In a ballroom full of rabid zombie fans now actually turned into zombies, there were two people in particular whom I would want by my side. One of them was there in the ballroom already: Eloise J. Knapp—novelist, photographer, graphic designer… and one heck of a hardcore survivalist.
The other person was Jonathan Maberry. Not only was he an eighth-degree black belt in traditional Japanese jujitsu, and a fifth-degree black belt in kenjutsu (the Japanese art of swordplay), he also had published, like, fifteen books in five years, plus a bunch of Marvel comic books and short stories. Guy like that, he must have had some type of superpower equal to Peter Clines’s denial. And on top of everything, he was a super nice guy, always willing to read books from Permuted, always willing to help promote. Super nice guy. That, too, was one of his powers.
Alas, I hadn’t seen Maberry but in passing the entire zomBcon. Jacob, Eloise, and I really could have used him there in the ballroom.
“Locked,” Jacob Kier said as he hobbled away from yet another door leading out of the room. “Or maybe blocked or something.”
“Last one,” Ellie said.
We all looked down the outside aisle to where more and more zombies were pouring into the ballroom. It was the only open door, and we had been trying to avoid it because of the incoming horde.
I looked behind us at the gory mess Ellie’s minigun had left behind. There were still a few twitching hands here and there, a few blinking eyes on partially severed heads. But aside from this new influx of the undead ahead of us, we had pretty much cleared the room. Nevertheless, the incoming zombies had already started circling around behind us, and we could hear them back there, closing in.
There were so many. I wondered why they were all coming into the ballroom. Was there no one else out there alive?
“I’m running out of ammo,” Ellie said as she fed in her last belt of cartridges.
“Me too,” I said, plucking the last few shotgun shells from my bandolier. Jacob had already run out of rounds for his handgun, and he looked like maybe he was starting to hyperventilate, all sweaty and pale and trying to catch his breath. He was clutching his ZombAlert necklace as if it were helping him stay upright. I was proud of him: he hadn’t yet lain down and cried. Well... maybe for like a second he had.
Somehow Ellie had managed to get him back on his feet. “Think of your family,” she’d said. “There’s plenty to live for, but you have to fight for it, do you understand me?”
Now, as Ellie continued to load the minigun, I said, “Should we go back to your booth, get more ammo, different guns?”
She shook her head. “They’ve already circled around that far. We’d never make it to the cache, not with the ammo we’ve got left. We’d just be wasting our last chance.”
She finished loading the minigun for the last time. “Okay,” she said, “make every round count. D.L., you’re the cleanup crew. You get the ones I don’t.”
I nodded, and she set up her shot.
Watching her operate the minigun was like watching a construction worker using a jackhammer. It certainly was just as loud.
Jacob and I watched as she mowed down the bodies that were streaming through the doorway, watched as knees just disappeared in a bloody haze, and heads exploded. Jacob looked like he might puke as entrails slid out everywhere and the newcomer zombies got tripped up on them, slipping around in the rest of the carnage too.
The smell almost made me vomit in sympathy with Jacob. The smell of blood and raw muscle and guts, and the stinking, steaming brown and black sludge inside them. It kind of looked and reeked like the men’s room from right before the outbreak.
I looked back the way we’d come. “They’re coming up behind us!” I shouted over the minigun.
Ellie glanced back but then just kept shooting. She had to. If we couldn’t clear the doorway…
Behind me, the two leaders of the zombie pack got within range. Zombie Scully and zombie Mulder in their special agent suits and FBI laminates.
“Jacob,” I said, “watch out!”
He had been so steeped in shock he hadn’t noticed the undead Scully moving in on him. I couldn’t shoot—not a shotgun. Not with Jacob and my target in such close proximity. And as I raised the shotgun to strike the special agent with the butt, I wondered… could I really hit a girl? At least she wasn’t wearing glasses.
She latched onto Jacob’s arm and pulled him in for the bite… but got a mouthful of the shotgun stock instead. It was like hitting a tree with a baseball bat. The impact hurt my arms. And I could hear her teeth cracking, could feel the ragged remnants of them scraping the stock.
I shoved her away from my friend and blasted her neck and lower jaw so that the top of her head went flying, staring at us and tracking us with its eyes as it flew back into the oncoming mob.
“Eloise!” I shouted as Jacob and I backed up against her.
Just then the rapid fire stopped, and the minigun’s barrel wound down.
“All right,” she said, and she started forward, leaving the minigun on the floor.
I blasted a few more zombies behind us, and then slung Jacob’s arm over my shoulder and helped him along. We could hear shouting from out in the hall where we had been signing books. Someone shouting at the zombies and grunting, as if working hard at something.
“Hear that, Beavis? There’s someone alive out there!”
Jacob perked up a little and nodded. “Uh huh.”
He seemed to be feeling a little better about the whole thing now that we weren’t mercilessly slaughtering everyone.
