“Something has changed.” Max said, bringing the group to a halt with an outstretched arm.
“What?” asked Stewart, taking bullets out of her borrowed police belt and reloading her pistol.
“The local zombies are not acting like anyone is really controlling them. It is more like a mob again. Some of them, up ahead of us, seem to be getting it together, but the ones behind us aren't doing much more than standing there.”
“So we go back?” Stewart asked skeptically.
Shaking his head Max said, “No. Even moving like typical zeds there are more than we can handle.”
“So why are you wasting our time stopping us?” asked Stewart taking aim and shooting a zombie that was getting too close. “That is the place up ahead of us, I think. The Art Institute?”
“Hey Ruben!” called Max, “Are they in place yet?”
“No word. I will ask.” said Ruben, the old man was huffing and puffing from his exertions in keeping up with the squad. He and the three other old men, all over sixty, were red in the face and while Max hated to admit it, they were slowing the entire team down. Behind the soldiers on the street the mob continued to press forward slowly, like an ocean of rotted humanity. Every once in a while a faster zombie would launch out of the crowd behind them, a couple of times these zombies had come within feet before being shot.
Slinging his rifle, Ruben pulled up the walkie-talkie and sent out a coded signal, it was responded to immediately, “Yes! They are in place.” Listening intently for a moment Ruben waited for the sounds to end, then keyed back a brief message, “They think he is in the Art Building, they saw a woman and a bunch of supers heading our way. Plus there are a bunch in the park ahead of us.”
“All right, let's go, we run by, fire into the art institute, toss in a bunch of grenades and hightail it out of here.”
“We are slowing you down.” Ruben said as much to Bill as to Max.
“Yeah, you old geezers better suck it up and get moving, we can't afford to coddle you anymore.” Bill said.
Ruben looked at him for a moment, the laughed, “You're one to talk sergeant!”
Behind them, several fast zombies made a break for them all at once. The three older men, Dan, Kirk and Larry were tired and caught off guard by the rush. Dan went down with two zombies tackling the man as he fought to cock his rifle, which he had just reloaded. Stewart gave a yell and charged back into the whirling melee, shooting her pistol as she went.
“Keep those motherfuckers back!” She yelled at the other men, “Fire now, fire!”
The other members of the squad crouched down and started firing into the walking dead that got close to the four people fighting in the street. Dan came up, he was missing his helmet and had a stream of blood pouring down one side of his face. He still had his rifle and finished cocking it then let loose with a fully automatic stream of bullets at the zombies closest to him.
Ruben pushed Max, spinning him around to face up the street in front of them.
“Goddamn.” Max said softly. “They were just fucking with me. They must have known I could see them or something.”
Ahead of them running at full tilt towards the two men was a crowd of zombies.
“It's the goddamn zombie Chicago marathon!” Max said.
Ruben grunted and went to one knee and began firing into the crowd, “Shut up and shoot, there are only a few hundred.”
Max raised his shotgun and aimed before firing when the first zombie was twenty yards away. His shot was close enough to put a few pellets into the zombie nurse's brain and she tumbled heels over head, her white stockinged legs briefly flying into the air at head height. Max laughed, “Did you see that?”
“I saw.” Ruben said, picking his targets carefully, “Feel free to talk about it when we get our shit out of this mess Max. Fire faster.”
Bill turned and saw the group heading towards them, then yelled, “Into the park, now!”
The four older men were free of the zombies behind them, but most of the squad was still firing in that direction before Bill's yell.
“Bill, we can't go that way! There are a ton of zombies in that direction!” Max shouted continuing to fire his shotgun. The men of the squad were already disappearing into the well spaced shrubbery, Bill grabbed Ruben and Max by the shoulders of their jackets and pulled them off the street, over the sidewalk and into the greenery with little help from either man.
“Bill! Zombies!” Max said between firing his gun at targets behind them.
“I know Max, how far?”
“Two, three blocks maybe.”
“Good. What the fuck?”
Bill slowed down, which gave Ruben and Max a chance to reload and evaluate their situation.
“Another goddamned train track? How many trains does this place have?”
“Look!” Max said pointing to the west, “We can get to the building under the street there.” The road between the park where they were at and the art institute was raised to clear the train tracks and the designers had left the area underneath it open, the paths from the park led to another area of greenery next to the building.
“Where did all those fuckers come from Max?” asked Ruben panting heavily.
