The killer awoke.
A Caitlin Monroe story.
Caitlin Monroe, the assassin with a brain tumour, was one of the most popular characters in The Disappearance series. A couple of years ago, when John Ringo asked if I would write a short story for a collection set in his epic zombie world, I thought it would be fun to take Caitlin’s first appearance in Without Warning and tweak it slightly. With zombies.
I’m writing another Caitlin adventure for John, set a couple of years later, and since it’s been a while, I figured it was time to set this one free.
It being about zombies, lunchtime seemed an appropriate moment to hit send.
Trigger warning. It does get very bitey.
For apocalypse fans, I’ll be quietly releasing the ebook of American Killswitch this week and letting you know here, so you can get the tasty discount that others don’t.
Again, nom nom.
The killer awoke surrounded by strangers. An IV line dripped clear fluid through a long, thick needle punched into the back of her right hand. The strangers – all women, she thought dully – leaned in, their faces anxious. She ignored them. Stared instead at her hands as they lay in her lap on a thin hospital blanket. The left hand was bandaged. The other, the one with the IV line, looked strong, even masculine. The nails were cut short. Calluses disfigured her knuckles and the heels of both palms. Like the women gathered around her bed, those hands were utterly alien to her. She had no idea who she was.
"Cathy? Are you all right?"
"Doctor," somebody called out.
The strangers, three of them, seemed to launch themselves at her, and she tensed up, but they simply wanted to comfort her.
"Doctor. Come quickly. She's awake. And she looks much better."
She felt soft hands patting her down, stroking her like you might comfort a child who's suffered a bad fright. Cathy – was that her? – Cathy tried not to panic or to show how much she didn't want any of these women touching her. Her wounded left hand throbbed painfully. She pulled it away from them, clutching it to her chest.
These women looked like freaks, not the sort of people she'd want as friends. And then, she remembered. They weren't her friends.
They were her mission, but her name wasn't Cathy. It was Caitlin.
Caitlin Monroe composed herself, falling back into the pillows and recovering from a moment of vertigo. She was in a hospital bed, in a private room, expensively fitted out. The women did not look like they belonged there. The youngest wore a brown suede jacket, frayed at the cuffs and elbows and adorned with colourful protest buttons. A stylised white bird. A rainbow. A collection of slogans.
If you can't be a unicorn, just punch a Nazi.
Who would Jesus Bomb?
Resistance is fertile.
Caitlin reached for a squeeze bottle by the bed.
Her heart lurched when she remembered why that hand was bandaged.
She'd been bitten.
Panic sweat suddenly covered her, warm and greasy. Panic or infection?
"I'm sorry," she croaked, trying to slow the trip hammer of her heart. "What happened to me?"
She received a pat on the leg from an older, red-haired woman wearing a white tee shirt over some lumpy, rustic jumper that looked like it'd been hand-woven from alfalfa sprouts and wizard beard.
Celia. Her name was Celia, and she'd had chosen the strange outfit to show off the writing on her teeshirt, which read If you are not outraged, you are not paying attention.
"Doctor!" cried the woman in the doorway.
Maggie. An American like Caitlin. And there, the similarity ended. Maggie, the American, was short and barrel-chested and pushing fifty, whereas Caitlin was tall, athletic and young.
Using the bandaged hand, she felt around under her blanket and came up with a plastic control stick for the bed. She held it up awkwardly.
"Try this," she said to the young girl she knew as Monique. A pretty, raven-haired Frenchwoman. "The red call button." Then, gently touching the bandages that swaddled her wounded hand, she asked, "Where am I?"
"You're in a private room at the Pitie-Salpetriere hospital in Paris," explained Monique. "Paris, France," she added self-consciously.
Caitlin smiled weakly. "S'okay. I remember Paris is in France." She paused. "And now I am, too, I guess. How did I get here?"
The large American woman standing by the door to her room – Maggie, try to remember her fucking name! – turned away from her post.
"Fascist asswipes, that's how. Attacked us outside of Calais."
