Silence used to be a rare thing. True silence, at least. Cars flooded every street, planes roared through the sky, and everybody was always incessantly talking, often about nothing at all. Even supposed quiet places like a library suffered from the clacking of computer keys and the whining of people who had lost their library card for the fourth time. A year ago, modern society had been a noisy one; any break from the clatter would have been welcome. Now, it plagued Jace with fear. From the passenger seat, he could hear and feel every rumble of the pickup's engine, a big powerful V8. It wasn't the loudest engine Jace had ever heard, but in a world of silence, any noise could be heard from a distance, and it didn't take much to get...their attention. For what must have been the dozenth time, Jace looked at the AR15 leaning against the glove compartment. He knew he would only use it if everything went wrong—the rule was to use crossbows whenever possible—but he liked that it was there. The makeshift suppressor on the barrel took away some of the aesthetics, but it didn't need to look pretty. It just had to save his life. “Comin' up,” said Randy, the one driving the Tacoma. Randy was more or less in charge when he joined a supply run, mostly because he had been an Eagle Scout, which was more than anyone else could say. In his early forties, he had a full head of gray hair and piercing brown eyes. Though he'd been overweight, the last year had slimmed him down to a shape that, while not toned, was respectable. Randy turned left onto a new street. The block went down a good thousand feet before ending when it met a perpendicular road. The houses themselves varied from single-story ranch styles to a couple colonial designs; there didn't seem to be a single pattern among them. Every lawn was overgrown sprawling onto the sidewalk. A few of the cars that were parked had windows broken or were turned over. Jace's unease grew, his eyes jumping from shadow to shadow as Randy approached a two-story house near the first intersection. From the back, Jace heard three clacks as the remaining group members checked the chambers of their rifles. Near the doors were Kari and Loren. Kari was about as tall as Jace, around five-eight, her natural blonde hair tied back in a ponytail. A small streak of grease could be seen under her ear, as she'd changed the oil on the Tacoma right before they'd left. On the other side, Loren was half a foot shorter than Kari, but her black hair was tied just the same, as she looked just as confident. Between them, Simon, rail-thin and bespectacled, was muttering to himself. Jace guessed he was trying to remember the plan. A moment later, Randy parked twenty feet from the house on the opposite curb. Jace became distracted by the tree in the yard next to them. One of them could be back there. Attracted by the engine's noise it would come out, make a scene of trying to get in, then more would hear, and more would come, and— “Thermal,” Randy said, whispering unnecessarily. That brought Jace back to the situation. He lifted the thermal camera from his lap, turned it on, and pointed it at the house. Most everything was either a shade of blue or light green; normal for room temperature. “No survivors,” he said, and he thought that was it until, with his heart sinking, he saw a couple of light green blobs move. “Three colds.” “Upper or lower?” Simon asked. Frail though he looked, he was tough, and eager. Like Jace and the women, he was in his mid-twenties—he knew what was waiting. “One on the second floor, two below,” Jace answered, concentrating. It was hard to track them because they were slow, ambling, and so similar-looking to the background. “Looks like the nearest bedroom and...I can't tell on the first floor.” “Alright,” Randy said. “Up and over it is.” With that, he put the truck in Drive again and crossed to the house, mounting the curb and pulling right along side it. Jace winced at every noise. Without needing a word, the group quickly exited the truck. They were all armed similarly: a crossbow with their rifles strapped around their backs, and a suppressed pistol resting in a thigh holster. Kari had a small utility belt around her waist, and Jace had a light backpack. All of them were wearing cargo pants and light jackets, with several layers of duct tape over both shoulders and wrapped around