“They were moving slowly to fool me, I thought we had enough time to get clear of them. Then, when they all started running, I knew I'd been had.”
The squad was starting to move west slowly, with many members looking north through the chain link fence at the railroad beyond. Dan was a step behind Max when the woman leaped out of the park and tackled him. Following her came a pack of silent zombies heading right for the rest of the squad.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck!” Max yelled, shooting his gun, his shots were wild, as were those of Ruben and Bill beside him.
“Back! Get under the street and into the building!” Bill screamed, firing at the zombies closing in on them.
The woman was young and in the prime of life, Max tried to get a bead on her as she dragged a screaming Dan away from them. 'Life? Omigod, she is not a zombie!' Max thought, shifting his aim at the last instance. Dan's screams continued as Ruben forced Max back under the street. They made their way into a heavily treed portion next to a tall building where Max was sure the zombie's leader was hiding out. Ruben pushed Max forward then turned to fire on the closest pursuers. Max lost sight of him as he continued running towards the building.
Max moved into an open aired courtyard, where Bill and some of the other squad members were, he stopped and looked back for Ruben, who was not right behind him as he had thought.
“Who is missing?” demanded Bill.
“Just Dan.” Max said, “Me and Ruben saw this woman...”
“Where is Ruben!” Bill shouted, “Goddamn it!” He went charging down the sidewalk back to where they still heard a rifle firing. The other soldiers looked shocked, then started after Bill.
Stewart yelled, “Kirk, Larry, stop! You two go and get one of the doors open.” She had called out to the oldest men left in the squad, who did as she told them. The younger men went tentatively towards the east to help Bill.
The twisting paths of greenery provided an illusion of seclusion this close to the building, but under the street was bare, providing and alley of sight. Max was at the forefront of the men heading back to get Bill and Ruben and stopped at that line bisecting the plant life.
“You two! Stay here and watch our backs.” Max said, stepping forward with Javier and Chen.
Max caught a glimpse of movement ahead of them and then saw Bill, half carrying Ruben. He went forward and met them, picking up Ruben's other arm to help drag him forward. The old man had a silly grin on his face that was out of place with his situation.
“Chen, Javier, you guys set up a line of fire here with Bart," said Bill, as the other soldier appeared from a side path, "Keep them off of us for a few minutes. Where are the others?” Bill asked Max.
“Stewart is up ahead with them in the courtyard. What happened to Ruben?”
“Got his shit kicked.”
Bill shook his head, “DamnedifIknow.”
“He ain't bleeding.”
“Good.” Bill replied gruffly.
“Any sign of...”
They got Ruben into the courtyard at the same time that the rifles opened up behind them. A man started screaming and Bill said, “You guys stay here, get into the building, I am going to fetch my men back.”
“Just go Max.”
Max turned and headed through the doors that Kirk and Larry had opened, Stewart followed right behind him, reloading as she went. The passageway looked like it would bring them towards the front of the building, where Max could sense several powerful zombies near where he thought the street was.
In the courtyard, Ruben leaned against a bench and tried to catch his breath. He had lost his rifle and unlike Max and Stewart he didn't have a sidearm, only a combat knife. Larry came over to help him, leaving Kirk holding one of the doors open and listening down the corridor as Max and Stewart left.
“You okay Ruben?” asked Larry.
Ruben looked up, his face red and covered with sweat, “I dunno Larry, might be I am having a heart attack.”
Larry's face paled and he was at Ruben's side in an instant. “Shit. What do I do?”
Shaking his head, Ruben laughed, “Nah, tough old bird like me? I am just messing with you, help me over to the door, I think we'll be heading that way soon enough.”
Larry pulled Ruben's hand over his shoulder and turned around in time to see a woman drop from the ornate side of the building onto Kirk. The fall alone toppled the old guy to the ground where he moaned in agony clutching his leg.
Pushing Larry away, Ruben said, “Shoot her!”
The fast moving zombie woman stepped forward as Larry struggled to bring his rifle up. Ruben, unbalanced by pushing away from his friend, fell to the ground hard where he tried to get to his hands and knees. The woman slapped the rifle away from Larry and grabbed him by the throat with her other hand. Lifting the old man by the neck, she shook him like an old rag until his neck snapped with an audible 'pop.' She stood there, as if in a daze for a moment, just holding the now limp body in her hand. Larry's feet twitched once or twice and Ruben crawled quickly towards Kirk where he tried to wrestle the other man's rifle away from him. Kirk was half out of his head with pain and fought to keep Ruben from taking it. Ruben had just gotten to his knees with the gun when a voice rang out behind him, “Old man, what are you going to do with that?”