She seemed to choke on her outrage, suddenly coughing and spluttering until Celia smacked her a couple of times on the back.
"Alt-Right Nazis," explained Monique. "And you were magnifique!"
"Oh yes," the French girl enthused. She looked no more than seventeen years old, but Caitlin knew her to be twenty-two. She knew a lot about Monique. The others chorused their agreement. "You stood up to them, Cathy. You fought them very bravely. Even though you were sick with the flu. They were not so brave. One bit you."
Caitlin tried to reach for any memories of the incident, but it was like grabbing at smoke.
She remembered very little of the last week.
She did recall a military flight from Egypt to London. The infiltration brief.
This girl Monique. She was not the target, but she knew the target. A suspected bioterrorist.
"I see," she said, but really, she didn't. "So, I beat on these losers?"
Monique smiled brightly for the first time.
"You are one of our tough guys, no? It was your surfing. You told us you always had to fight for your place on the waves. Really fight. You once punched a man off his board for… what was it… dropping in?"
Caitlin felt like a great iron flywheel in her mind had suddenly clunked into place. Her cover story. To these women, she was Cathy Mercure. Semi-pro wave rider. Ranked forty-sixth in the world. Part-time organiser for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a deep green militant environmental group famous for direct and occasionally violent confrontation with any number of easily demonised eco-villains. Ocean dumpers, long-line tuna boats, Japanese whale killers. They were all good for a TV-friendly touch-up by the Sea Shepherds. But that was her cover. Her jacket. Quickly stitched together and liable to fall apart if anybody pulled on the wrong thread.
She took a sip of cool water and closed her eyes.
That's how she knew this was bad.
Echelon never put anyone in the field without due preparation. But she'd been yanked out of her deep cover run against al Banna's network and thrown at these wingnuts on half a moment's notice. A ten-minute briefing and a surprisingly painful shot in the ass of some unnamed anti-viral magic potion gave her the worst dose of flu she'd ever had.
Caitlin cursed softly under her breath. She had no idea what day it was. No idea how long she'd been out or what had gone down in that time.
"Are you all right?"
It was the French girl, again, Monique. The reason she was here with these idiots.
"I'm cool," said Caitlin. "Do you mind?" she asked, pointing at the television that hung from the ceiling. "I feel like I'm lost or something. How'd the protest march go?"
"Brilliant!" said the red-headed woman. Aunty Celia. "We really took it up to the Nazis."
"Really?" said Caitlin, feigning enthusiasm. "That's great. Was there anything on the news about it?" she continued, looking at the television.
With a flick of the remote, the TV screen lit up.
"Can we watch the Beeb then?" asked Celia. "Me French, you know, it's not too good."
Caitlin's hand was throbbing, and her head was starting to spin. She desperately needed a moment to herself to get her shit together. She forced herself to breathe slowly. Stilling her racing thoughts. Her flu had mostly cleared. She hadn't turned rabid. She needed to re-establish real-time contact with Echelon. Overwatch must have arranged for her to jump the line if she was in a private hospital room. She did remember that hospitals were already turning people away when she was in London.
"Eh, up? What's this then?" blurted Celia.
Everyone fixated on the screen, where an impeccably groomed Eurasian woman with a perfectly modulated BBC voice struggled to maintain her composure. "…the quarantine, which was not agreed to by Washington, will be enforced by NATO using all means necessary, according to a spokesperson from the Prime Minister's office. Outbound commercial flights are either returning to their points of origin or diverting to Halifax and Quebec in Canada, or to airports throughout the West Indies, where the plague is reportedly nearly as advanced as on the continental US."
The women all began to chatter at once, to Caitlin's annoyance. On-screen, the BBC's flustered anchorwoman said that the US president and vice President had been evacuated 'under fire' from the capitol. A hammer started pounding inside Caitlin's head as she watched the reporter stumble through the rest of her read.
"…US forces are heavily engaged at Guantanamo Bay, using heavy weapons on hundreds of naked victims."
Interesting word, thought Caitlin. 'Victims'.
