Yeah, and pigs might fly. I slapped my hand down on the test panel as soon as it came into reach. The metal was cool and nonresponsive. No needles appeared to sample my blood, no anesthetics sprayed to numb the nonexistent sting. The light over the door stayed green. “Fuck.”
“What?” Becks stepped closer, still scanning the halls around us for signs of movement. “What’s it doing?”
“Nothing.” I took my hand off the panel. The light over the door went out. A moment later, so did the lights in the hall, plunging us into total darkness.
Fuck, said George.
“Yeah, tell me about it,” I muttered, trying the door handle. It was unsurprisingly locked. It didn’t deliver an electric shock or shoot a sedative needle into my palm—both standard defensive measures for a sealed door in a government compound—but that was all I could say in the positive. I pulled my hand away and started rummaging through my pockets for a flashlight. “We could really use your eyes about now. Done being dead yet?”
“Shaun?” An amber light clicked on to my left as Becks produced the field light from her backpack and held it up between us. She still had her pistol in her other hand. That was probably a good idea. “I hate to interrupt, but can you maybe focus on the living for a little bit? I’d like to keep bathing long enough to get mad at you for this shitty idea.”
“You went along with it.” My fingertips grazed the hard metal base of my portable flashlight. I pulled it out and clicked it on, aiming it for the floor. The amber field light was night-vision friendly, but we’d need the extra illumination at floor level if we didn’t want to risk tripping over something in the dark.
“I never said I was the smart one. Thoughts?”
“These places are designed as kill chutes—they’re supposed to herd you deeper, so the infected can be picked off easily and the uninfected will stand a chance in hell at getting themselves to safety.” I gestured back toward the conference room with my pistol, keeping my flashlight pointed down. “We walk this way and hope we trip over a maintenance guy.”
“And if we don’t?”
“Then we hope we trip over an exit.”
“This plan sucks.”
We started back down the hall, me leading, Becks so close behind that her shoulders brushed mine every time she turned to do another sweep behind us. George had gone silent again. That was good; that let me narrow my focus until there was nothing that mattered but the sound of our slow progress. Field training involves learning how to step lightly and breathe slowly, so as to reduce your auditory impact on the environment. Viral amplification doesn’t give zombies superpowers, but it makes them really focused. Consequentially, they’re occasionally capable of feats of tracking that seem to border on the unnatural. They’re not. They’re just incredibly good at homing in on the little things. The little things are what get people killed.
We hit the first corner. I spun around it, raising my flashlight to light up the entire hallway ahead. What it cost us in night vision was more than balanced by its effectiveness as a defensive weapon: The retinal condition that kept George behind prescription sunglasses for most of her life is universal among the infected. They can adjust to going out during the day, but they always prefer to stay in the dark when possible, and having a flashlight shine directly into their eyes is never fun.
An empty hall greeted my sweep. I lowered the flashlight. “Clear,” I said, and we walked on, following the gently herding design of the CDC building. We were walking into a kill chute. Sadly, it was the smartest thing we could do. Going the other way would just take us farther from any help that might be waiting for us—assuming there was any help to be had.
We repeated the same procedure at the next three corners we reached. Each time, I spun around to blind any lurking infected with my flashlight, while Becks watched my back and got ready to start shooting. Each time, the light revealed nothing but featureless, utterly empty hallway. The white walls glimmered like ghosts through the dimness as we walked. My skin crawled, claustrophobia and paranoia beginning to speed my heart rate. Not enough to put me in danger of panic, but enough that I could feel it rising. From the way Becks’s breath was starting to hitch—just a little, every third inhale—she was in a similar state. It’s not the action that kills you. It’s the waiting.>
At the very next corner, the waiting ended.
It started out like the turns before it: Becks braced to shoot, while I stepped around the corner and swept my flashlight over the hall. Only this time, the hall in front of us extended for only about five feet before splitting into a T-junction… and this time, something up ahead and to the left responded to the light with a moan. It was still out of sight around the turn, but that didn’t matter; once you’ve heard the moaning of the infected, you never forget it. It’s the sort of sound that hardwires itself into your primitive monkey brain, and the message it sends is simple: run.
I took a hasty step backward, keeping my flashlight pointed in the direction of the moan. It wouldn’t ward off the infected—nothing stops a hungry zombie once it has an idea of where a free lunch can be found—but the pain would slow them down. “Becks?”
“Is the other direction clear?”
“I think so.”