It’s depressing, it really is. I wrote ten thousand words of pure shit for NaNoWriMo, and now I run across a story I started about a year ago that I think is actually quite nice. It’s like Flowers for Algernon, but not quite so severe. Hopefully. In my defense, I just recently started working [at an actual job that pays me money], so I have been under a bit of stress. The NaNoWriMo attempt was mostly written on my lunch breaks, in fact.
Anyway, enjoy. I may pick this one up again at a later date.
I’ve seen the movies, all seventeen of them. The original Dawn of the Dead, the six remakes, and ten others, ranging from comedy to horror to romance; all of which contained the most ludicrous trope of them all. Zombies in a shopping mall. I’m a fan – well, was a fan – of zombies. Slow zombies, fast zombies, undead, infected – no matter the type, I inhaled any media that portrayed them. Games, movies, books. I was a master of zombies lore. But I was more then a fan; I was a critic. As such, I could find flaws in zombies stories, and one thing that really bugged me was shopping malls. I’d always thought the most rational thing to do when facing a zombie apocalypse would be to first hit a gunshop to collect weapons and ammo, then block off the entrances to a grocery store with trucks or something. What makes a grocery store better then a mall? Pretty simple: malls have useless entertainment goods – electronics, clothes, and chintzy art, whereas a grocery store would have immense amounts of canned food, bottled water, medicine, and other necessities. I thought I was pretty smart. But as it turns out, Hollywood storytelling has more truth in it then I would have thought. You see, I forgot one crucial detail: I was assuming that I’d actually have time to carry out my plans. But the apocalypse was always depicted as coming without warning, with no time to prepare. And so it was simple statistical odds that I, a youth of sixteen years who spent about three hours every day hanging with friends at the mall, would be at afore said mall when the cargo hauler Impressive Girth, returning to Earth from one of the outer colonies orbiting Sirius, crash landed not two miles from us.
* * *
“Attention, shoppers: we regret to inform you of your impending demise. Please do not panic, there’s nothing you can do. Attention, shoppers: we regret…”
The slightly computerized female voice droned on, but nobody was paying attention to it anymore. We were all staring up through the skylights at a most impressive sight: a black dot, surrounded by jets of orange. At the range it was at I could have covered it with my thumb, but I did not. If this was going to be the last thing I saw, I didn’t want to spoil the view.
“Hot damn,” opinionated one of my friends. His name was Josh; I knew him from our school’s Shooting Club. We had an odd friendship, always trying to out smart-ass each other. I considered his remark, then tapped the search function of my iBrain and quickly found the data I was looking for.
“Hot indeed: those are deep space maneuvering jets that almost approach the surface tempature of the Sun.”
He shot me a look. “I don’t think that makes me feel any better.”
“It wasn’t supposed to.” I fell silent, digging through the data I was still streaming from the ‘net, and found what I was looking for. “That’s what the sound is. Superheated gas causing massive air turbulence.” The roaring sound was getting louder; the skylights started to crack. The black dot was bigger now, the jets brighter. People started to panic now, ignoring the voice coming over the PA system. Josh and I stayed where we were. We were both from rich families who could afford to buy us cybernetic brain implants, and the moment the alert had come through that a ship had malfunctioned and was heading for Earth, we had run the calculations in our cyberbrains. The mall’s AI was right – we were doomed, and nothing we could do would change that. We were also members of the Rationality Club.
“How much do you think it’ll destroy?”
I looked over at Josh. He was still studying the approaching space craft. I started to reach inward, to run the appropriate calculations, then stopped myself. Josh had the same model iBrain I did; he could have run the calculations himself if he wanted a scientific answer. But he’d asked me, so I complied with his unspoken wish for some old-fashioned human sociability. We may have had transistors instead of neurons, but we were still human. “Well…” I thought about it, contemplating the information I had stored in local memory. There’d only been one major crash before now – the first interstellar ship ever launched. There’d been a malfunction – or sabotage, it was never proven which. The Enterprise, it’d been called. An Orion style design, it was mile long and weighed more then a small city. The impact had taken out Australia.
“Well, it’s not that big, is it?” I finally responded. “And it’s slowing fast enough I don’t think it’ll hit that hard. Maybe… a hundred square miles for sure? “
Josh nodded, indicating that he’d come to the same conclusion. The ship was larger now, bigger then my thumb. I tried to think of something to say, something that fit the situation, but couldn’t. I’d already sent letters to all my friends, my family, and my lawyer. There was nothing to do but wait for certain death–
Well, “boom” doesn’t quite cover the sound a hydrogen bomb makes when it goes off a hundred miles above you. All the shatterproof glass in the skylights shattered, raining down upon us and the few others who hadn’t run screaming from the building. My ‘net connection went down a moment later when the EMP hit, bringing down all unshielded electronics. Fortunately our iBrains were completely shielded, but the mall’s power system wasn’t so lucky. The PA system cut out with a squeal and the lights sparked from the overload and flickered out. Then it happened again.