She couldn't help staring at her bandaged hand.
"It's a goddamn coup, is what," coughed Maggie, her angry compatriot. She was one of those squat women who always looked like a bunched fist. She coughed a couple more times before sniffing and going on. "This plague is a cover, a false flag operation. We all saw you get chewed on by that crazy guy, Cathy, and you just stomped him outta the game. He was just some poor mental patient they used. You didn't get no super rabies. It's just a cover story to justify the Right seizing power."
Caitlin felt sick, but not with the flu or the 'rabies' that was nothing of the sort. She was nauseous and lightheaded with the realisation of just how close she'd come to turning into one of those 'victims'.
The man who'd bitten her was naked and insane. A snarling berserker with knives in his eyes and a face full of blood from the man he'd just bitten.
No, she shuddered.
He hadn't just bitten that dude.
He'd locked jaws on his throat and torn away a huge gobbet of flesh.
She realised that the background buzz of the hospital had died away. She heard a metallic clatter as a tray fell to the floor somewhere nearby. Caitlin had a passing acquaintance with the Pitie-Salpetriere. There had to be nearly three thousand people in this hospital, and they were all silent at that moment. The only human sounds came from the television sets which hung in every room and ward, a discordant clashing of French and English voices, all speaking in the same clipped, urgent tone.
"The Prime Minister has addressed Parliament calling for calm and promising to devote the full resources of the British Government to resolving the crisis. A Ministry of Defence spokesman confirmed that British forces have gone onto full alert and a curfew was now in place. Troops have orders to shoot anybody breaking the curfew."
"Aye, it's a coup all fuckin' right," Aunty Celia said quietly.
The reporter was about to speak again when she stopped, placing a hand to one ear, obviously taking instructions from her producer.
"We have just received these pictures from a drone operator in New York a short time ago."
The screen filled up with surprisingly clear, full-colour imagery of New York. The video was much sharper than the mil-grade stuff Caitlin had seen over the years.
"This picture shows the centre of New York as of twenty-three minutes ago," said the reporter. "Centralised authority appears to have collapsed on Manhattan."
Caitlin recognised Times Square from above. She quickly estimated the drone's height as less than five hundred feet, where the pilot threaded his craft through the upper floors of the city's high-rise towers. Her brief curse disappeared in the gasps and swearing of the other women. Fires burned throughout the Square, where hundreds of cars had smashed into each other. Smoke and flames also poured from the surrounding buildings. Buses and yellow cabs had run up onto the footpath and, in some cases, right into shop fronts and building facades. But most upsetting were the people. The streets seethed with humanity, as always, but humanity lost in the howling wastelands of madness. You could tell who was who. The infected were naked. The greatest city in the history of the world had fallen to an unholy bloodswarm of madness and savagery.
Caitlin Monroe, a ten-year veteran of Echelon's blackest and most secret operations, had seen nothing to match this horror.
A harried-looking man wearing a white coat over a dark suit appeared at the door and pushed past Maggie. Poleaxed by the TV news, she barely noticed him. Even as he questioned her, the physician did his best to ignore them, including Caitlin. A name tag on his white jacket read 'Colbert'.
"Any pain? Discomfort? Anything?" he asked in French, addressing the query to his Apple Watch, which he was examining as though it was the most fascinating trinket in the world.
"No, Doctor," she said in French. "My hand hurts, but not too much. My neck is sore, but—"
She stopped short. Monique was staring at her, and Caitlin cursed. According to her cover story, Cathy Mercure could not speak French.
"And you have had no more symptoms of the flu? No skin irritation. No psychotic ideation."
"My neck… is just stiff and sore," she said slowly in English. "I have a headache, but I think an aspirin would fix that."
Monique stared at her as if she had grown a new head. The others were still fixated on the BBC. Vision from all over the US. More scenes from an American apocalypse.
"But you told us you could not speak French," Monique said.
"Fookin'' ell, look at that."
"Ms Mercure, I'm afraid I have some bad news for you."
Still mechanically checking his watch, Doctor Colbert had lapsed into his native tongue.
