The lights are on
Veteran Member - Level 13
GaMe (short for Gamify Me), was started as a form of community outreach, encouraging writers to get to know their fellow GIO members and create a character around them within the game worlds they love. For more information, see the original posting here.
[This GaMe contains Easter eggs]
Episode One - Doctor's Orders
Milan, Italy. Day 183.
Ace opened her eyes, the commotion outside her door rousing her from a dream. The family vacation, yachting somewhere in the Caribbean, quickly faded into the back of her mind, her out-of-focus surroundings taking over. Blurry objects sharpened; first the desk, then the bookshelf, as the office she'd been using as a bedroom come together piecemeal.
The yelling was getting louder. It was still fuzzy to her ears, in her half-sleep.
Ace rolled out of "bed," a simple futon couch she and Henri had dragged in from one of the lounges. The office wing of the Medical University of Milan was delightfully decorated and furnished, but the rooms were meant for working hours comfort - not sleeping. Still, Ace preferred the privacy of a room to call her own, often preferring the office over the ICU down the hall. Several beds in one room made it a sensible choice to use for sleeping quarters; having seen sick and dying people in those beds, Ace never felt at ease sleeping in one herself.
She staggered to her feet, working them into a pair of baby blue slippers, glancing out the window. It was still night, another bad storm raging outside. It had been storming most of the week, the heavy rain and strong winds making it hard to get a good night's sleep. She wondered what time it was; they'd been "off the grid" for months, any sense of the time of day replaced by simpler terms. Morning, night. Light, darkness. Awake, asleep.
The muffled yells stopped, replaced by the banging of fists on her door. A voice called out.
"Ace! Ace, wake up!"
She walked past the long bookcase, full of artifacts from someone else's life. A collection of trinkets occupied the shelves. A model sailboat, a family portrait. Miniature wooden replicas of musical instruments; a piano, a drum set, a banjo and kazoo. Toys belonging to someone's child; Ace often wondered if they'd made it out alright. She reached the door, opening it a crack, wincing as the harsh light hit her face. Through the slits of her eyelids she could make out Henri, holding the emergency halogen lamp, and James - and, even in her stupor, the distress on their faces.
"Pasquale's hurt," Henri spit out.
The words cut through Ace; suddenly, her lack of sleep or the bright light flooding her vision didn't seem like such big problems. "Where is he?"
"ICU. Donna's dressing the wound, but she's not sure how bad it is."
"I'll be right there." Ace made her way down the hall; she'd made this walk countless times, and it never got any easier.
She'd studied medicine as a grad student at the University hospital for four years, then began her residency afterwards. She was starting her second year at the hospital when the outbreak hit; that was six months ago. She remembered those first few awful days, with people flooding the hospital as the virus took hold, the chaos of trying to separate the injured from the reanimating. The walk down this hallway was bad enough when it was only one person depending on her; almost overnight, dozens of lives were thrust into her hands.
She stayed behind to help with the wounded as civilians were evacuated; a week of people from around the city converging on the hospital, the military whisking them away by the dozens. Then one day... nothing. She remembered those next days spent on the rooftop, watching the skies well into sunset, waiting for the helicopters that never came back. The pit in her stomach, as she realized they were on their own.
Between hospital staff and civilians, the survivors initially numbered in the hundreds when things fell apart. Many died in the first days, as the virus spread, or from injuries sustained during the panic and riots. Dozens were lost as the dead, inside the hospital, came back; those remaining fought to clear the hospital, floor by floor, room by room, eventually securing the ground floor well enough to barricade most doors and stairways.
Days later, things went from bad to worse when they lost power. Patients whose medical care required machines were the first to go; they were all moved to one wing for observation, out of fear of reanimating. Bodies were destroyed immediately upon death, to prevent them from returning. Patients whose treatment required medicine were the next to suffer; with supply lines cut off, the hospital's remaining stockpiles started to run out. Within three weeks, hundreds turned to dozens.
Ace washed her hands, then her face, the cold water bringing her to her senses, helping her force the last few months' tragedies from her mind. It was part of her routine, like back before the outbreak; a few minutes' time to gather her thoughts, focus, prepare herself for the person depending on her in the next room. These days, there were fewer and fewer lives for her to save, and they grew that much more precious with each one she lost.
She left the sink and entered the adjoining room, Pasquale sitting on one of the beds, the left leg of his pants rolled up past the knee, exposing a deep gash across his calf. Donna was dabbing the wound with a cloth, pouring hydrogen peroxide over the cut to disinfect it. The solution ran down his leg, mixing with the blood already pooled on the floor. Ace noticed the trail of red dots leading from the hallway to the bench he was sitting on. She wondered how much blood he'd lost.
