DEAD IN THE CITY OF ANGELS: Orion’s Run
A new one that’s making it’s way through the pipeline: Dead in the City of Angels, by yours truly and Jarret Liotta. I expect this one will also make its debut in May to give folks something else to tide them over after These Dead Lands: Immolation. Here’s the lead-in:
Robert “Orion” Wallace would never get used to the sound a thirty-three inch Louisville slugger made when it cracked open a skull.
Schmunch! His swing caught the zombie right above its left eyelid, and its jaw dropped open with the impact. Its right eye—the one that didn’t pop right out of its head and literally skip by across the side of Orion’s right cheek—instead shot open wide in what seemed to be a look of surprise.
Orion had that infinitesimal moment of disturbance that came with killing a zombie. For that one, ever-so-brief moment, it had a human quality. For one uncomfortable instant, it didn’t seem like a walking dead creature, but a living person …
Then it was over.
This was animated dead flesh that had found Orion’s nest over that garage in Redondo Beach. He had to tell himself this each time he swung his bat to crush the skull of a zombie. It was a walking, moving, entirely dead monster. It should have been nothing more than a moldering corpse, being rendered into nothingness by an army of insects and hungry bacteria, but instead, here it was.
He’d heard it enter. He was quickly coming to know the difference between the sounds of the legion of beady-eyed rats and rabid raccoons that scuttled through the rubble that was once Los Angeles, from the shuffling of the walking undead.
The City of Angels had become the city of the undead. Zombies. They were a merciless, grotesque plague of vermin. They were everywhere. They were a living disease bent on the destruction, mutilation, and ingestion of the living. They were an awful enemy borne out of a nightmare.
Orion hadn’t camped there long. You couldn’t stay anywhere long before the ever-voracious, ever-foraging legion of carnivorous corpses worked its way around to your location. They had the advantage. They were always hungry. They were always awake. They were always motivated.
Orion knew the house he’d found was somewhere off Torrance Boulevard, but he hadn’t noticed a street sign. Something about the little street—the range of white-washed bungalows, the tranquil palms—gave it a welcoming feeling of safety, and he was drawn to this particular residence.
He’d needed safety after that mob had pursued him along Route 1. Up until that point he’d never seen so many.
Miles. Have to find Miles.
But he also needed food, and some time to rest. He had lost his Dodge Ram hours ago, not really very far from his home. He’d plowed right through a group of the dead, and in the process, had destroyed the truck’s radiator. Left with nothing other than the boots on his feet and the Springfield pistol in the holster on his belt, he’d barely had time to abandon the truck a few blocks away from his house when its big V8 engine finally wheezed its last, right in sight of a dead horde. They’d pursued him through the neighborhood, street after street, until he had finally managed to shake them. It was mid-afternoon when he’d come out of that grocery store, just across the road into Redondo Beach from Palos Verdes. The sun was high and clear.
Up until that moment he’d stupidly thought daylight was a safe time. He had seen one or two zombies out in the day on his journey from the cliffs, but they hadn’t seen him. At that time Orion figured it was a nighttime phenomenon, like in the movies.
Reality was different.
Orion had become almost carefree—standing outside that grocery store along Route 1, letting that southern California sun bake his exhausted face. He took a deep breath and looked west, where he could see glimpses of the blue Pacific Ocean sparkling through, in between the buildings.
For just that one moment he lost himself …
But something moved in the shadows across the street to startle him. His arms tightened around the big cardboard box half full of groceries he’d managed to scavenge from the store’s already looted interior.
The sun sparkling on the water clouded his eyes. He squinted.
Yes, something was moving. Despite his training and experience, fear froze him in place as if his feet had taken root. In his last life he had been a working stuntman in the movies. He’d jumped out of helicopters, attacked enemy tanks, crashed cars, and run through flaming buildings. But that was the movies, and even though he’d taken life-threatening risks to earn a pretty good living, somehow the fact that he’d always done it by choice made it feel less scary. This was real.
Orion took a step back on heavy legs, and then another, looking left. He knew which direction he was heading, but he couldn’t be sure what the safest way of getting there was.
The first zombie materialized out of the shadows across the street—what was once a tall, thin man clothed in tattered beach wear, a ragged T-shirt and ripped board shorts. It staggered forward without delay. It wore only one flip-flop, the other having been lost somewhere over the zombie’s never-ending hunt for food.
