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“I like running.”

“Good. One…” I took another shot. This one went wild, barely grazing the zombie I was aiming for.

“Two…”

“Three!” I shoved Becks in the direction of the stairs, firing rapidly to cover her. She’d been right about one thing; if one of us was going to get chewed on, it needed to be me. One bite and it was game over for her. I’d consider a few more scars to be a fair trade for getting Becks out of this alive.

They can still kill you, hissed George.

“Maybe I deserve it,” I replied, and ran after Becks.

One nice thing about stairs: Zombies can navigate them, but they can’t do it fast. There’s a certain comedy to watching them try, as long as you’re not in a position to get knocked over by an infected body tumbling back down to the ground floor after it manages to misjudge the positioning of its feet. A few zombies had already fallen by the time we reached the bottom step.

Becks shot the first of them and ran on, leaving me to take out the other two. Both of them were wearing lab coats. They moaned, reaching for me. I grimaced as I jumped over them, and paused long enough to turn back and shoot them in the head. It took a few seconds to be absolutely sure they were dead, not just incapacitated. I spent the time. I knew these people. I might not know their names, but I knew them, and this was at least partially my fault. I could have forced Dr. Abbey to up her security. I could have helped more. I could have stopped this from happening.

You need to stop taking responsibility for things that aren’t your fault, said George, sounding cranky enough that I could almost see her frown.

“You need to stop telling me that things aren’t my fault,” I countered, turning to shoot a zombie that had been lurching up behind me. It went down hard. I kept my gun raised and began backing up the stairs, scanning the lab below me. The occasional gunshot from above told me that Becks was doing her part to clear the landing.

My ear cuff beeped. I jerked my chin upward, answering the call. “Kinda busy, so this better be good.”

“Maggie’s upstairs, locked in one of the cold storage rooms. She’s not injured, but she’s bloody pissed at whoever it was that shoved her in there,” said Mahir. “Dr. Abbey says she made contact with Becks?”

“We’re en route now.” I took another shot. That left three. Four if I decided to use all my bullets, rather than going with the traditional approach to zombie-killing, and saving the last one for myself. The thought made me crack a smile. Saving bullets for myself was something I didn’t have to worry about anymore.

You are so f**king morbid, muttered George.

“Learned from the best,” I replied. There were only two visible zombies left on the floor, and both of them had been infected for long enough that they were moving slowly, in that classic Romero shuffle. Better yet, killing so many of their pack mates meant the viral intelligence driving them all had been reduced from mob level smarts back to individual stupidity.

No one knows why zombies get smarter when you have a bunch of them in one place, but they do, and it’s a problem. Tactics that work against one or two lone undead will get you killed when you go up against a mob. I’ve seen them demonstrate complicated hunting techniques, like actual ambush preparation, and it’s scary as hell. If nothing else, it forces you to remember that the things inside those rotting shells used to be human, and on some level, still might be. They just got sick. It could happen to anybody.

Anybody but me.

“Shaun? Shaun, are you there? Shaun?” Mahir’s voice in my ear dragged me out of my thoughts and back into the situation.

“Sorry, just assessing.” I turned, running up the stairs. Becks was waiting on the landing. She had her gun up, and was braced against the banister; two infected were shambling toward her, neither moving fast enough to be a major threat at their current distance. She was letting them set up the shot. It’s a classic field tactic, and a good way to save your ammunition. There was just one problem with it.

If there were only two zombies out here, where was all that moaning coming from?

“What’s your assessment?” asked Becks.

“We’re f**ked. Where’s Alaric? I’m pissed off, I’m almost out of bullets, and I’m not having any fun.” And that, right there, was the reason I stopped doing active fieldwork, even before we stopped really being a news site. You can’t be a professional Irwin when you can’t at least pretend to enjoy what you’re doing. It doesn’t work. The center does not hold.

“He’s with Dr. Abbey.”

“Good.”

Becks took the first of her shots as I reached her. The zombie went down. She didn’t even glance in my direction. “We clear below, Mason?”

“Two zombies, both too uncoordinated to handle the stairs. I made an executive decision. We need to conserve bullets more than we need to perfectly secure the area.”

“Well, just don’t forget that they’re down there and sound the all-clear without going back to mop up your mess.” She squeezed off her second shot. This wasn’t a clean hit; her bullet took the infected in the throat, reducing it to a mass of torn flesh and visible bone. It kept shuffling forward.

“Uh, Becks—”

“One,” she said. “Two. Three…”

The zombie went down, the virally enhanced clotting factors in its blood finally giving up the task of repairing the arteries shredded by her bullet.

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