Donna saw Ace enter the room, giving her a worried look before walking to the doorway. "I'll be just outside if you need a hand with anything," she said.
"Thanks," Ace replied. Donna walked out into the hallway, closing the door behind her. Donna was a petite blonde from the next town over, an accountant, who just happened to be in the area when things got bad. She'd been with the group since the beginning; good natured and kind, Ace found herself thankful she was still around.
Ace turned to the young man on the table. A crude tourniquet fashioned from a belt had helped slow the bleeding. She brought one of the halogen lamps closer, inspecting the wound to be sure it was clean. The cut would require stitches; she'd have to look around for a needle.
"What happened?" she asked, as she started rummaging through the shelves and trays of medical supplies. The ICU was a mess, full of medical equipment and supplies, tools and food rations. It turned into a jumble of anything deemed to be useful during the chaotic days of the evacuations.
"We were down by the station, going through abandoned luggage. Most of the shops and homes along the way have already been cleaned out, so we were hoping maybe people had packed some useful supplies for the evacuations, left them behind in the panic. We found some food, but it wasn't much. It started to get dark, so we headed back, and ran into a group of those... things."
Ace found a needle, still sealed. Perfect. She kept going through the shelving units as Pasquale continued; the lantern provided barely enough light for her to make out medical supplies from everything else.
"We hid inside a coffee shop hoping they'd pass. There were so many of them. More than we'd seen before. We couldn't get back out to the street, and the back door was locked. We hid inside, for what felt like hours."
As Ace rummaged through the shelves, she accidentally tipped over a tray of garage tools that had no business being in a medical room. A ratchet fell loose, followed by a loud CLANK as it skipped off the lower shelves and onto the floor. She set the tool tray aside, continuing her search.
"James knocked into a bookcase while looking for the keys to the back door. It fell over, smashed the glass display. The closest ones heard it, but once they came to the shop, started banging on the glass, all the others started to gather as well. We knew it was only a matter of time before they broke the glass, so we decided to run for it while there were only a few by the store. Donna smashed the shop window with a chair, forcing two of them back as we scrambled out. I cut myself on one of the pieces as I made my way out."
Ace finally found the medical thread tucked away behind a box of latex gloves. She walked back over to the table, looking at Pasquale's face briefly as she started patching the gash in his leg.
"I stumbled forward, and one of those things grabbed me. Donna smashed it with the chair as she and James came through the broken window, and we ran down the street. We ducked behind a car and James got his belt on my leg to slow the bleeding. We made our way back as quickly as we could, but we had to lay low most of the time. They were everywhere."
Ace cut the surgical thread, inspecting her stitching. It wasn't her best work, but for half asleep and barely any lighting, it was a pretty good job. She wrapped it in gauze, hoping it would be enough to stop the bleeding and prevent any infection. "How's it feel?" she said, standing up.
"Hurts like hell, but... it'll be fine, I'm sure. Thanks." He looked up at her sheepishly, and Ace grinned back, satisfied in her work. His took a deep sigh, the crooked smile leaving his face. "There's something else."
He took off the right sleeve of his overshirt. Ace went pale as she saw the unmistakable arc of puncture wounds on his upper arm. He'd been bitten.
"The one at the coffee shop, the one that grabbed me. I didn't even feel it at the time. Must have gotten me through the shirt."
Her mind raced, dozens of thoughts at once, trying to come up with options. She pored over years of medical study, bouncing from one procedure to the next as she eliminated options one by one. She didn't have the equipment or supplies to attempt a blood transfusion. Amputation was a grisly thought, and it had been hours; the virus no doubt had already spread.
Antibiotics? Would they even work? The virus was flu-like in nature, and later stage symptoms mimicked those of pneumonia. Could she find enough lying around? Was it already too late? She put her hand to his forehead; he already felt warm. Her mind wandered, desperate to form a plan. It spread through the blood. It attacked the brain, or so they assumed. How else could they retain motor function after turning into one of those... she didn't want to think about that possibility.
Maybe she could head this thing off, treat the symptoms she knew were coming. At least slow its progress, buy him some time. ANYTHING.
Basic motor function remained, while higher functions were affected. That pointed to the frontal lobe. Encephalitis? Meningitis? She'd need a CT scan or MRI to even have a shot at guessing this, and that was impossible without power. Even with scans, starting treatment would be guesswork. Antibiotics might not work; Anti-viral medicine maybe? Could she even find any?