ankles and forearms. With practiced ease, Loren and Simon climbed into the bed of the pickup and lifted a ladder while Jace and Kari circled the truck, keeping an eye on their surrounding with their crossbows up. Rnady did the same from atop the cab. Loren and Simon leaned the ladder against the house, bracing it against the far side of the truckbed. Loren signaled they were done with a quick whistle, almost a chirp, and became the first one to climb it. For a moment, Jace reflected on how strange it must look, but they had learned their lesson before: putting a ladder on the ground was dangerous. Once Loren had made it up and signaled the roof was clear with another whistle, each member proceeded in turn: Simon, then Randy, followed by Kari and finally Jace, who made sure to close the tailgate once he was in the truckbed. Before Kari had climbed up, he had tied a lengthy rope to the truck's undercarriage, most of which was looped around his shoulder. Reaching the roof, he handed the rope to Simon, who took the lead across the roof as the rope continued to trail off behind them. It wasn't easy, walking on the sloped surface, but they'd all had their practice, both out on runs and back at the complex. As quietly as they could, they crossed, Jace making sure to keep an eye on the streets below, to see if anything was moving, attracted by their noise. So far, he saw nothing. At the other edge of the roof, Simon stopped, handed his crossbow to Randy, and looked down while holding out his hand. After a moment of nothing happening, he looked back at Kari and gestured again. “What?” Kari asked, her tone innocent. Simon seemed taken aback. “The...window punch,” he said, as if it were obvious, which it was. “Oh, yeah, I was waiting for 'please',” Kari said, smiling widely. Hands on hips, rope still over his shoulder, Simon gave Kari an impressively unamused look. “We don't have time for this,” he said. “It's just one word,” Kari replied. “Every. Moment. Counts,” Simon said, becoming more annoyed by the moment. Rolling her eyes, Kari pulled the small metal punch from a compartment on her belt, tossing it to Simon. This made Simon recoil, and for a moment it looked like he was going to fall off the roof before he regained his balance. “I'm just trying to keep a little part of civilization alive,” Kari said. “Me too,” said Simon, mostly to himself as he tossed the rope over the edge of the house. “Only you can eat what I'm working on.” Carefully, he lowered himself over the edge, walking down the wall of the house. It was only a few feet until he found purchase on the windowsill, but without a belay or any safety system, the feat was still impressive. From above, the rest of the group watched as Simon pushed the punch up against the window, and a moment later it shattered into a thousand tempered pieces. Simon was through the window almost before the glass had finished falling. This was the dangerous part, the part where they were separated the most. Still, Simon was well-armed even without his crossbow, and there was nothing to indicate the room was occupied. Nevertheless, when he stuck his head out the window and whispered “All clear,” everyone breathed a sigh of relief. It took only another thirty seconds for the rest of the group to slide down the rope and, with some minor assistance from Simon, make it into the house. They were clearly in the master bedroom, a dusty king-sized bed taking up the center of the room. The closet was distinguished by the slinding glass doors; though the clothes were moldy, it wasn't threatening. Two doors were on the opposite wall, presumable one to the bathroom and another to the hallway. Jace had no idea if they'd been closed before he'd arrived, but he knew that Simon would've shut them as gently as possible if they'd been open. Safety was everything. “Bathroom's clear; hallway's on the left,” Simon whispered, indicating he had needed to shut the doors. Randy took the lead, crossbow pressed against his shoulder. Behind him, Jace and the others tried to stay two and two over each of Randy's shoulders, in case they all needed to shoot quickly.