No shit, Sherlock, thought Caitlin.
Monique, like the doctor, was also phase-locked in her own little world.
"But you told us. You insisted you could not speak French."
Caitlin stared at her as the world broke into jagged mirror shards of meaning and insanity. She improvised as best she could.
"I don't speak it very well. It's embarrassing even to try. You guys are so hardcore about it, with all the eye-rolling and the shrugging. I mean, you know, lighten up."
The doctor saved her by cutting her off at that point, speaking in English again.
"Excuse me. But we will need this bed. The hospital is turning people away. Sick people. Now is not twenty questions time. Now is…"
Aunty Celia's loud cry finally brought everyone's attention back to the TV, displaying a top-down image of Manhattan. Caitlin thought it might have been archival footage of the 9-11 attacks. Great plumes of black smoke curled away from collapsed high-rise buildings that burned at their cores like active volcanoes. But quickly, she saw too many of them, too widely spread over the island, at least eight or nine that she could count immediately.
"… if repeated across the country, the death toll might run into the millions," read the anchorwoman.
"Everyone's gone," said Maggie in a croaky voice. 'This is fucked. What's happening?"
I seem to recall you thought it was a fascist coup, you granola-eating fucknugget, Caitlin thought.
"…At any one time, many thousands of aircraft are aloft over the US, many above densely populated cities."
The coverage switched to grainy video from a weather cam high above Manhattan. As Caitlin watched, numb and disbelieving, a Singapore Airlines jumbo jet ploughed into the side of the Chrysler Building, one wing spinning off-screen. The screen switched to vision of a supertanker slammed into a wharf in a city she didn't recognise. The front half of the tanker crumpled back in on itself while the water around the vessel churned white, and dockside cranes began to topple. And then… the moment of detonation amidships, a blossom of white light spilling from the ruptured hull, like the birth of a dwarf star.
Maggie started swearing at the TV again, a stream of disconnected curses. 'Aunty' Celia softly repeated the same thing over and over again.
“Fookin’ ‘ell… fookin’ ‘ell…”
Every time she said it, she folded and unfolded her arms. On the other hand, Monique refused to even look at the screen anymore.
"You said you could not speak French at all," she said. Her voice had turned hard but brittle.
Caitlin Monroe had been an Echelon field agent for nearly seven years. She had trained intensively for three years before that. Her entire adult life, Caitlin had lived in a crazy maze where every step she took, every corner she turned, she faced the possibility of betrayal and death. She had adapted to a contingent existence where nothing was taken for granted. She had met her own potential annihilation so many times that the idea of dying was utterly passé. At least on a normal day.
But this was a thousand fucking miles away from being a normal day, and for once, Caitlin found the idea of her life ending to be a wholly novel and unsettling experience. It stuck in her mind, a barbed, immovable object that tugged painfully whenever she tried to pull at it.
The television went blank. The screen a dead black void.
Two words of white, plain type appeared.
"Holy shit, it's happing here now!" said Maggie.
"No!" said Caitlin, cutting off an outbreak of panic. "Just wait".
The text changed.
STAND BY FOR AN ANNOUNCEMENT BY HM GOVERNMENT.
"Check the French news channels," she said.
Monique stopped glaring at her long enough to flip channels with the remote. As Caitlin had expected, the continental stations were still broadcasting.
"It's nothing," Caitlin assured them, rubbing at her throbbing temples with her good hand. "The British Government has taken control of the news broadcasters. It's standard procedure in a national emergency. Just watch."
A single, high-pitched tone filled the room for one second before the TV screen returned to life. A vaguely familiar man sat at a desk in a book-lined room with a British flag prominently draped from a pole behind him. His eyes were haunted, and his skin looked blotchy and sallow even beneath a very professional makeup job.
“G… good evening,” he stammered. "I am afraid to inform you that the Prime Minister is dead."