Ace's head was flooded with memories. Reading charts, X-rays, MRI scans from the work she'd assisted on as part of her residency. The patients she'd seen lost in her first year after graduation. The exams she took, identifying various parts of the brain, their function. Identifying major blood vessels, like the brachial artery, running just an inch under the bite mark right in front of her.
She remembered her first year studying abroad, how excited she was, those days before other peoples' lives depended on the knowledge she was so hungry for. How she made the trip over from the East coast of the US, leaving her parents behind for the opportunity of a lifetime. Not only to follow her dreams of studying medicine and seeing the world, but a chance to reconnect with her family back home in Italy - family she'd only seen in photographs until then. Her Uncle Giuseppe, with his broad shoulders and thick beard, working on his cars like in the stories Dad always told. Aunt Teresa, her long brown hair and warm ssmile, always out on walks around the city, always returning with bread or chocolate, something wonderful to make the whole house smell lovely.
And her cousin, Pasquale, who was presently looking up at her from a hospital bed with reassuring eyes.
Ace put her hand on his shoulder, fighting back tears. She'd lost contact with her parents in the US shortly after the incident, when the phones went dead, and in the chaos she never found out if her Aunt and Uncle were evacuated. The last family she had in the world was sitting right there in front of her - and she knew she was about to lose him, too.
He had made his peace on the way back from the coffee shop, not letting himself fall into that false hope that maybe, just maybe, she'd have some magic pill or a trick up her sleeve to make this go away. The look on her face simply stated what he already knew.
He patted her hand, forcing himself to smile again. "Hey, it's ok. It's just my time, I guess." Then, looking to change the mood, "it hasn't been all bad, right? We got to see each other more these last few months than when you were busy with school."
Ace chuckled, her face a mix of laughter and tears as he teased her about all those long nights spent studying. Right now, she was wishing she'd blown off maybe just one or two of those weekends and done something with her cousin instead. Catch a movie, drive around town. Browse that cute little book store he was always talking about. Anything.
"I don't want them to know. Not just yet," Pasquale continued. "The last few weeks have been rough. We just now found some clothes and supplies, I don't want them thinking I died just to bring some things back. I don't want them thinking about that when they eat a warm meal, or put on a winter coat. I want them to enjoy those things. The winter's going to be hard enough as it is. Just... promise me, when the time comes, you won't let me end up like them."
Ace took a deep breath, taking in what her cousin was really asking for, then nodding her promise back to him. Even with his fate sealed, he was still thinking of the others.
Even early in the crisis, Pasquale had risen to the occasion. While Ace did what she could for those indoors, the sick and injured, her cousin spent the days outdoors, coordinating survivors, attempting to help distribute the water and food rations. After they were cut off, a lot of the survivors turned to him for leadership, and he used his charisma and pleasant demeanor to help hold the group together; even through the worst of it, even those awful first weeks when they saw so many die, saw so many come back from death.
Within weeks of the incident, the hospital's population dwindled from a few hundred to fewer than thirty. Some went out looking for supplies, and never returned. They had several suicides. Over the months, those thirty faded to seven. That was all that was left of them now.
Henri was a fellow student, a quiet French kid of African descent, and the two had become good friends over the course of several classes. Mika was Russian, a little older - mid thirties, maybe? - he was quiet, and spoke English well, if through a thick accent. From what little he shared, they gathered he was a tourist who simply ended up in Milan when everything happened. Donna, the accountant, and Daniel and James - lifelong friends on a two-month trek across Europe, in Milan when everything went to hell.
Ace, of course, had been working at the hospital all along. Pasquale had made his way there on the third day; his mother and father had been evacuated from their rural town a few miles away, and he'd stayed to look after the house and neighbors before coming to check on Ace. It was impossible with the commotion to track down a straight answer from the military, if his parents had been airlifted out or not. He spent the next few days at the hospital, helping with odd jobs, using his down time to try to track down his parents whereabouts. A few days after that, they were cut off from the rest of the world.
They stood there for a few quiet moments, Ace contemplating how much time he had; how long the group could hold itself together after he was gone. Only then did she realize the tranquil silence filling the room. She glanced to the windows; the storm had finally let up, raindrops perfectly still on the panes, each one capturing a tiny sliver of the full moon. In that moment, even knowing her cousin's fate, she felt almost at peace, as if reassured by the quiet.