Orion forgot he was even holding the box of groceries when he shot his hand to the gun at his hip. The box dropped. Bottles smashed and cans scattered with a ghostly clatter that chased away the silence of the deserted street. He slapped at his hip until he caught grip on the semi-automatic pistol—a full-size Springfield Armory XDM Bitone .45 caliber weapon. He drew the weapon and aimed it with both hands at the shambling monstrosity. His hands shook, and he forced himself to calm down.
The din of the last crashing can settled, but there was still something else—a softer, sickly sound to his right.
Not twenty yards away another figure emerged from the next store. Its face was horrendous—a vivid, stark picture of horror—vivid green, with a mess of flesh and—maggots, writhing, slithering maggots where the nose used to be.
“Jesus,” he said automatically.
It staggered closer and Orion heard the wheezing, whistling sound it made—a fluttering gasp from its emaciated nose, a grotesque exhalation that burbled forth beneath the writhing clump of maggots that pumped out with each step.
Orion clicked off the safety, lined up the sights, and fired. The head exploded with the enormous Bam! Pieces of flesh, like dead fish, splashed in all directions. For a second it looked like it hadn’t stopped, but after taking another shaking step, the zombie fell forward and collapsed like a pile of clothes.
Orion’s heart lifted, but not too high, for an instant later three … no, four … seven, eight …
Like an anthill that had just received a sudden kick, a horde poured out of the stores on either side of the street. Shambling and tottering on dead limbs that felt no sensation, dozens of hungry ghouls emerged into the bright Southern California sunshine. As if of one mind, the grotesqueries turned rotting, lifeless faces toward Orion. A legion from Hell, all committed to only one cause—devouring the living.
In short, that meant Orion.
Orion looked back to see the first zombie across Route 1 was now joined by well over a dozen others emerging from their hiding places, invigorated at the prospect of a fresh meal. They were coming toward him from all directions now, shuffling forward, mouths open.
It’s like they were setting a trap, Orion thought distantly. Like they were waiting for me …
Which one was closest? He took careful aim at what seemed to be a particularly fast-moving creature—a young girl in the last life—and fired. The bullet splashed off the side of her jaw and ear. The impact jerked her head back, but it slowed her advance for only a moment.
The obvious route for Orion to take quickly became clear, for they were coming from almost all sides now.
He turned to get back into the store, but instead slipped right on one of the fallen cans. As his foot bolted out from beneath him, Orion lost his hold on the .45 despite the rugged stippling on its grip. He watched as it sailed into the air above him as if in some slow motion action shot. At the height of its ascent, it slowed and seemed to hang in midair for a moment, the sunlight gleaming as it struck the weapon’s two-tone finish. Then the pistol fell back to the ground and skipped away in front of him, tumbling and turning. At the same moment, Orion’s chin hit the sidewalk, and he too skidded across the pavement, as if he was using the sidewalk as some sort of bizarre razor. And while it was doubtless successful in removing a few whiskers, a nice chunk of skin also went with them. Orion cried out as his teeth snapped together. Stunned, he lay stretched out on the sidewalk, aware of nothing more than his misery and the fact that he was bleeding all over the concrete.
Out of the horrible silence, sounds of shuffling and gurgling gasps and feint moans grew behind him. Fear threatened to paralyze him, but the will to survive took hold—cutting through the shock of his fall. Like an invisible hand, it grasped him by the seat of his pants and seemed to hoist him right up onto his feet.
In a flash he was off and running. He scooped up his pistol without pause and drove himself back into the dark store.
He got ten feet inside before he stopped and returned to lock the door before retreating further into the dark convenience store’s interior. Inside, everything seemed to be covered beneath a heavy veil of shadow. Orion waited for a few moments as his eyes adjusted to the gloom.
A sense of triumph lifted his heart as watched the zombies assemble in ever-greater numbers at the big plate-glass window and glass door, like a sale was about to start for living flesh.
Moments later the echoing pounding of arthritic fists on the fragile glass brought fear back to Orion. The bright day shining across Route 1 was now eclipsed by a mass of writhing bodies that pressed against the windows and door. With urgent thrusts and whacks, the zombie horde fought for entry, shaking the glass and sending hollow shocks of fear right through to Orion’s feet. His confidence in his shelter was quickly evaporating. Only tempered glass and some metal framework stood between him and the horde. Eventually, the storefront would give.
Orion stumbled back, fingering his gun, stupidly searching left and right for some other weapon to help his cause. The vivid racket of the creatures shook his nerves—detestable cries and shuddering smacks.