# # #
Colbert wasn't kidding about needing the bed. An hour later, still swaddled in bandages, trailing one rogue sensor lead that had become entangled with her unwashed hair, Caitlin Monroe, still in character as Cathy Mercure, attempted to sign herself out of the Pitie-Salpetriere. A hospital was the last place you wanted to be during any sort of plague outbreak, but her motley collection of social justice ninjas had closed around her like a fist slowing her exit through hospital corridors now crowded with terrified locals.
Caitlin wasn't surprised at the fearful undertow already running so strongly in the Pitie-Salpetriere. The infected were here. On the way down to check out, she witnessed half a dozen pedal-to-the-metal, full-bore freakouts. One was just a panicky idiot, some bug-eyed Parisian screaming about the end of days before disappearing down the hallway with her enormous, deeply dimpled butt swinging free in the rear of a poorly strung hospital gown.
But at least she was wearing the gown.
Twice, in the distance, Caitlin caught sight of medical staff trying to subdue naked lunatics, thrashing and screeching with rabid rage.
"I'll be a lot better off out of here," Caitlin assured her companions.
Besides Monique, who remained suspicious after discovering Caitlin's hidden gift for her native tongue, the others weren't doing much better than the unhinged locals. Maggie blabbered endlessly about needing to phone her sister in Connecticut, stopping only to sneeze a couple of times. And Celia had started praying. Praying and swearing.
“Our fookin’ father, who art in fookin’ ‘eaven…”
Caitlin was considering whether it might be time for a bit of freaking out on her part too. She didn't know what to make of the news out of the States. Things had been rough back home, last she remembered. But it had turned psychotic there now. She had to run to ground as soon as possible and re-establish contact with her controller.
A single television, suspended from the ceiling in the main waiting room, had drawn a considerable crowd, muttering and gasping at every new revelation from the France24 news service. Caitlin ignored it. Monique tugged at her elbow, saying in French, "I want to speak to you."
"Bugs," said Maggie.
They both turned to her.
The dumpy American was scratching at her arms hard enough to draw blood.
"Get them off me," she cried. "Cockroaches! Spiders!"
She made a sort of strangled scream and began tearing her clothes off.
"Maggie, what is it?" Monique asked as Caitlin started to back away, looking for a weapon.
She might have no memories of the last few days, but she remembered this from the London briefing. Carriers with late-stage infection manifested symptoms of… what did the Echelon briefer call it? Fornication? No, dumbass. For-MIC-ation. Paresthesia. A feeling of ants under the skin.
Maggie was wailing, tearing at her stupid protest tee shirt.
She'd ripped it halfway off when her eyes rolled up in their sockets, her lips skinned back from her teeth, and she snarled like a rabid dog.
Then her head suddenly burst open.
Caitlin ducked at the sound of a gunshot.
Ropey strands of Maggie's blood, bone chips and gobbets of brain tissue splattered everybody within two yards. As Maggie's oversized, half naked and utterly lifeless frame began to drop to the floor, Caitlin was already in mid-air, having launched herself without thought towards the nearest cover. She sailed over the counter, crashing bodily into the nurse on station there. A cheap pink radio exploded on top of a filing cabinet. The screams began as the hundred or more people crammed into the foyer finally realised that somebody was shooting into their midst, but Caitlin was already on the move, belly crawling towards an open door which she hoped would give on to another exit point.
She felt a hand on her ankle and lashed back with a heel strike. It was Monique. Her face was an offal pizza, covered in glistening chunks of Maggie. The blow caught the French girl heavily on one cheek, and she cried out in pain. Caitlin swore and reached behind her, grabbing Monique by her collar and roughly dragging her up into a crouching run. She slipped once on the gore that now coated her hospital slippers.
"Move," she yelled. "If you want to live, move your ass!"
Behind them, a riot. Caitlin heard two muffled shots and the crash of breaking glass, barely masked by the uproar of the terrorised crowd. A frightened nurse stood in their way, her eyes wide and staring. Caitlin elbowed her aside and made for a doorway behind her.
Crashing out into a corridor, they ran headlong into a couple of security guards, one fat and wheezing and the other some wrinkled old scrote who looked like he might have started his career as a public security professional back in the days of the Maginot Line.