Everything indicated they wouldn't, but it was too easy to underestimate. Jace had seen good people die when that happened. Randy opened the door, attempting to be stealthy, but Jace grimaced when the hinge creaked. The hallway was twenty or thirty feet long, with three doors to the right and one at the end. The stairs were about teen feet down and to the left. Jace was glad to see the hallway was carpeted; it meant less noise. “Jace and Loren clear upstairs,” Randy said. It didn't have the tone of an order—it sounded more like he was predicting the future—but there was no disagreement nevertheless. “We'll deal with the ground floor.” With Randy still leading, he, Kari, and Simon carefully walked to the staircase, scanned the area below, and slowly began to make their way downstairs. Jace looked over at Loren, who looked up at him. “So...” Jace began, “should I...?” Loren rolled her eyes, reaffirmed her grip on her bow, and opened the door to the closest room. Quick to cover her, first confirming there was nothing in the room—a bathroom, as it turned out —and then watching the hallway while Loren tried to quickly see if there was anything useful, Jace berated himself. He knew Loren was just as capable as anyone, and he liked that she was there because she was an excellent shot. Jace couldn't help but feel responsible for the young Asian woman, though, if only because he'd been the one to find her and bring her to the safety of the group. He had to get over it, he knew. She'd certainly done more than make up for it. The next two rooms were spare bedrooms, and they were devoid of threat—Loren and Jace cleared them both in a minute, during which time Jace heard two small snaps from downstairs. That left the final room, the room Jace had seen a cold blob move as they'd arrived. Taking a deep breath, he mentally braced himself. No matter how many times he did this, it never got easier. Loren, being shorter, was in front and opened the door. This was another bedroom, but there was a person standing near the foot of the bed. Rather, what was left of a person. Turning at the noise of the door, it revealed a gray, decaying face to match the rest of its body. Its clothing—a yellow sundress—was dirty and hung loosely on its frame, a skeleton clearly visible underneath the dry, taut skin. The eyes were cloudy, the teeth decaying, the tongue black. Upon seeing them, it opened its mouth wider and rasped, beginning to move toward them. A moment later an arrow had pierced its head and it had fallen to the floor—Jace felt like he saw it even before he heard the snap of Loren's bow. Not hesitating, the two entered the room, sweeping it with their eyes and weapons to make sure it was alone. Once they were sure, Jace kept an eye on the hallway again while Loren retrieved her arrow from its skull. A small pool of sickly, congealed blood was beginning to pool on the floor from the wound. “I will never,” Loren said, “get used to that smell.” It was musky and thick, more potent than garbage. Death without the smell of funereal flowers. Revulsed, Jace nevertheless put his bow on the bed and picked the corpse up, loading it—Her, Jace thought, for it had once been a young woman—over one shoulder. More quickly now that they were sure the house was safe, Loren led Jace out of the bedroom and downstairs, stopping at the landing to whistle. When Randy responded, indicating the ground level was clear, the two made a right and walked into the living room, where the other two corpses—an older lady and man, possibly the girl's parents—had already been tossed. The others joined them, smiles on their faces. Jace and Randy shook hands while Kari and Loren laughed with each other. “How many?” Jace asked Simon. “Just the two you see before you,” Simon said. Jace took off his pack and pulled out a small brown book. Flipping through pages that were nothing but tally marks and summations, he found the uncompleted page and scratched in three quick marks. He'd do the math later. Within ten minutes, the group had gotten bags from the truck and looted the place for all it was worth, taking canned food, toiletries, clothes, and even disassembling some of the plumbing. By the time all the bags had been loaded into the bed of the pickup, the rope had been untied from the truck
and packed away, and Kari had spray-painted a blue X on the gutter pipe near the ground—easy to miss, unless you were looking for it. The entire run had taken less than fifteen minutes, and Jace walked back to the Tacoma happy. There was nothing special about them, nor anyone else in the group. Yet,somehow, they were surviving the worst the world had to offer, adapting to survive a terrible shift in the world. As he neared the truck, he heard a twig snap across the street, and turned on instinct. There, approaching from under the tree they had parked next to when they had first arrived, was another zombie, this one a boy no older than twelve. Leaning to one side, just as gray and decayed as the others, he stumbled toward them, seemingly attracted by the noise. Rasping and wheezing, the zombie came out of the shadows as it began to cross the street. Rather than be afraid, Jace was sorry for it. Signaling with a hand to the others that he would take care of it, Jace approached, bow at the ready. Once upon a time this had all been a fiction, something he'd never dreamed he'd actually be doing. He'd been a fan of the zombie culture, watching the movies and reading the comics. All the while he'd never felt sympathy for them—they were dangerous monsters. In some ways, Jace felt that way now. Yet the sorrow lingered. The last year had made it real—he'd seen people turn or torn apart, witnessed firsthand what it took to keep people safe. Even now he worried about what was out there. This was, after all, a boy once. A child. A human being. With a quick pull of the trigger, Jace shot an arrow through its brain. He retrieved it, cleaned the gore off with his sleeve, and got in the truck. On the way back, he took out his book and scratched in another tally mark. One more down.