They raced up the narrow path. Tangles of weedy grass burst from every crack of the neglected pavement, threatening to trip them with every panicked stride.
"Keep runnin'", he cried, "don't look back! We can make it, mon!"
"We have to go back for him," the boy replied tearfully, "we can't just leave him!"
The man grabbed the boy by the collar and pulled him along. "We come too far to stop nah - an' deres more comin'!"
The relentless shuffling mob pursuing them up the path groaned with mindless hunger. Too close. Far too close. As the exhausted pair reached their goal, the horde was almost on top of them.
"Get dat gate open," said the man, "I'll hold dem off!"
The boy faced the tall metallic fence blocking their path. The gate was easily distinguished, but the thick covering of vines which had thread itself through the openings had obscured the keypad he knew was there. The man faced the opposite direction, steeling his nerves for the invaders scraping their way up path. He could smell them - feel them. As the first ghoulish figure rounded the bend, the lump in his throat threatened to choke him.
"A'ight ya nasties, come get me" he shouted, trying to fool himself with his own bravado.
His long dark dreadlocks grew and stretched, whipping about him like willow tree in windstorm. The horde advanced, rotting jaws clacking and drooling at the chance for a live meal. With blinding speed, tendrils of knotted hair shot towards them, each ensnaring the first zombie it could find. The loud snapping of decayed bone filled the air as the undead were crushed by the man's medusan locks. Zombies were grabbed and tossed through the air, slammed into the pavement or pulled in half by the swirling mass of hair protecting the boy. But still they advanced.
"You got t'hurry up, mon," he urged, "I can't hold dem much longa!"
The boy frantically pulled at the vines, trying to get to the access panel. The bleeding wound in his back had left him drained, making the difficult task seem herculean. He could hear them getting closer. If they were going to be saved, he needed to ignore the pain - ignore the weakness - and get that gate open. Pulling with all his might, the last of the vines pulled free, revealing a numbered keypad. As he fumbled to press the keys, he heard a scream behind him.
Turning, he could see the horde had overtaken his friend. His dreadlocks contorted in an uncontrolled frenzy as one of the zombies dug its rotting teeth into his shoulder. He screamed in pain and fell to the ground as others streamed forward. Looking to the boy with fear in his eyes, he screamed, "Go, mon! Get dat gate open!"
The boy could not turn away however. The undead had already streamed past his injured companion and shambled towards him - arms outstretched, mouths agape. One grabbed him by the arm and moved in for the kill.
Then, in a flash of green, it was gone.
"ARRIBA" came the impassioned shout of his saviour. With blinding speed, the zombies were dispersed by a flurry of blows. Skulls buckled and spines shattered as the punches rained down upon their rotting victims. As horde began to clear, the creature turned to the boy and said, "The gate, chacho, the gate", before pushing forward to deal with the rest.
The boy punched in the numbers. Kabuki had made him repeat them over and over again. 8-6-6-7-1-8-4-6-4. The sequence was burned into his brain and flowed effortlessly through his hands. With a creaking groan the gate slid aside.
"It's open" the boy shouted ducking inside, "come on!"
The creature grabbed their companion and hopped through the gate, which at the push of a button closed again, trapping the flailing arms of the undead trying to follow. The creature stood before the boy, their friend draped across his needly appendages.
, is he going to be okay?"
"I don't think so, chacho. I don't think so."
Gently lowering him to the ground, the boy could see the extent of his injuries. Blood poured from a gaping gash in his neck, which he held with his hand in an effort to speak.
"I'm done, mon," he sputtered, "but tanks to you, I'm not comin' back as one a dem horrible rotters."
The boy began to cry, "Dreadlock
, you're going to be fine. We can fix you."
Dreadlock shook his head, "It's too late, mon. I did a lotta bad tings in my day. I just hope dis balances the score when I meet da Maker."
The boy grabbed his hand, "I was supposed to save you."
"You did, Winston.
You already did..."
Jay made the sign of the cross with his needled branch as Dreadlock took his final breath. They had come so far together and lost so many. The weight of their sacrifice hung around Winston's neck like an anchor.
"Come chacho," said Jay, "we need to finish this."
The entrance way opened with surprising ease. Jay ducked down as he hopped forward so that his tall sombrero could clear the doorway. Winston removed a flashlight from his backpack and scanned the darkened hallway. Empty. Pristine. Exactly as the Sentinels left it, it would appear.
They moved forward slowly, cautiously. If there was one thing the past year had shown Jay, it was that dark, quiet hallways were not to be trusted. They always made him miss the bright open expanse of his Mexican home. He knew he could not go back, though. Senior Verde was gone, as were the children. Winston was all he had left.
"We need to get the main power back online," said the boy, interupting Jay's thoughts, "then we need to get to the roof."
"Do you remember the way, chacho?"
"Left, then right, then down the maintenance shaft to the lowest level," Winston recited dutifully. Kabuki
had trained him well. He wished that his first memory of her wasn't her last moments.
As they made their way through the halls, Jay spotted something along the wall. "The light, chacho - there!"
As Winston raised the flashlight, he saw a dusty video screen with an illuminated yellow button beneath it. Moving to the right, the light revealed something far more sinister. Scrawled in blood and the clean white wall was the word "PUSH".
Jay and Winston looked hesitantly at each other for a moment.
"It might be important," noted Winston.
"It might be a trap," countered Jay.
With a deep breath, Winston pushed the button anyway. The device blinked immediately to life. A man, battered and bloody, appeared across it's long dormant screen.
," muttered Winston under his breath.