"That way," yelled Caitlin, throwing a glance back over her shoulder, where she caught the briefest glimpse of pandemonium in the hospital foyer. Snaking around the guards, she sped up again, turning left and right, slamming through a series of swinging rubber doors without regard for who or what she might find on the other side. She'd let go of Monique and didn't care whether she was keeping up as she blew through yet another set of swinging doors, crashing into an orderly pushing a trolley. It tipped over and fell to the tiles with a great metallic clattering of medical instruments and stainless-steel bowls. Never stopping, Caitlin swooped down on a foil package, slipping it into her sleeve as she hurried on.
"Wait, Cathy, wait,"
Monique was still with her.
Monique sounded like she was about to start demanding answers and looked like she might just put down roots on the spot where she'd slid to a halt. A formidable grey-haired woman in a matron's uniform started moving towards them with her head down and eyes glaring murderously. She put Caitlin in mind of a big blue bulldozer.
"What the hell are you doing?" asked Monique. "What is going on?"
The matron was getting naked, that's what. She was squirming and scratching and snarling just as Maggie had done.
Before Caitlin could answer or just spin around and keep running, the same heavy rubber doors swung inwards, and two armed men muscled through. They wore suits, one of them heavily blood-stained, and their eyes swept the room, quickly settling on their quarry. Caitlin knew there was no chance of running.
# # #
Two bullets took the formidable-looking matron in the chest, rendering her a lot less formidable as her body crashed into a wheelchair and dropped to the floor, twitching and pulsing extravagant amounts of blood onto the yellowing tiles. Monique screamed and ducked, covering her ears with both hands. Her cries were lost as more patients and medical staff panicked. Having no cover and no safe exit, Caitlin took the only option left. She attacked.
"Monroe!" the nearest man barked. "Stand down! Safeword: SCREENPLAY. Stand down."
There was nothing conscious about her response. Years of training had programmed Caitlin to react to the order without thought or delay.
"I'm Bateman. Station Two," the man said as her arms fell to her side. "This is Le Clerc. DGSE. We must get you and Ms Duroc to a holdfast at Noisy-Le-Sec."
She almost spun up into action at that. Echelon did not work with the Direction générale de la sécurité extérieure. They were the enemy. Everyone but Echelon was the enemy.
The only time Caitlin had ever been inside the grim, stone fort, she'd been a prisoner.
"Cathy? Who are these men?" Monique demanded to know. "Did they kill Maggie? Why do they want me?"
"Don't move," said the French man. Le Clerc. He was painted in blood and gore, just like Monique. However, his weapon pointed at the French girl, not his American opponent.
Caitlin could not let go of that.
Echelon was not a regular agency. The operational arm of the Five Eyes—an alliance of the major English-speaking democracies against, well, everyone else—Echelon was a half-mythical sword locked in a black box at the dark heart of Anglo-Saxon power realism. At least, that's how the French thought of them. Caitlin had heard the recordings from the heart of the Élysée Palace. Echelon and DGSE did not cooperate. Ever.
And yet, here they were.
"I have Larrison on a secure sat channel for you," said Bateman. "But we have to get moving. This facility is compromised."
He took a phone from his jacket pocket, paying her the compliment of doing so very carefully and slowly. He was a station pogue, while Caitlin was not just a field operator – she was a Tier One asset.
The satellite phone was heavy. The orange screen already lit.
She hit a button, and half a second later, the phone connected her to Wales Larrison. Her supervisor.
"Caitlin? You still with us?"
She was surprised at how much her voice shook, betraying the stress and trauma of the last few days, Hell, of the last hour.
"Wales," she said. "What the fuck is going on?"
"We've gone to Case Plan Jericho," he said as she started walking in a tight group with the other agents and Monique. The French girl was muttering fiercely in her own language at Le Clerc. The DGSE man shrugged a couple of times but did not say much more. He offered a bloody handkerchief to wipe the gore from her face.