Ruben turned slowly to see the woman standing behind him, she still had Larry in her other hand, the man looked frail and thin in death, like a stout breeze could blow his corpse away. With her other hand the woman reached out and grabbed hold of the rifle barrel as Ruben tried to bring it around, she twisted her hand and the barrel of the rifle bent when he didn't let go. A look of shock crossed Ruben's face as the woman shoved him backwards on top of Kirk.
“You are lucky Harry said to bring as many of you alive as possible,” she tossed Larry's body to the side of the building, where it landed behind a shrub. “Well? Can you walk or do I have to drag you?”
When Ruben didn't respond, the woman reached down and grabbed him and Larry by the scruff of their jackets and started pulling them inside, going the same direction that Max had taken.
When Bill left Max, he felt a pang of fear and regret almost instantly. He was torn between going after the other men and going with his lifelong friend. He hoped he was doing both: going to get the men, then catching up with Max. While he was worried he did have to admonish himself silently, 'Max made it all the way from Denver to Iowa alive, he can take care of himself.' Knowing even as he thought it, that he would still hold himself responsible if something happened to his friend.
The gunfire up ahead had been cut down to one rifle, Bill headed towards the noise to see Javier firing at a group of zombies in front of him. This put Bill in the perfect spot along the path to see the super zombie about to launch itself onto Javier's back. Bill raised his rifle and fired off a three-round burst that vaporized the zombie's head into a fine mist.
“Javier! Fall back! We gotta go!”
Javier immediately started walking backwards towards Bill, who added a few shots to keep the encroaching slow dead at bay.
“The others?” Bill asked.
“That way. One of them has a gun. They shot Chen in the leg, he fell back, but a bunch of them went after him.”
“You were on the end of the line?” Javier nodded, “Okay let's head that way and see if we can find anyone else.” said Bill pointing towards the rail line.
They didn't go directly towards the fence that separated the train tracks from the park, but veered at a slight angle so they could keep firing at the few zombies who were following them slowly. Javier paused when they came to a trail of blood that was heading towards the art building. “Do we follow this or keep going?”
Bill shrugged, then said “Follow it. Fast. Let's see if we can get some distance on these guys behind us.”
Javier turned and went up the well defined path which led them into the bright courtyard Bill had left just minutes before. Ahead of them two men in fatigues were on the ground and several corpses were lying around them. Bill raised his rifle pointing it at the men on the ground, they looked like they were fighting. Javier put the palm of his hand against Bill's rifle barrel and pushed it sideways gently. Looking closer Bill could see that Bart was busy trying to bind up a wound on Chen's leg. 'I almost shot him.' Bill thought with some alarm.
“Chen'll live,” said Bart.
Behind them, a gun fired and Bill saw a puff of dust from where the bullet ricocheted off of the building ahead of them. He quickly ducked down, as did Javier. They both turned and fired blindly back through the overgrowth, as far as they could tell their bullets didn't hit anything, but the other gun stopped firing.
“We gotta get out of here. Let's move into the building. Bart, can Chen move now?” Bill asked.
“I think I got the bleedin' under control, he can move.”
“The fuck I can! I gotta hole in my leg!” the man on the ground replied, clutching a crudely bandaged leg that was still leaking blood.
“Fine, then I guess you stay here. Bart, Javier, let's go. Chen, hold 'em off as long as you can.” Bill led the other two men towards the building door. He had an itch between his shoulder blades that would not go away. It was a feeling that at any moment a bullet would hit him; he had to get out of the courtyard.
Chen shouted, “Wait!” and scrambled to his feet. He winced as he limped after the other men, but had the presence of mind to grab his rifle from the bench as he went.
Bill looked back at him, “All better? Good, let’s go, maybe we can do this yet.”
A moment after they disappeared into the building a group of zombies came into the open courtyard, four of them shambled slowly towards the building door, urged on by another, faster moving zombie at the edge of the vegetation. The slow zombies made it to the door and the faster one stepped out into the courtyard to follow them. There was a quiet sound like a watermelon being dropped onto a concrete floor from a counter top. The zombie took a hesitant step forward then fell, its head had been turned into a hollow sphere, with a small hole on one side and a huge opening on the other, where the bullet had passed through.