That moment was punctured by two gunshots. Then another. Ace ran to the door, with Pasquale limping behind her. She threw open the door to the hallway, reflections of one of the halogen lamps dancing off the pastel walls and tiled floor. Henri was sprinting down the hall towards them, more gunshots echoing behind him.
"We have company."
Pasquale braced himself in the doorway. "What happened?"
"Survivors. Two of them. They came in through the atrium, smashed through the front doors we chained up. One of them got grabbed as they crawled inside. Mika covered them from the second floor with the rifle, but the guy's hurt bad." Ace and Pasquale knew what opening those front doors meant. Henri saw the look on their faces. "We need to go. NOW."
Ace ran down the hallway to her office room, hearing Henri behind her, asking Pasquale about his leg. She barged through the door, setting her flashlight on the desk, changing quickly into heavier clothes. Sweatpants and slippers weren't going to cut it outdoors. She threw on a pair of cargo pants - two sizes two big, but still the best fit she could find from what they'd scavenged - and a pair of sneakers. The hooded sweatshirt she'd been sleeping in was plenty warm for this time of year. She grabbed her go bag and a heavy coat, almost sprinting out the door before returning to retrieve the flashlight from the desk.
Henri and Pasquale emerged from one of the supply closets, further down the hallway. They'd kept most of their more valuable supplies locked up, in the event they were happened upon by scavengers, or things got to the point that the group started to turn on itself. Each bore a hiking backpack; Henri wore the red one, with medical supplies, batteries, a simple radio, and extra flashlights. Pasquale was hauling the grey pack, with canned food, a simple propane lantern/stove camping kit, and a pack of MREs left behind by the military in the chaos of the failed evacuation.
"Donna's rounding up the others. We're going out the back once we're all there," Henri offered, then to Pasquale, "Mika's got that rifle and a good spot, but with as many as you saw out there last night, he's just buying us a little time."
He unchained the door to the stairwell and entered, peering over the railing, the lamp barely illuminating the next flights down, then the crude barricade behind the door to the ground floor. They were alone. Safe. Ace grabbed the fireaxe from the emergency fire case, heading down the stairs first. Henri followed, with Pasquale behind, taking the steps as quickly as he could manage. They entered the second floor and made their way to the South end.
They'd agreed to meet near the parking deck in case of emergency, everyone agreeing on an escape plan. Go out the back, take the parking deck down to the lot. Open areas and decent visibility meant a better chance of making it out and getting away. The sliding glass doors had long since been boarded and barricaded, but the emergency exit was still a way out - a metal door with a crash bar on the inside and no handle on the outside, perfect for one-way travel.
Donna was there already, along with James and Daniel. Donna and James wore their bailout backpacks; Daniel carried an orange duffel bag, filled with an assortment of matchbooks, lighters, lighter fluid, some pre-treated fireplace logs, even a flare gun. Anything that could start a fire.
"Go go go go f***ing go!" Mika's voice came up the hallway. In the darkness, the group could see a pair of figures, one limping, the other helping them along - flanked by the silhouette of Mika running, the beam from a flashlight dancing wildly along the wall to his left.
Henri and Ace opened the emergency door, going through first. The others stayed by the doorway for a moment, waiting for Mika and the strangers to catch up.
"You guys alright?" Donna asked, as the pair hobbled into the light of her lantern. A short young man, leaning on a taller woman for support.
"No, but... we're alive," the woman said, turning to Mika, "Thanks to your friend here."
"Do not mention it," Mika replied in his heavy Russian accent. He remained at the back, keeping his gun aimed down the hallway as the others made their way out to the garage. It was a simple hunting rifle, some Italian equivalent of a Remington .223, plain wood stock and no scope, a tiny flashlight duct taped to the barrel providing a token amount of light wherever Mika was aiming it. The light was narrow, but it shone a fair distance down the hallway. It was better than nothing.
Pasquale was already through the door, followed by the strangers, then Donna, and finally Mika. He waited for the door to slam shut with a solid THUNK, sounding the point of no return, before joining the rest of the group. He scanned the darkness of the parking deck with his rifle, the tiny beam growing faint as it traced across abandoned cars from a distance. The group began walking down the stairs to the ground level, Henri and Ace in front to make sure it was safe.
"I'm Elena. This is my brother Carlo," the woman introduced herself and the injured man.
