goes. There’ve been rumours of fighting between nearby camps, raids done by one group of humans on another for medicine, weapons, food. Liam supposes that he understands the ‘every man for himself’ mentality but he’d like to believe they could stay a bit more civilised than to go off attacking each other when there are plenty of walking undead to do that for them.
There’s a flicker of motion off to Liam’s left; he sees it out of the corner of his eye, turns his head to look but keeps running. He’s not surprised to see a zombie coming his way. It’s rotting, half of its face sloughing off, one eye oozing down the side of its cheek. Liam fumbles with the gun tucked into his belt—he’s never really learned how to shoot it.
“You’ll be taking that one out then, yeah?” Niall says in his ear and Liam nods, assuming that Niall has a camera on him. He stops running, turns fully toward the zombie, and cocks back the hammer of the gun. Everything around him is quiet, so the blast of the weapon is loud, and the recoil almost knocks him backwards.
Liam’s first shot isn’t quite on target, grazing the zombie on its disfigured head but not a direct hit to the brain, the spot most effective in taking down the walking dead. The creature staggers toward him, a rattling noise coming from its mutilated throat, and Liam shoots it again. This time the zombie falls, reaching out for him as it collapses. Liam watches until the zombie stops moving and then starts to run again.
“Well done, mate,” Niall says. “Good shot. If I’d a pint, I’d make a toast.” Liam laughs, and Niall joins in.
It feels good, if a bit strange, Liam thinks, to have things to laugh about. He supposes that everyone still has fun sometimes, even in bad situations. People must’ve laughed during wars, right? Liam wishes he had paid more attention in history, then reasons that this probably wasn’t the kind of thing any of his history teachers taught. He thinks about all the times he’d been in hospital as a child, his family making him laugh, and then shoves the memory away.
“The centre is just ahead,” Niall is saying. As Liam closes the remaining distance to reach it he decides he’s far enough from camp that he can speak freely, the only recording devices able to pick up his voice the one that Niall is using. Of course, he can’t be certain, but it’s the best chance he has, and anyway he doubts they would actually do anything to him for asking. Give him a talking to, maybe. Mostly he’s worried that they would make sure to keep him and Zayn on different shifts.
“Niall,” he says. “Do you know Zayn?”
“’Course I know Zayn,” Niall responds. “Close knit group, we comm officers.” He laughs again. Liam nearly trips over a tree branch as he reaches the med centre. “Zayn Malik.”
“Right,” Liam says. “Well, I wanted to talk to him after a run the other night but I couldn’t find him. Do you know where he bunks?”
“No idea,” Niall tells him. “He’s usually on the night shift so we mostly see each other at the training simulations. I’d say you should hang around the comm building but they’ve tightened up security since a couple ‘a the mikes got broken by someone messing around. You know Louis Tomlinson? He’d know, I think.”
“He does that radio show,” Liam says. “I’ve never met him, but I’ve heard it.”
“Everyone’s heard the show,” Niall replies, still laughing. “It’s good, right? Anyway, he knows everyone, and I’d bet he’ll be easier to hunt down than man of mystery Zayn.”
It’s not much, but it gives Liam slightly more to go on than just the vague knowledge that somebody named Zayn Malik exists and works at the communications building. He resolves to look for Louis Tomlinson when he gets back to camp and goes into the medical centre to complete the mission.
Liam has no luck with Louis, who tells him that he pals around with Zayn a bit when they’re scheduled on back to back shifts at the comm office but that he doesn’t know much about the other boy apart from that. He says he’ll check with Harry, but Liam has heard nothing back from him by the time he’s brought up on his next mission. He’s only met Louis the once, but Liam is sure that Niall was right, that if anyone was to know how to find Zayn, Louis’d be the one.
“Good morning, all, this is the Tommo and Harry, and contrary to previous reports we will not be sharing survival tips because our tips are—how did the major put it, Hazza?”
“Um, useless and dangerous.”
“Yes, that’s it. But we do have a very big surprise for all you runners out there, a special guest! Let’s have a big welcome for Niall Horan. You probably know him from guiding your missions but what you may not know is that he’s from Ireland! Isn’t that something? Also, he is in fact single, so—“
“Shh, Harry, not everyone is as lucky to have a dashing partner like you do…stop laughing. Some people…”
It’s funny, he thinks, as he straps on his headset and pushes his microphone up close to his mouth, that someone could be so mysterious, small as the camp is. Then again, where he’d grown up he hadn’t known all his neighbours, where he’d gone to school he’d known the names of his classmates but not all the others in the year. Maybe some things didn’t change.
“Liam,” Zayn says, and Liam jumps, startled. He sounds strangely close, close enough that Liam looks around as though he expects to see Zayn standing beside him.
Zayn must interpret what he’s doing because he explains, “Fixed up one of the mikes for better reception. It’s good, yeah?”
“Yeah,” Liam says. He nods at the gate guard, who flips the switch that opens the heavy doors at the camp entrance. When they’re open Zayn tells him to loop around the camp and run to the south, and Liam obeys.
