Z, p.1
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  For Horrible Spider, Ocho Patas, and the Mungos,

  who kept me company



  Title Page

























  About the Author

  Also by Michael Thomas Ford


  About the Publisher


  The zombie was somewhere ahead of him. Its stench—a combination of blood, dirt, and rotting meat—filled the air. It was close. Josh flipped the safety on his flamethrower and held it out in front of him, his finger on the trigger. Almost all the overhead lights were out, and the halogen light mounted on the barrel of his flamethrower had broken during a runin with a z on a lower floor. He could see only about six feet ahead of him through the gloom.

  The hospital’s hallway was littered with trash; broken glass, charred pieces of paper, and twisted medical instruments were strewn around the floor. Dark smears streaked the white tile walls. Ahead of Josh a teddy bear sat propped against the wall just outside a partially open door, its fur stained with something black and sticky. Its head was torn off and lay in its lap. Stuffing puffed from the ragged neck.

  Something about the bear caused a shiver to run down Josh’s spine. Clearly it had belonged to a little kid. But where was the kid now? He hoped wherever it was, it hadn’t already been turned by the zombies. Child zombies were the worst. Josh hated torching them.

  But I will if I have to, he thought as he approached the door.

  Using the end of his weapon, he nudged the door open. The only light in the room came from one ceiling fixture, and the bulb flickered as it tried to draw electricity from the hospital’s ancient wiring. The room was visible for only a few seconds at a time as the light flashed on and off. Josh felt like he was watching an old movie being played on a broken projector.

  Even with the limited light he could see enough to know that the woman on the bed was dead. She was dressed in a nurse’s uniform, her white dress stained with what could only be blood. Her head lolled to one side so that her face was turned toward Josh. Her eyes were gone, and there was a ragged hole in her throat where the zombie had bitten her. One arm was stretched out, and the fingers of that hand were curled, clutching a clump of long blond hair that was attached to a piece of bloody scalp. On the floor below the hand, a hypodermic needle lay in a pool of liquid.

  She tried to kill it with the needle, Josh thought. But it got her.

  Part of him was glad she was dead. If she’d been alive, he would have had to torch her, since she’d obviously been bitten and therefore could infect other people. That was the First Rule of Torching: Cleanse with fire.

  Suddenly something scrambled out from under the bed, heading for the far side of the room. Whatever it was whimpered like a frightened animal. Instinctively Josh raised his flamethrower. But the thing was running away from him. If it had been a zombie, it would have come at him. They never ran away. He took his finger off the flamethrower’s trigger.

  “Are you okay?” he called out. He was thinking about the teddy bear. Had the child who owned it been in the room when the zombie attacked? Maybe the kid had hidden under the bed and escaped the zombie’s notice. If so, it was Josh’s responsibility to help. That was the Second Rule of Torching: Save all humans.

  When the light flickered back on for a moment, he searched the shadows. Huddled in the corner of the room was a little girl. Maybe six or seven years old, she was wearing a torn, dirty dress and no shoes. Her long hair hung down in her face. She was breathing quickly, and as Josh approached, she pressed herself against the wall and began shaking her head from side to side.

  “No,” she said softly. “Don’t kill me. Please.”

  Josh stopped and crouched down. “It’s okay,” he said. “I’m not going to hurt you. What’s your name?”

  The little girl stared at him. He searched her eyes for any sign of the infection, but in the dim light he couldn’t see well enough to tell for sure. She seemed okay.

  That kind of thinking can get you killed, he told himself. But he had to help. He couldn’t just leave the girl there.

  “Vi—” the girl said. Her voice cracked when she spoke, and she tried again. “Vi … Violet.”

  “Hi, Violet. I’m Josh. You and I are going to get out of here, okay?”

  “But the monsters …” Violet said. She looked at the body on the bed, and her mouth began to tremble.

  “Look at me,” Josh told her. “Violet, look at me.”

  When the girl was looking at him, he held out his hand to her. “It’s going to be okay.”

  Violet hesitated a moment, then took his hand. He helped her to her feet. He could feel her shaking. I don’t blame her, he thought. He wanted to ask how she’d survived so long in the hospital without a zombie finding her, but now was not the time.

  “We’re going to go into the hall now,” he told Violet.

  She pulled away, shaking her head. “They’re out there,” she said. “They’re waiting for us.”

  “Most of them are dead,” said Josh. “My friend and I took care of them.”

  “Where is your friend now?” Violet asked.

  You shouldn’t have said anything, you idiot. Josh scolded himself for his mistake. The fact was, he didn’t know whether Firecracker was alive or dead. His comlink had broken during the scuffle with the zombie in the operating room on the fourth floor, and he hadn’t been able to reach him since. All he got was static. He hoped his buddy wasn’t dead—or, even worse, turned. Then he would have to torch him too. The Third Rule of Torching, he thought. You can’t bring them back.

  He pushed the thought from his mind and focused on Violet. He needed her to listen to him, otherwise both of them could end up as zombie food. “We’ll meet up with my friend soon,” he said, hoping that was true. “Right now you just have to trust me, okay?”

  Violet looked into his eyes. Her own were barely visible in the still-blinking light. “Okay,” she said softly.