"I'm Donna," the blonde introduced herself, keeping her voice barely above a whisper, not knowing if they were along in the garage. "This is James, Daniel," she continued, pointing to the rest of the group. "Henri, Pasquale, Mika." The Russian, glanced over while keeping his rifle aimed to their flank. He took his hand off the stock, long enough to wave politely, covering the top of the stairs as the rest of the group reached the bottom level. "And Ace. She's our doctor."
"Doctor?" Carlo perked up, then to Elena, "do you think she can..."
An uncomfortable silence. Mika glanced at Carlo, before finally speaking up.
"He's been bit."
The group stopped in their tracks, Ace in particular fearing what might come next.
Carlo felt all eyes on him. "I... I don't know... it might not be that bad--"
"Whoa, WHOA," James chimed in. "If he's bit, we can't bring him along with us."
"Why?" Donna asked. "He seems fine ri--"
"You know damn well why. How many did we lose those first few weeks? This is a problem waiting to happen, and we have enough to worry about right now."
Ace moved to the back of the group, kneeling in front of Carlo. Pulling up his pant leg revealed a grisly sight, torn flesh and a gaping wound on his calf. Her heart sank; whether or not he'd been bitten was no longer in doubt.
"Aww, JESUS," added Daniel, only adding to Elena and Carlo's anxiety. Then, looking around the group, "We have to leave him."
Elena pleaded, "Isn't there something we can... someway we--"
"No, he's only going to slow us down," Daniel insisted. "We can't risk it."
"What about him," asked Carlo, pointing to Pasquale. "He's hurt too, are you going to leave him behind?"
"He's not bit!" Henri countered.
Pasquale looked at Ace, his face pale. He turned away from the argument; it could just as easily be his fate on trial, not this stranger's.
Elena looked to Ace hopefully, the look on her face asking for help she couldn't find the words for.
"I am sorry, I truly am," Mika added, joining the group from the stairs, "but there is nothing we can do for him. If he comes with us, he will only die later, and come back as one of those things. If he stays, at least the rest of us have a better chance."
"No," Ace chimed in, surprising even herself as the words came out. "He's still one of us. We do what we can to give him as much time as he has left." She knew the words were more meant for her cousin than Carlo.
All eyes were on Ace. Carlo broke the long silence. "I mean, she's the doctor. Can we... all... you know, just get moving?"
"I... I mean... sure," James was the first to speak up.
"I don't like it, but... I trust her judgement," Mika added his support. "She says he's with us, then he's with us."
"You know what?" Daniel interrupted, drawing a pistol and firing twice. Carlo jerked under Elena's arm as the bullets struck his chest, dropping limply to the ground at her feet. The gunshots echoed violently within the concrete parking deck, followed immediately by Elena's agonized scream.
Ace's eyes went wide in disbelief. Daniel pointed the gun at her, screaming. "YOU WANTED TO BRING THESE TWO ALONG? YOU WANT TO PUT US ALL AT RISK?"
"WHAT THE F*** ARE YOU DOING?" Mika yelled as he trained the rifle on Daniel's face, the flashlight illuminating his face from the side, casting the crazed look on his face in bright tones and sharp shadows. His half-lit face terrified Ace almost more than the handgun.
"She's going to get us killed!" He yelled to the group without turning his face, his eyes locked on Ace.
She wondered if he was right. Everything she'd done, everything she knew, conditioned her to never give up on a patient until all hope was lost. That refusal to compromise had lead to two bite victims remaining in the group. Self-doubt started to creep into her emotions, wondering if the decisions that kept her feeling human had placed them all at greater risk of the undead.
"She's been trying to keep us ALIVE, you f***ing maniac!" Mika yelled back, his grip on the rifle tightening. "Did you forget the time she re-set Donna's shoulder after the fall? How she patched you up when that pile of scrap came down on you?"
"That was different!" Daniel yelled, aiming the pistol at Mika. Ace gasped as the gun's aim left her, only then realizing she'd been holding her breath the whole time.
"We were out in the middle of nowhere. You were hurt, bad," Mika recalled the events from months earlier. "Your head was busted open and you were unconscious, and she dragged you half a block to that gas station to patch you up, because she refused to leave you there. And you think SHE'S going to get you killed?"
"I wasn't bit!" Daniel yelled back, jerking the pistol in the air, each word emphasized by emphatically pointing the gun at the Russian defending Ace with his words, and his rifle if needed.
"Holy s***, holy s***," James muttered to himself, having just seen his best friend kill another man. Donna was behind Daniel, pressed up against a car; her face was pure terror, and it was clear she was hoping Daniel had simply forgotten she was present, and wouldn't turn to her next.