Then, like a colossal yawn, one of the great picture windows heaved in and shattered in a symphonic climax. Once-fresh air that was now tainted foul by the gruesome stench of dead bodies breezed into the room. Orion felt a sudden bolt of nausea rip through him, though whether it was from the stink of the dead or driven by the fear that filled his chest, he didn’t know.
He raced back to where logic told him the rear exit would be as the mob swelled into the small space. Dead ghouls pushed through the jagged opening with no thought for their physical safety. Broken glass stripped lengths of rotting flesh off legs and hands as the single-minded scags pushed through the window frame and staggered inside, casting about for their quarry.
Orion reached a narrow hall and, through the dark, managed to spot the back door. It was locked and he fumbled to open the bolt as a second explosion of glass echoed through the store. He cursed his shaking hands as his fingers fiddled ineffectually with the lock’s cold knob. The moaning cries and serpentine gasps of the cold horde came closer. The smell seemed right upon him.
The door still didn’t open.
The dead shuffled closer, their irregular footfalls echoing in the enclosed hallway.
“What the hell is this!” Orion shouted at the door in a mixture of frustration and fear. “Open the fuck up!”
Something was holding it closed. Orion looked up and down, and in the darkness, he saw a large bar hanging in brackets across the door. He pushed his pistol back into the holster on his belt, then grabbed the bar and lifted it out of its mounts. He yanked on the door knob and the metal fire door popped open. Bright sunlight slashed at his eyes, and Orion squinted against it, still holding the bar in one hand.
The sharp stench of a decaying corpse hit him just as a zombie’s icy hands grabbed for his throat. Orion turned and let loose with the bar, slamming it across the zombie’s head, driving it back into the arms of the corpses behind. The hall was full of ghouls, and they shoved the first zombie aside, trampling it as the horde surged toward him. Without pause, Orion choked up on the bar like it was a heavy baseball bat and let loose with a gigantic power swing at the head of another zombie. His braining bat bar connected just right, for he literally chopped into the corpse’s skull with the violent precision of an ax, neatly shearing off the top of the zombie’s head. The zombie staggered back as if in dumbfounded awe. Generous globs of black ichor oozed down over the left side of its frozen face as the corpse dropped to the ground, tripping up the zombie right behind it. The rest of the horde continued surging forward, and there was a comical moment to it—all those hungry zombies, collapsing like a line of dominoes as they stumbled over each other. It was almost funny to see, Orion thought, if only they weren’t trying to eat him.
Orion didn’t wait to see how the comedy continued to unfold. Instead, he turned and sprinted out into the long alley behind the store that paralleled Route 1. He ran north, in and out of splashes of sunshine and pools of shade created by the tops of stores and structures off his left shoulder. He ran without thinking, for there was nothing to think about other than his continued survival. Behind him was a tainted mob of murderous predators. Ahead could only be something better.
Maybe three or four blocks later, Orion he was ecstatic to see a man walking down the alley toward him. For an instant, he had a vision he was observing some sane, safe vestige of the world he once knew.
But it wasn’t a man, just a grotesque parody—holding aloft in the recognizable strides of the human form, but not capable of a man’s reasoning, or a man’s sense of compassion. It was just another zombie.
Orion slowed his pace, then realized there was no point. Instead he ran full-on right toward it.
“Fuck you, asshole!” he barked as he drew close.
The zombie took the insult in stride as it stepped into his path, fingers held out before it like gnarled claws, its dry mouth opening up like some dark maw. But Orion just juked left and pivoted right past him. The zombie made a predictable turn, spinning itself around with characteristic clumsiness. Orion stopped a few feet past it, pausing to catch his breath. The zombie turned and reached for him with a dry, rattling hiss. Orion clutched the bar with a new passion, stepped right up, and swung out wildly at the creature’s head.
At the same time, the zombie stumbled. Orion watched with no little surprise as the zombie’s head ducked right under the bar’s speeding arc. Orion flew right off his feet from the momentum of the swing, lost his footing, and fell forward like a drunken man.
What the hell is this? he screamed at himself. I can’t even hit a slow-motion zombie?
Before he even knew what had happened, the thing was upon him.
He felt the dry, frozen touch of its hands—terrifically strong, cold hands that grabbed and gripped at his arm and shoulder. It tried to pin him down, like a wrestler, using its considerable weight to press him to the alley floor. Up close its bone-chilling sound—a demonic purr—whistled near Orion’s ear. The feral stink of the creature was superseded by the vile smell of its breath up close. Something wet dripped on Orion’s neck as he twisted spastically to get out from under the weight. He flailed his arms, one of which was weighted by the iron bar he stubbornly clutched onto.