It wasn’t quite as impressive this time around, with no electronics left to disrupt or glass to shatter, but –
Another explosion blossomed in the sky beside the plummeting freighter, and I suddenly realized what was happening: the Navy ships in orbit were firing nuclear warheads, trying to use the explosions to nudge the ship off course.
“Brilliant,” breathed Josh, and I had to agree. Whoever was commanding that Navy ship was in for a promotion or two. Rather then let the the plummeting freighter hit the city, they were trying to push it into the farmland that butted up against the Entertainment District east of here. But it was still going to hit with enough force to kill us anyway, I realized. Unless…
As if in response to my unspoken hope, a brilliant, wavery golden beam punched through the atmosphere and engulfed the ship. Gravity beam. I smiled, almost giddy with relief. One of the Dockyard tugs must of made an in-system hyperspace jump to get here from Pluto. Extremely dangerous, but the risk had obviously payed off. We were saved.
I looked at Josh. He had a ridiculously goofy grin on his face. I realized I was wearing a similar one. “Hot damn,” I said with feeling. We both burst out laughing, clutching our sides, gasping for breath. Overhead, the ship seemed to slowly float sideways, that slipped gracefully beneath the horizon…
The impact cannot be written as simply “boom.” “Thud” would be closer, though it does not accurately reflect the truth of the matter. Have you ever been near a fat man doing jumping jacks on a wooden floor? Felt his impact travel through the floorboards into your bones? Now imagine you’re an ant – mosquito, even – an inch away from his foot as it comes down.
We were mosquitoes, the Earth was the floorboards, and the interstellar cargo hauler Impressive Girth was a very, very fat man.
The floor bounced, tiles cracked, pillars snapped, the east wall caved in, and a sea of pulverized dirt washed over the mall, blocking out the sun. Small rocks – and some not so small – fell through the open skylights. Silence, such as it was, returned.
I pushed myself unsteadily to my feet, wincing from the bruises I knew would be showing tomorrow. Josh and the few food court denizens left were doing the same. I tried establishing a connection, but no luck – the WiMax relay stations were down, and probably would be back up for quite a while. Not that it mattered much, because the evacuation of the city was probably already underway. We should both be getting home to our respective families, as they were undoubtedly worried. But another few minutes wouldn’t hurt, especially if it meant we’d get to see a sight we’d remember for the rest of our lives. I looked at Josh, and he looked back with a grin that matched mine. We ran to the stairway. Not to go down, but up – up to the open aired observation deck of Raccoon City Mall.
We stopped abruptly after clearing the last step; not out of wonder or shock, but because the roof ended in rubble and steel girders five feet in front of us. The east wall had apparently been load bearing. I looked up from the sudden drop and refocused on the main attraction: the half mile long spaceship lying about the same distance away from our position. It sat in a good sized crater, a massive rent in its side.
“Do you think anyone is still alive?”
Josh shrugged. “Could be. Depends on how up to date their anti-inertia safety systems were.”
I nodded, pretending to know what he was talking about. Ships had never struck my fancy the way they had Josh’s. Normally whenever he mentioned something I wasn’t clear on, I’d just stream the relevant data from the ‘net. Now, though, I felt blind and deaf and lost in the woods with a wolf hot my heels. I tried to shake free of the feeling, concentrating on the crashed ship. That’s when I noticed it.
“There’s no smoke,” I said, surprised. In the movies, a large disaster always coincided with an equally large plume of smoke.
“Two reasons for that,” replied Josh. “First off, spaceships are largely inflammable – metal, fire retardant plastics, that sort of thing. Second, even if they were flammable, there’s not much to start a fire. The fusion cores would have spun down before the impact, and the power system cut. No spark, no flame.”
“So what’s that, then?”
“That.” I pointed at what looked like liquid gushing from the tear in the ship’s hull.
Josh frowned, pulled out his palmtop. I followed suit, and we both raised camera lenses towards the ship and pressed the zoom button. The ship immediately seemed to leap forward, growing larger each second, until the liquid stream was rendered clear.
It wasn’t liquid.
Liquid didn’t look like humans with gray skin, shambling in a horde, arms outstretched, wounds caked with black blood, teeth gnashing, lips moving, uttering one word: brains.
I looked at Josh. Josh looked at me.
“Shit,” we said. “Zombies!”
Despite the improbability of the situation we found ourselves in, we reacted instinctively, turning and charging down the stairway. Long hours spent immersed in virtual reality shooter simulations meant we knew exactly what to do.
Jumping the last few steps, we turned left, racing along the second floor terrace, the food court visible down below to our right. We kept our attention to the left as we passed a jewelry store, clothing store, hipster music store with the sign out front proclaiming “it’s better on compact disc” until finally we reached our destination: Guns R Us.