"We don't have the time for this," Pasquale said, as calmly as he could manage. "We need to be out of here. Those things are going to be here any minute. It's dark out there, and we need to make every second count if we're going to--"
"And you?" Daniel glared back at Pasquale. "You were out there last night. Maybe you brought them here? Did you lead them to us?" It looked like paranoia was starting to take over the man holding the pistol - not a good combination.
"You know that's not true. We needed supplies. We were running low of food," he said pointing behind Daniel, "James brought back a whole bag full of--"
"Yea, he had to carry it, after one of those things grabbed you. Were you bit?"
Ace's heart practically stopped beating.
Pasquale answered hesitantly. "I... Look, I--"
"WERE YOU BIT?" Daniel screamed, turning the gun on Pasquale.
"Dan, calm down," James tried to reason with him. "You don't know--"
"I DO KNOW," Daniel insisted, turning to face his friend. "And if you chickens***s won't do anything about it," as he turned back to Pasquale, raising the pistol, "I will."
The last thing Daniel heard was a woman's scream; the last thing he saw, out of the corner of his eye, was the doctor rushing him. The last thing he felt was the cold steel of the fireaxe as Ace buried it in his neck.
Daniel dropped to the ground instantly, the handgun skipping across the concrete floor. The axe was still stuck in him, pulling Ace - still holding the handle - almost off balance. She jerked the axe loose from his neck in a spray of blood, her eyes wide and almost hyperventilating, grappling with the fact that she just took the life of a man she herself had saved.
All eyes were on Ace right now, but her mind was elsewhere. She found herself suddenly and irreversibly thrust into a world she couldn't comprehend. All her life, she had wanted to help people, to save lives. And now she had killed a man. She knew things had gotten bad "out there" following the collapse, and she now knew what that kind of desperation could drive a person to do. She found herself in a grey area, beyond right and wrong, beyond good and evil; now there was only kill or be killed.
He'd killed Carlo. He threatened her and her cousin. Now he was dead, and she and Pasquale were still alive. Did that make it right?
"Oh my God," Donna chimed in, barely louder than a whisper. Ace had almost forgotten she was there.
"Guys," Pasquale said trying to get their attention.
"I.. I don't... what the f***," James stammered, staring at the woman standing over his friend's body, blood dripping from the axe she held.
"Guys," Pasquale again announced.
"Oh God, Daniel. What... why?" Henri asked out loud, to no one in particular.
"GUYS!" Pasquale bellowed, finally getting the group's attention. They turned to him, then followed his gaze to Elena, who was holding the gun Daniel had dropped. She was staring blankly at Carlo's body; Mika, behind her, trained the rifle on her, just to be safe.
Elena looked up, tears streaming down her cheeks, looking from one face to the next. "Why? Why did he have to kill him?"
"Elena, I'm--" Ace tried to comfort her, taking two steps towards Elena before she raised her gun to Ace. Ace froze, putting up her hand in a sign of peace, only slightly more afraid of the firearm being held in grief than when it was held in anger. "I'm sorry. I did what I could - I wanted to keep him with us. I did." She walked forward, slowly, looking into Elena's eyes.
Ace reached the grieving woman, still holding the handgun, knowing she was gambling with her own life. Elena stood there a moment before collapsing, throwing her arms around Ace, sobbing audibly and uncontrollably into her shoulder. Ace put her free arm around her, only barely aware she was still holding the fireaxe. The sounds of Elena crying suddenly gave way to something much worse.
It started as a thump, then another. Then moaning. Then more and more, louder and louder, the sound of dozens of hands battering the boarded glass from inside the hospital's ground floor. One moaning voice turning into a sea of anguish as the rest of the horde joined in, telltale signs that the walking dead were only separated from them by a few sheets of plywood - and an emergency exit door that was easily opened from the inside.
They'd already lost invaluable time to begin with; gunshots and yelling no doubt gave the undead a clear target to descend upon. Like the defenses constructed upstairs, they were now at a barricade that was meant to keep them from getting inside - while making it easy for those inside to get out. The first thumps could be heard against the metal exit door.
Ace felt the axe taken from her grip, watching as Pasquale hobbled to the door, leaving his backpack at her feet. He leaned into it as it finally gave way, one of the shamblers having hit the crashbar, releasing the latch. The door lurched behind Pasquale as he leaned into it.
"Go!" he urged, yelling to the group but looking directly at Ace.
"Pasquale, this is crazy," Henri protested. "You're in no shape--"
"GO!" Pasquale yelled, practically commanding them this time.