  Josh led Violet from the room, making sure to keep himself between her and the bed so that she wouldn’t have to look at the dead nurse. He noticed that the little girl kept her head down until they were in the hallway. Smart kid. “We’re going to go to the end of this hallway,” he said. “There’s an elevator there, and we’re going to take it down to the first floor and get out of here.”

  “Is everybody dead?” Violet asked. “The nurses? The doctors? All the people?”

  “Just stay behind me,” said Josh, ignoring her question.

  As they reached each new doorway, Josh peered inside, always keeping his finger on the trigger of his flamethrower. But the rooms were all empty. Whoever had been in them was either eaten or turned.

  Finally they came to the end of the hall. In front of them were the elevator doors. Hallways continued both to the left and to the right. Josh made a quick scan, saw nothing, and hit the down button on the elevator’s control panel. He hoped the hospital’s unreliable wiring would hold up long enough for them to get out. Somewhere below them came the sound of machinery grinding to life, then the thuck-thuck-thuck as the elevator car rose up on its heavy cable.

  As the hand on the dial above the elevator doors slowly crept from B to 1 to 2, Josh surveyed the hallways in each direction. If there were any zombies on the floor, they woul
d have heard the elevator and started to move toward the sound. Good thing they’re slow, he thought. Still, they could move when they needed to. He knew that from experience. And all it took was one bite to ruin your day.

  The 3 on the dial lit up. “Come on,” Josh urged the clanking machinery. “Hurry up.”

  As the dial hit 4 and moved past it to 5—the floor they were on—Josh felt himself relax a little bit. They were almost there. Now he just had to hope the elevator didn’t have any riders in it.

  “Stand back,” he told Violet, moving away from the elevator doors just in case he had to put the burn on anything inside.

  Violet obeyed. Then, as the door began to open, Josh heard her call out, “Dr. Rackham!”

  Josh whirled around in time to see the girl dashing down the left-hand corridor toward the figure of a man in a long white coat. He carried a clipboard in one hand, and there was a stethoscope around his neck.

  “Dr. Rackham!” Violet yelled. “Come with us! We’re getting out!”

  The clipboard fell from the doctor’s hand as he suddenly lurched sideways. At that moment the overhead light came on, and the man’s face was bathed in harsh fluorescent light. The blood on his cheeks was bright red—fresh—and a scalpel extended from one of his eyes, plunged through a cracked lens of his glasses.

  Violet stopped, staring at the lumbering figure. The zombie reached out toward her and moaned. Blood and something darker oozed from his lips in thick strings.

  “Violet!” Josh yelled. “Get down!”

  The little girl looked back at him. The zombie doctor was only a dozen feet from her. If she didn’t act immediately, the doctor would reach her in a matter of seconds.

  “Violet, NOW!” Josh yelled.

  Violet fell to the floor, lying on her stomach and covering her head with her arms. Josh aimed his gun at the zombie and pulled the trigger. A column of flame erupted from the muzzle and flew toward the doctor. His lab coat caught most of it and burst into tongues of orange and yellow that licked hungrily at the material. The zombie looked down at himself and pawed uselessly at the flames.

  Josh fired another round at the creature, this time aiming for its face. The zombie’s skin crackled and burst open, and the doctor swayed from side to side. One of his hands was on fire, and he waved it around like a grotesque torch.

  “Violet! Come on!” Josh shouted.

  The girl raised herself up and ran to him. Not once did she look back at the zombie, who had fallen to the floor and was now fully consumed in fire. Black smoke poured from him and the smell of burning flesh was thick in the air.

  The elevator doors opened just as Violet reached Josh. The box held no surprise visitors, and Josh pushed Violet inside and followed after her. He hit the button for the ground floor and watched as the heavy doors slid shut. The elevator began to descend.

  Violet was crying. She was crouched in the corner, her arms around her knees, breathing in jagged gasps. Josh knelt down, but when he reached out to comfort her, she recoiled.

  “It’s okay now,” Josh told her. “We’re almost out of here.”

  Violet rested her forehead on her knees and rocked back and forth. Josh glanced at the panel on the wall. They were passing the third floor. Why is it taking so long? he wondered, willing the elevator to move faster.

  As the second-floor button lit up there was a heavy thud on the car’s roof. The whole box shook. Violet screamed as the escape hatch in the elevator’s ceiling opened and a face looked down into the car. The skin was peeled away on one side, exposing muscle and bone. The eyes were clouded over with a milky yellow film, and the creature’s torn lips grinned horribly.

  Josh felt as if he’d been punched in the stomach. “Firecracker,” he whispered, his voice cracking as he recognized his friend even through the damage that had been done to his face.

  But he’s not your friend anymore, he reminded himself. He’s a meatbag.

  Instinctively he raised his flamethrower then stopped as he realized that he would just end up spraying the inside of the box with fire. He might destroy the zombie, but the elevator would become an oven, and he and Violet would be cooked alive. Instead he tried to shut the hatch with the end of his gun. But the zombie threw himself forward and tumbled down on top of Josh, pinning him to the ground.