The man on the screen struggled sit upright enough to face the camera. In time, he began to speak. "It's been 15 days since the start of all this and already it's looking bad. Blind Mike is gone. Zen
, all gone. Who knows who else. Once this... this... plague spread to the supers it was game over. I don't... I don't know what to do. I've been bit. I can feel the change starting already. That's why I came here - to the communications outpost. It's isolated. It's empty. When I turn, I can't hurt anyone here..."
A sense of dread fell over the pair as the watched.
"...so if you're watching this, you need to get out. You need to get out now. I know .. I know what I'm going to become. Please... I can't help those who have already died... the only thing left is to keep myself from making things worse. God... God help us all."
As the screen flickered again to blackness, Jay and Winston stood for a moment in silence. Then, turning back down the hallway, Winston said, "This doesn't change anything. We... we need to keep going."
"Si, chacho," replied Jay, "where you go, I follow."
Jay emerged cautiously from the maintenance shaft and scanned the room as best he could. For all the clean, modern design of the building above, the lower levels were a twisted mess of cables and piping the likes of which he had never seen. A single light pierced the darkness, illuminating the nearby panels with a soft blue glow.
"That's the generator switch," whispered Winston, climbing out of the maintenance shaft.
"I just need to push it?" asked Jay.
"Yes, but I'm coming with you."
"No chacho. You stay here." Raising his needled branches, he continued, "These stumps cannot hold a cerveza, but they can push a button. You stay and be safe."
Slowly, Jay hopped his way towards the panel, the dull blue glow of the button guiding him. Pushing it, the rest of the panel began to flicker. Soon, a hum filled the room as long dormant machinery began their own return from the dead. The lights flickered briefly then spring to life and bathed the room in a bright, sterile luminescence.
"We did it, chacho," Jay called from across the room, "now let's get to the..."
His words were cut off by a loud, menacing growl. The darkness had hidden a danger now plain for all to see: a zombified C.C. sitting against the wall.
"NYARRRRARRARRAA!" it bellowed, suddenly glimpsing it's first opportunity to feed. One hand was manacled to a pipe along the wall with thick restraints, but the rest of his decaying form flailed and pulled, desperately trying to advance upon Winston.
"Vaminos, chacho," Jay yelled, "get to the roof!"
"Come on," pleaded Winston, unwilling to lose another friend.
For its entire existence, the zombified C.C. had tried to pull itself free of the restraint his human form had placed upon himself, and for all that time it had failed. Now, with food in sight, it pulled with a renewed desperation - a hunger greater than any could possibly imagine. As Jay hopped across the room, the zombie finally met with success. His hand ripped from the rest of his arm under the pressure of his own superhuman strength, slipping him from the dreaded restraint. The need for flesh drove him forward in a frenzy. Winston clamoured to get back into the maintenance tunnel as the ravenous monster advanced.
"To the roof, chacho," bellowed Jay as he tackled C.C. to the floor, "I will hold him off!"
The zombie, still imbued with C.C.'s strength, ripped a chunk of green, fibrous flesh from Jay's side, causing him to scream in pain.
"JAY!" screamed Winston.
"GO, CHACHO" Jay repeated, digging his needles into the rotting flesh of his opponent, "GO!"
As Winston clambered up the maintenance shaft he could hear Jay shout.
"No child will suffer in my presence!"
"Come on, come on. Answer!"
On the roof, night had already fallen. Winston huddled next to the satellite relay with his transmitter in hand.
"This is Communication Relay Station C12 to Sentinel Orbiting Platform. Do you copy?"
Kabuki had told him of Dr. Raven's
plan to evacuate survivors to their station high above the panet's surface. She had missed the very first shuttle by mere minutes and watched it rocket gracefully upwards to the heavens. Since then, stories of Sentinel shuttles making periodic rescue runs had spread through the surviving populace like myth. Like religion. It kept hope for all alive. Now he wondered it it were true at all.
"Come in Orbiting Platform. Please - is anyone there?"
As if in answer to his question, Winston heard a low growl behind him. Turning slowly, he could see the shadowed outline of a person. It'd form twisted and bent - it's left arm ending in a stump.
"RRRAAHHHGGGGGHHHH!" screamed the zombified C.C. as he lunged forward. Winston jumped back from the relay and started running, but on the isolated patch of roof, quickly ran out of places to go. Backed into a corner, the zombie advanced on him. Looking down, Winston could see the long fall which was his only escape. He wondered briefly if it might be a better death then being ripped in half by an undead fiend. Alas, there was no time for such a decision. The zombie grabbed for him, and as he tried to break free and run past it, C.C. grabbed ahold of his backpack and pulled with superhuman strength. Lifting him into the air, he pulled the boy closer to his open, drooling maw.
In that moment, however, a moment of providence. The straps of his backpack ripped apart, and Winston fell awkwardly to the roof. The zombie stumbled backwards as the contents of the pack burst open. Hundreds of pills burst forth, showering both boy and monster like rain. Winston knew he had one chance, and with all the strength he could muster he shoved the zombie backwards off the roof. Snarling and snapping it's teeth the undead hero fell to the ground below, landing with a sickening, splattering thud to the ground below.
Winston lay on the roof for a moment, terrified and exhausted. Though alive, he felt defeated. All this struggle. All the friends lost. All for nothing.
But then, a crackle from the transmitter.
"This is Sentinel Orbiting Platform calling Communication Relay C12 - do you copy?"
Clambering to his feet, he dove for the transmitter. "I'm here! I'm here!"
"Winston, is that you?" came the surprised response.
"Yes.. yes it's me. I'm alive. Please, you have to come get me.. please..."
"We're coming Winston. We'll send a shuttle as soon as we can. Just stay where you are."
Spying the pills littered across the rooftop, Winston breathed quietly into the transmitter, "I can save them. I had pills... a vaccine... to prevent the infection."
Lifting his shirt to reveal the bleeding incision across his back, he muttered, "I can make more. I can make more."