Ace nodded as she grabbed his pack. "Come, on, we need to get out of here. Outside! Now!"
James and Donna, closest to the exit, made their way out first. Henri grabbed Daniel's orange duffel bag, following with the lantern, hoping it wouldn't attract any more of those things, if the gunshots had alerted any outside to their presence.
Elena stood there, looking at Carlo, Ace pulling her by the arm, urging her to move. Mika came up behind her, taking the pistol from her hand without her even registering. "I'm sorry, I know this hurts, but we need to leave, right now, or you'll be joining him all too soon."
Elena relented, whispering a soft "goodbye" to her dead brother, turning to join the group as Mika lead her outside.
Ace turned to her cousin, searching for what she knew would her final words to him.
"Mi ricordero di te," she spoke, saying goodbye to the last member of her family, in the language of their heritage.
"Lo so. I know. I'll remember you too," he replied, smiling one last time, gripping the axe with both hands as he leaned his back into the door. "Go. Keep them alive. They need you now, more than ever."
Ace started to walk, finally breaking eye contact with her cousin and committing to a full sprint to join with the rest of the group.
They were already gathered outdoors, in the public parking area. Henri had turned off the lantern.
"Movement. Not sure who, or what. Not worth risking it," Mika explained. "At the edge of the lot, in front of us."
"Well, we're about to have a lot of movement, right BEHIND us, so we can't stay here." Ace tried not to think about how much time Pasquale would buy them, because that meant thinking about... focus. She needed to concentrate on what she could do in the present, and not grieve over things that were out of her control now.
They'd siphoned all the cars' gas to keep the generators running, but it quickly became obvious it wouldn't last them very long. They shut off the generators months ago, storing the fuel upstairs in preparation for the winter. It didn't do them any good now; the fuel was back upstairs, except for two 3-liter canteens in the orange bag. It would be enough to get them out of here - if they had the keys to any of the cars, or knew how to hotwire a car. Ace glanced at Henri, hoping no one would ask him any stupid questions.
Making a break for it in total darkness was a gamble; if they ran into trouble, they could easily find themselves surrounded.
Mika checked his rifle and pockets. "I have forty rounds. That might be enough to clear us a path," as he looked out at the maze of side streets, parked cars, and barricaded alleys past the hospital lot. "Then again, it might not be."
"Well, we're definitely not going back inside," added Henri, looking over his shoulder at the doomed hospital, then back across the lot. "North? West? South?
"We were up North last night, when we saw that horde," James added. "My guess would be, there's more of them that way."
"West leads to the harbor. We could find a boat, if there are any left," Donna suggested. "Anyone know anything about boats?"
"I know we're f***ed if we don't find one down there," Ace added. "Then we end up with those things to the North, more from the hospital to our East, and freezing water to the West. I don't like those odds."
"South then," added Mika. "The highway leads to the airport and capital, maybe we could find some supplies at the other evacuation zones."
"That's a hell of a walk," Donna replied. "Any options? If not, we better get a move on, and soon."
Ace scanned the lot one last time, beaming as something caught her eye. "Cover me," she whispered to Mika as she slapped him on the shoulder, taking off from behind the abandoned car.
"Where the hell is she going?" asked James, as Mika steadied himself against the car, scanning the lot ahead of them, as well as to the side Ace was making her way to.
She approached the tram, one of those tiny baggage-cart looking trains they use at airports. The hospital had bought one cheap and converted the rear carts to seat four people each. They'd been using it to take sick children on daytime tours of the waterfront, getting them out for a few hours if the weather was nice and their health permitted. It was called a cheap publicity stunt by the local papers, but the kids loved it. It was electric, so there was no gas for them to steal last spring. She'd almost forgotten it even existed, until just now.
Ace checked the controls; the key was missing. Obviously. Think, THINK. One of the nurses, Rosalia, usually took the kids out. She parked outdoors ever since someone scraped her car in the garage one day, a little blue car. She looked around the lot. It was Italy; ALL the cars looked tiny, and they were all the same color in the middle of the night. If only... wait. One of the guards kept a spare set, just in case they had to move the tram to make room for deliveries to the basement.
Ace hurried over to the security booth at the edge of the lot; Mika kept his rifle up, tracking her movement. He had switched off the flashlight; it was useless at that distance, and would only attract attention. Ace peeked through the glass to make sure the booth was empty before she slipped inside, checking the tiny countertop. The surface was a mess, a cup of coffee left sitting there had completely soaked through the flimsy paper, leaving the countertop covered in a sticky black film. Aside from a newspaper from months ago, there was nothing else up top.