Jericho, she thought. A plan for the fall. Caitlin shook her head. Not in denial. She had seen the evidence of the accelerating collapse with her own eyes.
It was just hard to imagine it was happening, was all.
"Confirm code?" she asked, almost robotically.
"Graveyard. Island. Sorrow. Salt," Larrison replied. For a moment, the words meant nothing to her. It had been so long since she had committed that sequence to memory, so unlikely that she would ever have to recall it, and her thoughts were so unsettled by the events of the day that Caitlin almost froze.
Then the response came to her as though unbidden.
"Darkling hope," she said.
It was Larrison, and Case Plan Jericho was live.
"Go with Bateman and Le Clerc," he said. "And make sure Monique Duroc does not get away from you."
They hurried down a service corridor. The only soul they encountered was a janitor who stuck his head out of a closet for a moment, saw them, freaked the hell out, and slammed the door closed. Caitlin ignored him, her eyes locking on Monique.
"Is she a primary?" she asked quietly.
"No," Larrison said. "But her brother is a person of interest, and she had a cell call to him this morning. He is a person of great interest. We need her at Le Sec. If Paris falls, we can hold out there."
Caitlin thought about it but said nothing for a moment.
"Confirmed," she said at last. "Escort to Le Sec."
She was about to cut the call when Wales spoke again.
"Caitlin, your immunisation. It worked? You were exposed to the blood-borne pathogen when you were bitten. You're still good to go?"
"Still got my pants on, and I haven't bitten anybody," she said. "Not even peckish."
"Good. Be aware that Bateman and Le Clerc have not been immunised."
She regarded the thick smears of drying blood on Le Clerc's face.
Caitlin cut the call as they emerged from the corridor through another set of swinging plastic doors into what looked like the ER. It was a medieval vision of Hell on Earth. A writhing mound of human bodies had piled up at the exit where a hundred or more people were trapped and trying to escape. They could not all fit through the sliding doors at the same time, and nobody was inclined to wait patiently while a dozen naked, blood-drenched fiends raked and tore at the edge of the crush. Caitlin, who had seen some shit in her time, froze for a second, paralysed by horror as a ravening cannibal pulled a small limb, a child's arm, she thought numbly, from the living heap as though tearing off a chicken wing.
Monique screamed, and for half a heartbeat, Caitlin thought she had cried out in distress at the sight of the dismembered child, but the tenor of her cry, a shriek of pain and outrage and deeply personal horror, drew the assassin's attention away from the atrocity at the exit.
Le Clerc had turned.
He was already half naked, his suit jacket and shirt torn asunder. He must have given up on his pants because he'd gone full zombie, sinking his teeth deeply into the forearm of the French girl. Bateman froze in shock. His gun hung uselessly by his side as he watched on inertly.
Caitlin grabbed the only ranged weapon to hand, a stainless-steel bowl, and launched it with great force like a bright metal Frisbee directly at the Frenchman's head. It bounced off with a dull metallic clang but did little to distract him. Monique thrashed about his jaws like a fish caught on a hook. Caitlin stripped the silver wrapping away from the disposable scalpel she'd picked up a minute earlier. Focusing her Kiai, her war shout, into the centre of her target, she closed the short distance between them as quickly as possible.
To those few normal, mortal beings around her who saw what happened, she moved as a fluid blur of violent action, suddenly airborne, one long leg pistoning out and into the sternum of the berserker. Le Clerc flew backwards, ripping a long, ragged strip of meat from Monique's arm as he went. His head struck a metal oxygen tap on the wall with a wet crunch, and he began a slow drop to the ground, trailing a greasy organic smear down the wall. Without pause, Caitlin's whole body swept around in a small, self-contained tornado, one foot lashing out to strike squarely at a zombie drawn by the prospect of a new feeding station at this all-you-can-eat buffet. Its arms reaching for her, broken fingers hooked into bloodied claws, this 'victim' opened wide its jaws as though to close them entirely around Caitlin's head.