There were only a couple zombies left standing. One looked completely intact, except for a vicious belt of gunshot wounds along his belly, and the other was missing a leg. Ellie pushed the intact one, and he slid apart at the belt of wounds. His top half hit the one-legged zombie, who toppled too, unable to keep his balance.
“Clear!” Ellie called.
Then she threw down a segment of pipe and draping to cover the mess she’d made. It would help keep our shoes somewhat clean.
Ellie walked across it, drapery squishing beneath her boots, and when she reached the threshold of the door…
I heard more shouting from in the hall, and Ellie started backing up, actually looking surprised for the first time that evening.
The sound actually came from behind us. I leaned Jacob against the wall and turned to blast more zombies.
Bowie, either drunk off his ass or infected with full-blown zombie AIDS, swiped at Eloise, who nimbly arched away while also swiping the bottle from his outstretched hand. She danced back a few steps and then, swinging the almost-empty bottle up so that the bottom pointed right at Bowie’s face, she slammed her palm hard against the glass mouth. The pressure, combined with the dregs left in the bottle, caused the bottom to explode. There was a loud pop as it shattered right into Bowie’s eyes. Shards stuck out of his face, and he staggered around, blind.
“Yeow!” he cried, clutching at his eyes. “I was just… offering you a toast—yeow!”
He tripped and fell face-first into the wettest part of the drapery. There was a squishing sound of blood pushing up through the fabric… directly into Bowie’s injured eyes.
Eloise looked horrified. “Bowie!”
She raced to his side and helped him up. He was crying blood. His and everyone else’s.
“Please…” he said, and then he vomited off to one side. “Please…”
I shot my last shell as one of the zombies finally reached our group from the rear. The blast only took off the bottom left half of his face, and didn’t put him down.
“I’m out!” I screamed, and then Jacob and I started backing up away from our approaching doom—all those hungry mouths.
“Please,” Bowie said again.
“I’m so sorry,” Ellie said. “I’m so sorry, Bowie.”
“Just—” He vomited up blood this time. “Just...”
Then he stopped talking.
Slowly, deliberately, he raised his head toward the sound of Ellie’s voice.
“I’m so sorry,” she said one last time before jabbing the long shard of the beer bottle through Bowie’s eye socket, into his brain. She caught him as he fell, and laid him gently down.
Then she stood up, and with a steely look in her eyes, she said, “Let’s go.”
I followed her, helping a weak and weeping Jacob out over the black-drapery funeral shroud as the zombies behind us followed too.
The hallway was almost completely deserted, except for Peter Clines and the group of twenty-or-so survivors huddled in his safe zone of deniability; he was leading them out the front doors, just chatting with them casually, like nothing was going on—as if he weren’t walking across a slaughterhouse floor; he stepped on a stomach, which deflated under his foot like a whoopee cushion.
“Oh hey, you guys!” he said, waving at us cheerfully.
Craig DiLouie was out in the hall too. He held a long metal pole with a U-shaped yoke welded onto one end, and he was catching the last few zombies by the neck with the yoke so that he could steer them into the ballroom. He was shouting and grunting as he worked.
Suddenly it all made sense: the locked doors, the sudden influx of the undead; the yelling.
“Oh jeez,” DiLouie said, struggling with the zombie trapped in his yoke. “I didn’t… I didn’t realize there was anyone else alive in there!”
“Bowie was alive,” I said.
“Oh my G—really? I didn’t… I didn’t realize.”
“It’s okay,” Ellie said, “neither did I...”
Craig shoved the zombie into the ballroom and spotted the horde coming through. He tried to shut the doors, but couldn’t because of all the bodies lying just inside.
He turned to us, and I realized just how pale and sickly he looked. “You should go.”
“Huh-uh,” Jacob said, still leaning on me.
“Yeah, Craig,” I said, “we’re not leaving anyone behind.”
He shook his head and started rolling up his sleeve. “You don’t understand. One of them, it…” He didn’t have to finish. We could see the nasty teeth marks indenting his skin.
Jacob started crying.
Eloise stared at Craig with a glazed look.
The zombies made it to the threshold and Craig jumped into action, holding them back with his yoke. “Go!” he said. “Go before I can’t hold them any longer!”
I nodded. “Ellie, Jacob, remember… there’s plenty to live for. We just have to—”
“We just have to fight for it,” Ellie finished. And then she was helping me pack Jacob to the elevator. We easily dodged the stray zombies Craig hadn’t cleared from the hall; he’d saved the slowest for last.
We took the elevator down to the second-floor parking garage, where Ellie was parked. I kept an eye on Jacob from my peripheral vision. He had stopped weeping and was just staring at the elevator doors.
The doors slid open onto the parking garage.
I caught only a brief glimpse into the parking garage, but the way looked clear. It made me wonder what Maberry was running from.