Ace started to rummage through the booth; the key rack was empty, the one drawer below the countertop only held a pack of gum and some other garbage. No keys. Her heart sank, until she noticed the jacket draped over the chair's back. She dove into the pocket, desperately fishing through the fabric before hearing a slight jingle. Out came her hand, clutching a set of small, silver keys, on a hospital insignia keychain.
She ran back across the lot, trying not to make too much commotion, leaning into the tram driver's seat. The key slid into the ignition, turned, and... nothing. She tried the key a few more times; the simple dashboard displays lighting up, but the engine wouldn't engage. She cursed under her breath.
There was a loud bang behind her; then another. Then the sound of glass. She couldn't see into the parking deck, but she could hear the sounds of the undead making their way past the barricade. Then a dull thump, as if a body had hit the ground. And another. They didn't have much time now.
Ace turned back to the tram, letting loose a string of Italian profanity as the kept working the key. She looked to the group, still huddled behind the car, as they glanced between the sounds coming from the parking garage and back at her, looking for direction, an idea of what they should do.
Ace turned back to the tram in frustration, going over all the controls before noticing it was in neutral; someone must have shifted it to push it out of the way back when people were being evacuated. She put it back into Park, turned the key - and the motor hummed to life.
"Come on!" she yelled to the rest of the group, motioning frantically with her arms. James, carrying his and Pasquale's backpacks, arrived first, throwing the supplies in the first cart. Donna and Henri followed, filling the second cart. The seats were meant for children; they could barely fit two per car. Elena was next, taking the last seat in the third car, with Mika following. The Russian jumped onto the front of the third car, slapping his hands on the flimsy roof in the international language of "let's go already," before bracing himself and aiming the rifle ahead, just in case.
Ace turned as she heard a metallic sound from the garage - like a fireaxe being dropped on the concrete floor. She closed her eyes, saying a little prayer, knowing painfully well what that meant. She engaged the tram, breathing a little sigh of relief as it rolled forward, slowly but steadily, never looking back. It wasn't fast, and it hadn't been charged in months. But it beat walking, and it was fast enough to out pace those things. It would at least get them far away from here. They'd live to see another day. At least, most of them would.
Hours later, making their way along the highway, the tiny train finally rolled to a stop. It was mid morning by then, clear skies and a gentle breeze; at least they'd have a warm sun and plentiful light for continuing on foot. Ace glanced back at the crew behind her, wondering how many would still be there with her when this was all over.
James had fallen asleep on his side; Donna has fallen asleep sitting up, and was now hunched forward in her seat. Henri was half-awake, unable to rest on their trip, willing himself to stay awake in the event Ace needed help with something. Elena was curled up, her face buried in the damp sleeve of her sweater, having cried herself to sleep hours ago. Even Mika had returned to the cart once they were clear of the city, vacating the make-shift sniper's perch of the cart's roof once the first thirty minutes of highway travel proved uneventful. He'd fallen asleep sitting upright with his arms crossed.
"Hey," Ace announced, slapping her hand on the side of the tram, the flimsy metal panels echoing a WHUMP WHUMP under her hand. One by one, the rest of the group woke. James first, opening his eyes, then drifting off for a moment before waking up more fully, the change in sunlight and scenery shocking him back to his senses. Henri got out, stretching his legs, sore from cramming himself into a child's seat. Donna woke up, off balance, almost falling out the side of the tram car before catching herself on the seat in front of her. Elena rolled over, first looking at Ace, then the sunny sky above, then back to Ace, the first glimmers of hope returning to her eyes as she realized they'd made it out. Mika awoke suddenly, rubbing his nose several times, then crawled up to the roof of the cart, holding a hand over his eyes to block out the sun as he surveyed their surroundings.
The highway was mostly trees to either side, and littered with abandoned vehicles the entire length. The tram, thankfully, was small enough that Ace had managed to navigate it along the side of the highway without having to risk taking it off-road. Further ahead of them, the terrain dipped, giving them a decent vantage point - and revealing the airport off in the distance.
They grabbed their gear and started the walk, Ace taking the lead and the rest falling in behind her. It was probably ten miles still, but if they hurried, they might be able to find shelter before dark. Over the past six months, they'd gotten accustomed to life at the hospital, harsh as it was. The territory ahead of them now was uncharted, but they were confident as they followed Ace; after all, they knew they had a leader who would do anything to keep them safe.