With precision calm the creature lowered smoothly toward his neck, ready to take a bite.
Miles, a small voice whispered inside him. You have to find Miles.
A sudden burst of survival instinct coursed through him. Orion twisted and squirmed beneath the ghoul with sudden strength. He wriggled right out from under the bastard and in the same motion struck out with his free hand, grabbing the corpse’s clammy neck. He pushed out at it and wrenched it away from him, sending it toppling to the floor as its fingers tore free from his shirt.
It came at him again, somehow knowing its weight was the best means to pin him down. Orion scuttled away on all fours on the ground, gaining a few feet of necessary space. He ripped his pistol from its holster and fired point blank through the center of the zombie’s forehead.
The explosion cracked an echo off the adjacent building. The dead-on shot shattered the creature’s skull to the four winds with a repulsive spray of rotten flesh and sputum. Orion felt a fine mist touch his face. Eyes closed, he spit out with disgust and fear, rubbing his arm frantically over his eyes and face. He struggled back to his feet, allowing the bar to slip from his grasp. It clattered to the alleyway like a castoff chime.
Orion looked back as the monster collapsed in a heap with the greater part of its head completely missing. Fragments of bone, hair, and pulped brain tissue littered the alley behind it, carried away by the solid, 230-grain .45 caliber round as it ripped through the zombie’s skull.
Kick ass! he thought, fondly fingering the side of his gun as if it was a long-lost love, recently rediscovered. That was absolutely kick ass!
But he didn’t waste time there. He bent and fetched the iron bar. Before he even started moving again, another creature was climbing over a low wall down the alley some fifty yards behind him, ready to pursue.
Calm in the success of his escape, Orion put down the bar and relaxed his attention into taking careful aim at the shambler. At forty yards … then thirty … he readied the pistol with both hands, adopting a perfect shooting stance.
And then, another zombie followed the first over the same wall. It was followed by another. And then another.
Orion considered his situation. Alive with new vigilance, he looked in every direction, grabbed the bar and—as the closest zombie came within ten yards of touching him—beat his feet out of there. He hustled north, putting some distance between him and the small pack of creatures. Their ranks had swelled to perhaps a dozen before he was even a hundred yards away.
He ran and ran until they were out of his sight.
He ran more.
He finally turned right and ran inland, looking for streets and alleys that might offer a safer, more secluded escape.
It was so terribly quiet. Even the breeze was dead. The sun splashed silence with its heat and fire, baking the day and making the air thick and hard to breathe. Only his frantic footfalls seemed to register.
Orion eventually slowed his pace, but still jogged along like a marathon runner, hoisting the spear along with him like a primitive tribesman jogging through the undergrowth of an Amazon forest.
The sun slowly shifted toward the afternoon, but Orion kept moving.
At one point he heard some kind of disturbance. It was a stark contrast to the pervasive silence that filled the afternoon.
It came from down an alley he was about to cross. He paused, catching some movement out of the corner of his eye. He moved carefully around the wire fence at the corner that abutted a short garage structure. He crouched carefully behind a clump of blossoming shrubs and peered through the growth down the alley. His right hand never left the thick grip of his pistol.
About fifty yards away, three zombies were clustered around a small, dark mass on the ground. With busy enthusiasm they grabbed and poked at it. Then one fell up and away from the group, thrusting some kind of flapping slab of red and white meat into its mouth. With that it became clear to Orion they were feasting.
Orion measured the quality of their slobbering grunts, and came to realize they were actually groaning in satisfaction. From a distance they could have been a natural pack of jackals gorging themselves over a kill on the savannah. But as he watched and listened, he was suddenly sickened to hear a different sound—a whimpering human voice, soft and helpless, pleading weakly.
“Nooo …. Oooh ….Nooo …”
Orion saw her now—a mangled specimen of humanity, squirming and struggling on the ground as the brainless trio tore into her living body. She was literally getting ripped to shreds, for he saw one creature suddenly yank her forearm clear from the body and hoist it momentarily in the air before chomping down on it with demented glee.
The woman’s cry was so weak in response, it was barely audible. Orion struggled to still the fear that coursed through his arms and down his back, where it made his legs so weak they suddenly shook.
It’s too late, he thought. It’s too late!
One of the zombies snorted as it wolfed down a great chunk of flesh. The shivering, mechanical movements of the woman petered out, ending with a jerk of her remaining arm and a butterfly-like flutter of her fingers.
The zombies kept feeding—a grotesque gorging at the trough of humanity.