  Josh looked into what was left of Firecracker’s face. There was nothing of his friend there—just a monster that was coming toward him with his mouth open, ready to bite. Josh raised his arm to protect himself, but he knew that even one bite that broke the skin would mean the end for him.

  “Get off him!”

  Violet’s voice broke through the silence. Firecracker paused. Turning his head, he looked at the little girl. It was the break Josh needed. Putting a hand on Firecracker’s chest, he shoved as hard as he could, and Firecracker rolled onto his back.

  As Josh scrambled to his feet, the elevator shuddered to a stop and the doors opened. Josh grabbed Violet’s hand. He looked for his gun, but it was trapped beneath Firecracker, who had rolled onto his knees and was trying to get to his feet. There was no way Josh could get the flamethrower.

  “Run!” Josh ordered. “Run down the hall and out the front door. You’ll be safe there.”

  Violet didn’t move. She stood in the doorway, staring into the flickering half-light of the hallway. At the other end of the hall, the doors to the hospital glowed faintly as sunlight penetrated the grimy glass.

  “Go!” Josh yelled, pushing Violet out of the elevator.

  The girl ran. Josh turned back to Firecracker, who was on his feet and moving his head from side to side as if he couldn’t see. The flamethrower was on the floor behind him. Josh considered his choices—he could leave his gun and follow Violet out of the hospital. But that would leave Firecracker in there, where he would still be able to infect anyone foolish enough to venture inside the building. He couldn’t let that happen. Plus, Josh couldn’t stand to see his friend the way he was. He knew Firecracker would want to be put out of his misery, even if he was no longer human and didn’t know what he’d become. Josh would want the same thing if he were in Firecracker’s place.

  He made his decision. He dived for the gun, reaching between Firecracker’s legs and grabbing the flamethrower by the barrel. Moving more quickly than he thought possible, he scrambled back out of the elevator and got to his feet. The gun in his hands was now pointed at Firecracker.

  “I’m sorry, buddy,” Josh said as he raised the flamethrower and released the safety. A tiny blue flame flickered at the head of the barrel. Josh squeezed the trigger.

  “Hey!” a shrill voice yelled. “It’s time for dinner. Mom says to get your butt downstairs now.”

  Josh whirled around. His sister Emily stood in the doorway to his room. Her hands were on her hips and her blond hair was tied in pigtails. She looked past him at the computer screen, and her eyes lit up.

  “Busted!” she said triumphantly. “I am so telling Mom and Dad.”

  Josh tore the virtual-reality helmet from his head and tried to turn off the computer. As he did, he heard a robotic voice say, “Mission failed. You will turn in five, four, three—”

  Glancing at the screen, Josh saw his avatar on the floor just outside the elevator. Firecracker was kneeling beside him, gnawing on his neck. Blood pooled around his body.

  “Two, one,” the voice concluded as Josh finally managed to turn the screen off. He knew what happened next, and he didn’t want to see it.

  “Damn!” Josh exclaimed. He turned to his sister. “Look what you made me do.”

  “They’re going to ground you for forever,” Emily crowed. “You know what they said last time they caught you playing that game.”

  Of course he knew. His parents had been furious, especially his mother. She’d grounded him for two whole weeks and threatened to take away his computer privileges for another two. Only after he’d apologized repeatedly and promised not to play anymore had she relented.

  He’d kept his word
for three days. Then the lure of the game had proved too strong, and one night he found himself logging in. Since then he’d played secretly, always careful to lock his door when he was gaming. For some reason, this time he’d forgotten to, and Emily had caught him.

  Josh wanted to yell at his sister some more, but he knew that would only make things worse. Emily had him in a corner.

  “I’ll make you a deal,” he said.

  Emily crossed her arms over her chest and cocked her head. “What kind of deal?” she asked.

  Although he was angry, Josh had to stifle a laugh. For a nine-year-old his sister was a tough negotiator. Just a week before, she’d managed to get their parents to up her allowance by two dollars a week by arguing that since her eighth birthday the rate of inflation had increased by 7 percent while her allowance had increased by only 5 percent.

  “I’ll do half your chores for a month,” he suggested.

  Emily shook her head. “Uh-uh,” she said. “Mom would wonder why you’re doing the dishes. Try again.”

  Josh groaned. He didn’t have much else to bargain with. Then he thought of something. “I’ll give you issues one through twelve of Changeling Quest.”

  He saw Emily hesitate. Changeling Quest was her favorite graphic novel series, but she had started reading it at issue thirteen and didn’t own the first dozen. They were no longer available for download, and only people who had purchased unlocking codes could access them on their Cybook readers. As with all Cybooks, the codes could be transferred one time to a new reader, and sometimes they showed up for sale on used Cybook sites, but it would have cost Emily a year’s allowance to get her own set.

  She was always asking Josh if she could borrow his reader to read the novels, and he knew how badly she wanted to own them herself. He didn’t particularly like the series, but he had held on to the codes in case Emily ever had something he wanted to trade for. Now she did. He just had to pretend that giving them up was a big deal.

  “Come on,” he said. “It’s all I’ve got. And you know you want to have them.” He tried to sound sad about possibly losing the Cybooks.

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