Xombies: Apocalypse Blues
When the Agent X plague struck, it infected women first, turning them into mindless killers intent only on creating an army of “Xombies” by spreading their disease.Returning to the traffic jam, Cowper slowed to bump the car up onto the highway divider as per my earlier suggestion. But as soon as we were on that narrow island, I realized why he had taken the extra measure with the screens: the median was scarcely wider than the car itself, hemmed in on both sides by bumper-to-bumper traffic. Driving along that cramped passage was unnerving—there could be no U-turns, no reversing at any speed. And the soft, grassy track seemed to go on forever.
Running for her life, seventeen-year-old Lulu is rescued by the father she has never known and taken aboard a refitted nuclear submarine that has one mission: to save a little bit of humanity.
Cowper didn't seem unduly concerned. "Once we turn right at the intersection, should be clear sailing," he said. "Long as we don't get stuck in the mud."
I put my faith in the elderly gent, though as we neared the end I didn't like the look of things. This was no mere traffic jam, but an abandoned military roadblock. Through the misting windshield I could see relics of recent violence: shoes, broken glass, bullet holes, and spent shells everywhere. But no bodies.
Shadows flitted between the cars. I drew up my legs under me.
"Here they come," I said.
They came in droves, like paparazzi. One minute our path appeared to be clear, the next it was choked with rushing bodies that hurled themselves at us willy-nilly. Cowper accelerated, trying to mow them down, but even the most brutal impact did not seem to prevent many of them from clinging parasitically to the window cages. In minutes it became pitch-black inside the car, the windows draped with writhing, naked monsters. All credit to the driver for keeping us moving—I don't know how he did it.
"How can you see?" I yelled over the pounding.
He ignored me, scrunching up his gnome face to peer between the cracks. Absorbed in his futile task, Cowper was bottoming out, hitting the horn again and again like a cranky old codger. I wouldn't have minded, except his horn played the festive strains of "La Cucaracha" and seemed to energize them.
Several times we crashed into other cars, and I wasn't sure if it was accidental or Cowper's attempts to shake off our foe. If intentional, it failed, because for every Xombie we lost, we gained three by losing speed. It reminded me of a grisly nature film I'd seen showing cattle set upon by vampire bats. Also, the car was falling apart: I could hear the wup-wup-wup of flat tires, and smoke began pooling around our legs. We didn't have long to live.
I remembered those radio reports referring to Agent X as some kind of disease, but it was incredible to me that these things could be in any way considered sick. They were superhuman, nothing stopped them. I could even tell that some were smart. One female Xombie—a blue woman who straddled the hood like a fierce, Celtic witch—had no trouble figuring out the arrangement that kept the screens in place, and began unhooking the straps. In seconds the whole thing was loose, held in place only by other bodies, and she battered its frame against the windshield, starring the glass.
This is it, I thought.
The web of cracks burst inward, the witch's hands peeling apart the safety glass like a membrane and her grinning, black-eyed face thrusting through at me. Trapped in my seat, I could hear myself making a high-pitched whine from deep in my throat. Just then Cowper stamped hard on the brakes, causing the whole unmoored wire contraption and every Ex on it to go flying off the car in a jangling heap.
Finally, I could see again. We were clear of the traffic, clear of maniacs, and dragging our flopping treads down a tree-lined drive toward some kind of factory complex. The trees gave way to parkland, then a high fence and a series of concrete barricades. It was the end of the road, in every sense. Cowper turned off the dying motor, and we sat there in silence. My ears were ringing.
I was about to say the place looked deserted when a brilliant light filled the car. It beamed down from above the fence, from a hidden platform. Bathed in phosphorescent white smoke, we couldn't see a thing.
"Hold up your hands." Cowper held up his own, fanning identification cards like a poker hand. "Fred Cowper here!" he shouted. "Referred by James Sandoval!"
For a long moment there was nothing, then a voice shouted, "Step out of the vehicle!"
We climbed free of the car, keeping our hands up. Cowper had an old leather satchel slung from his shoulder. Again, he called out, "Fred Cowper here! Fred Cowper—don't shoot!"
A different voice called down, "Fred Cowper? We thought it was the Mexican Army. What'd you do, take the scenic route?"
"Who's that? Chief Reynolds? Beau, you know I'm cleared with Sandoval!"
"That was three weeks ago. We gave up waiting for you."
"Goddammit, I'm here now! Open up!"
After an unbearable pause, the spotlight went off, and we could see men with guns lined up on a high catwalk and makeshift guard tower. They were not soldiers, but some kind of private security force—what my mother called "rent-a-cops." Others below waved us toward a cagelike revolving door in the fence. "Hurry!" they shouted. "Run!"
As we made for it, something charged from the shadows between barriers, something naked, blue, and low to the ground. I barely saw it before gunfire erupted from a dozen places at once, and the thing was knocked over, spouting flesh. It was a headless torso riddled with holes, trying to get back up on its hands. Then we were inside the door, pushing as hard as we could. But it only revolved a quarter turn before crashing against the bolt, trapping us inside.
"Who's the girl?" demanded a stunned-looking sentry.
"Sandoval said I could bring someone," Cowper said. "Open the damn gate!"
"Girls are supposed to be quarantined."
"That's only if they might turn. She has a medical condition that stops her from maturing. Look at her—does she look seventeen?"
"She's seventeen?" All the guards nearly jumped out of their skins, as if I were liable to snatch their guts out.
Impatiently, Cowper replied, "You morons, if she was gonna, she already woulda. Don't you get it? Where's Reynolds?" As he spoke, I saw a ghastly figure appear out of the hazy twilight, racing along the outside of the fence toward us. We were pinned in place; it could grab us right through the bars.
"Let us in!" I screamed.
"I guess it's 'Bring Your Daughter to Work Day'," said the man Reynolds from above. "All right, go ahead," he ordered. "Let 'em in." The gate swung open, and we were jerked through, half-deaf from the fusillade around our ears. I had never heard shooting before. It wasn't like the movies. Something squishy slammed against the bars just as we jumped clear. I didn't want to look. I could've cried to be among people again, and tried to thank them, but any man I approached reared like a spooked horse.
"They're a little traumatized," Cowper observed, taking me aside. "Send 'em a thank-you note."
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