Turning tightly with the direction of the kick, Caitlin shot out her free hand, grabbing the nearest wrist, extending it up and slamming her other arm in under the elbow to snap the vulnerable joint with a terrible wet cracking sound. It made no difference other than taking one potential grappling tool out of the fight. In the final extremes of infection and violent dementia, the zombies cared not one single fuck for pain compliance. Her weapon hand whipped backwards in a flash, and she opened up his throat with the razor-sharp scalpel. A geyser of hot, contaminated blood spilled out in a rush as Caitlin continued to spin, dragging the bulk of the infected around off its feet, improvising a quick and dirty body drop to the filthy tiled floor of the ER. The thing was still trashing away, trying to get a grip on her even as its lifeblood gushed out in a hot, dark river. Caitlin raised one booted foot and stomped down twice, hard on its skull. It crunched under her heels, and the zombie stopped moving.
Funny, how quickly she'd come to think of them as zombies, not victims.
"Noooo," cried Monique. The French girl's shriek was a raw, animal sound. Within it roiled pain, violation, horror and outrage. Her face was a mask of dark, primal emotions distorted as though mashed by a rough, invisible hand.
"Get them off me, get them off me."
"She's turning," Caitlin shouted at Bateman. "Put her down."
"But the mission."
"Is blown. Shoot her."
But Bateman, doubtless operating under strict instructions to get the French girl back to Noisy Le Sec even at the cost of his own life, was paralysed. He half raised his gun, then lowered it. Raised it again, hesitated, and looked at Caitlin with his eyes wide and imploring.
Monique, or what had been Monique, was on him, biting and snarling before he could react. They went down in a tangle as Caitlin wrenched Le Clerc's gun from his hand, breaking his trigger finger. The protruding bone had caught the guard before the weapon could fall away. Caitlin's hand closed around the grip, and she pulled the gun free.
Two loud, flat cracks rang out, and Monique slumped over Bateman. He was crying and howling, but it was a human cry. He hadn't turned.
Caitlin climbed slowly back to her feet. Scanning the room, which was still in deranged chaos. But nobody was close enough to threaten her directly. With a slight shift in stance, she swung around and double-tapped the man at her feet. Almost no thought went into the action. The assassin had long ago stopped counting the number of men and women whose last seconds she'd seen through crosshairs or iron gun sights.
A hot flush washed over her, dizzying, unexpected.
She let her gun hand fall to her side, tired of it all.
She could end all this now, she thought. Just put the muzzle of Le Clerc's gun under her chin and…
An enormous cracking sound.
Then, the shattering of glass.
The window wall at the front of the ER had given way under the press of so many bodies. Survivors and killers, infected and soon-to-be, all spilled out of the madhouse into the night air.
Instantly Caitlin could hear the dying city. Sirens, explosions. Screaming. Gunfire. The screech of tires and crunching industrial uproar of cars ploughing into each other, into buildings and obstacles. Into people.
The terrified, hysterical crowd surged through the newly opened portal to what must have seemed like safety. Some died on jagged fangs of broken glass. Some fell under the trampling feet of those behind them, while others were ravaged by the infected.
For a moment, she stood alone. A still presence in the widening gyre of violent madness.
A man in a white coat, a doctor most likely, emerged from the swinging doors behind Caitlin and took a few hesitant steps in her direction. A shake of her head and a casual wave of the pistol in his direction arrested any further advance. His face, already grey, turned ashen at the scene.
He disappeared back into the depths of the hospital.
Her moment of weakness passed. Caitlin quickly searched Bateman, finding his weapon and a few spare mags. She stripped a leather jacket from a dead woman and plucked the last of the sensor leads from her filthy hair. The reloads went into a zippered pocket.
She scanned the room, raising Le Clerc's pistol to shoot down a zombie that had turned away from the pile of screaming bodies still trapped in the remains of the crush. One round to the head.
She checked the load on both guns.
Counted the number of 'victims' between her and escape.
Outside, early evening had come with a hard chill, and she shivered inside the jacket, thankful for its warmth.
Caitlin Monroe, a professional killer, raised both pistols.
She chose her first target and went to work.