“We’ll go to the first floor,” he said, pressing the button.
The elevator started to move, and Maberry glanced over his shoulder at us. I noticed a huge bloody fingerprint on the back of his coat. A red slash, like the imprint of an incision, seemed to cut into the large fingerprint, and it reminded me of something. Something I had seen in the men’s room earlier that day…
I started to ask Maberry if he’d seen Big Daddy anywhere, when suddenly he was pressing the emergency stop button. The elevator jerked a little as it stopped somewhere between floors. Jacob almost collapsed, and while Ellie and I were struggling to stay upright beneath his dead weight, Maberry took advantage.
He grabbed Jacob and spun him around, then locked him in some kind of one-arm chokehold that only a superhuman could maintain.
“Get back!” he told us, pointing a Glock at Ellie and me. Then he pressed the gun to Jacob’s head. “I’m sick of you foiling my plans. So let me tell you all about them conveniently…”
“Mr. Maberry, don’t you think that’s a bit—”
As he kept talking, I glanced at Jacob.
“Why, you might ask? Hah! There is no reason! It’s simply because… I want to. Because… I’m not even human.”
That got my attention. “Not human?”
He chuckled. “Yes. Haven’t you ever wondered how I’m able to write so many books?”
Jacob said, “Uh-huh…” and then suddenly he started puking. It poured over Maberry’s arm and all down the front of Jacob’s Permuted tee.
Maberry reacted, shoving Jacob away and flinging vomit off his sleeve.
“He’s infected!” Maberry screamed, and then he marched forward, aiming the gun at Jacob’s head.
Ellie and I both ran forward, pushing Maberry into Jacob, shoving until the two were practically hugging. We felt Maberry’s muscles wind up in his back as he coiled to spin himself around. But then Jacob was sinking his teeth into Maberry’s neck, clamping down and then pulling back, tearing off a huge chunk of muscle and stretchy strips of skin.
As it turns out… Maberry was most definitely human. But I could see it in his eyes as Ellie and I held him against Jacob and let our friend rip out his throat: I could see that the man had just realized for the first time in his life that he was not, in fact, anything more than mortal flesh and bone.
I hit the button to resume our elevator ride to the first floor.
Jonathan Maberry gurgled one last time and then…
… Jacob let him drop.
Ellie and I backed out of the car, backing away from Jacob. His face was completely painted with Maberry’s blood. He came toward us.
“No gun,” Ellie said, patting the pockets of her black tactical vest. “Not even a knife.”
I stood there, staring at Jacob, thinking about what he’d said he’d do if his wife ever turned into a zombie.
“He’s got a… thingy…” I said, gesturing at the ZombAlert necklace around his neck. Maberry’s chokehold had kept it clean and free of vomit.
Quickly, nimbly, Eloise snatched the necklace from Jacob’s neck, snapping the chain. She looked at it and then handed it to me.
On the back I found Jacob’s custom engraving, his last wish if he ever were to be turned. It almost made me laugh and sob, all at the same time.
“Molest me,” I read aloud.
Jacob looked at me with sad eyes even as he came forward, groping for my throat. He moaned. Moaned like someone who had just lost everything that meant anything in the world.
I met his eyes, and, despite his abject plea, I didn’t see anything. No spark.
“Beavis...” I said.
I heard glass shattering behind me, and before I could even turn around, Ellie was beside me with a fire axe. She stepped forward, but I stopped her. Without a word, I took the axe from her. Then I stepped forward as Jacob stepped forward too…
I sat at the bottom of the parking lot stairs, just staring at the two corpses that had fallen out the window: Timothy Long and the coconut-bra castaway. They were hugging even as they lay practically flattened and burst on the pavement.
“Come on, D.L.,” Ellie said. “We can get to the parking garage from here. It’s clear.” She reached out for my hand to help me up.
I shook my head. “Ellie, I heard what you said. During the Permuted panel. What you’d do in the instance of a zombie outbreak. You should go… be with your family on the farm. Protect them. They need you.”
I shook my head. “Well, I can’t leave. I need to… I need to go find the other Permuted guys. Tony Faville, Jason Hornsby… Iain McKinnon. Jacob would want… they weren’t at the table when this all started, and he would want them to be safe too.”
Ellie nodded and considered something for a few seconds. “Then we’ll go get them together,” she said. “And then…”
“And then I can lie down and cry.”
She put a hand on my shoulder. “Maybe we all will. But in the meantime… let’s go save Jacob’s press.”
And so she helped me up, and we went, knowing that neither of us was likely to survive, but knowing that it didn’t matter so long as we died in service to our second family…
“God,” I said, “I hope Crypticon 2012 is nothing like this…”
And Ellie said, “Actually... I’ve heard it’s way worse…”
The End! (Until Next Year... Duhn-Duhn-Duhn!)