The run starts off quiet; Zayn gives Liam a few directions as to where he’s going—about six kilometres from the camp—and what he’ll be doing there—looking for patient files in an abandoned medical centre. He doesn’t say anything more and doesn’t try to start a conversation, but after a couple of minutes Liam ventures to speak.
“I went looking for you,” he says, “When I got back the other night. I wanted to… dunno, really. But I couldn’t find you. I asked Niall, and Louis Tomlinson…” He trails off when Zayn chuckles.
“You make it sound like it’s a conspiracy,” Zayn tells him. “Come to the comm office when you get back to camp. I’ll be there.”
“Alright,” Liam says.
“Good,” Zayn replies. “We can meet officially. Or maybe it’s unofficially.” Then his voice changes, becomes almost mechanical-sounding, “You’re almost at a kilometre. You’re doing quite well; keep going.” His voice goes back to normal and he adds, “They’ve found the script we’re meant to be reading. Louis’d hidden it under a couple of empty bags of crisps over in the corner.”
Liam laughs. Zayn lets him know when he does reach the first kilometre marker and tells him that there’re about five more to go before he reaches the medical centre, then goes back to speaking normally again and asks Liam about the missions he’s been on since they were last assigned together.
Maybe it’s his conversation with Zayn. Maybe it’s that the mission is in the middle of the day, and only a supply run, and so low-risk that he’s sent on his own rather than with the usual two or three other runners. Whatever the reason, Liam’s three kilometres away from the camp, three from the med centre, and he doesn’t see the zombie until it’s almost on top of him.
“Liam,” Zayn yells into Liam’s ear via his headset. “On your left.” Liam only has enough time to dive to the side before the creature is launching itself at him, with the horrid groaning sound that never seems to cease with the walking dead. Liam ducks and rolls, hoping to get out of range of the zomb’s grasping, rotting hands. He can smell it, putrid and pungent, and he pounds on the panic button on his headset, although he’s sure—he hopes—that Zayn has already put out the call for someone to come rescue him.
Liam manages to get a few feet from the zombie and he scrambles back to his feet. As he begins to move again, the zombie grabs him by the ankle and he nearly trips, but jerks his foot out of its clutches and begins to run again.
Zayn’s shouting something and it takes Liam a moment to process what he’s saying. “Did it break the skin, Liam?” Zayn’s asking. “Did it break your skin?” Liam looks down at his foot as he runs; his sock is torn to shreds at his ankle, and there’s a tear in the top of his shoe, but he can’t tell if the zombie had managed to cut him.
His biggest fear, like most people at the camp, especially among the runners, is being infected. But not knowing, looking down at his leg and being uncertain whether the mutated virus that turns normal people into the walking dead is now coursing through his blood, is even more frightening. He knows the zombie didn’t bite him, but if it’d had blood on its fingers, an open wound…
“I don’t know,” he says, as calmly as he can manage while running. Zayn swears on the other end of the line. Liam is met by two other runners about a kilometre from the camp. He tells them what he’d told Zayn, that he doesn’t know if he was bitten, and they escort him back to the camp and take him immediately to hospital.
He doesn’t get to the comm office to see Zayn, of course, but he assumes Zayn will understand. And, Liam thinks as they begin cutting off his socks and shoes with large scissors to check him for broken skin, if he’s about to turn into a monster out of a horror movie Zayn probably doesn’t want him around.
The whole thing takes several hours. After the medical centre workers—not doctors, none of them are officially trained except for a nurse who draws some blood from his arm and tells him he’ll have to stay in the medical centre overnight until they can get concrete results back—look him over, they run a series of tests that Liam doesn’t understand the purpose of. They write down all of their findings, whatever they are, in a folder and take it with them, leaving Liam in a hospital bed with a hard mattress and scratchy sheets. At least he has his own room, although as it’s because there’s still a chance he could be turning into one of the walking dead that’s not really a positive.
There’s a knock on the door and Liam assumes it’s the nurse or her colleagues, come back to do more testing or maybe to check if he’s looking for human flesh yet. But the person who opens the door and walks in is clearly not a member of the medical staff. “Liam.” The boy takes a few steps into the room and shuts the door behind him.
“Hi, Zayn,” Liam says. “I don’t know if you’re supposed to be in here.”
“I don’t think they’ll send me away,” Zayn replies. “And I’ll get out if things start getting hairy.” He pauses to walk across the room and sit down on the edge of Liam’s bed. Liam, who had been pushed into the bed by one of the medical personnel, gets out from under the covers and moves to sit beside him.
“I won’t know until tomorrow for sure,” Liam tells him, “when the tests come back, but they don’t think I was infected.”
“Good,” Zayn says, then, “Guess we’ll see tomorrow.” He pushes his hair up off his forehead with one hand and offers the other to Liam. “Zayn, by the way. Unofficially.”
“Liam,” Liam says. “Unofficially.” Zayn grasps his hand too long for a handshake, not long enough to call it holding hands. Their fingers still touch when they drop their hands to their sides; their knees bump against each other’s on the small hospital bed.
Outside, the signal to open the gates sounds. Inside, they pay it no mind.