Dead Heat

2030, Midtown

Dana Layton pounded down the dimly-lit alley after her squad leader, Rick Gallagher. She groaned in frustration as his big frame sailed through the darkened maze of buildings with the grace of a gazelle. Her feet hammered against the concrete while her lungs screamed from the exertion of trying to keep up. She eyed his back, grit her teeth, and pumped her legs harder, determined not to be left behind. The familiar thump-thump of the small unit pack between shoulders eased some of the fear she felt.

She leaped over an over-turned trashcan and landed in a puddle, the weight of her booted feet startling the vermin that had been inside. They scattered in all directions like a fast moving river of black fur, their high-pitched squeals following them into the darkness. She gasped and stumbled when a few of them ran over her feet. Revulsion, thick and beady, raced through her belly, and she pressed a hand to her chest. With trembling fingers, she removed her cap to wipe her brow before she turned, frantically, to see where Rick was. Blinking against the unfamiliar sensation of the vision-enhancing modifications, Dana squinted as Rick's frame shifted a little. He had come to an abrupt halt along the side of a building, no more than a few meters away.

Dana replaced her cap before glancing behind her, the tiny scanners on her eyes taking in every detail of the alley. Shadows seemed to shift and move. She tightened her grip on the Uzi. Several pairs of flat, silvery eyes watched her from the depths, their silent warning evident. Nervous adrenaline flooded her veins, but she pushed it aside to focus on the task at hand. She turned back in time to see Rick disappear around the corner and quickly followed him, tapping a finger against her ear-piece to make sure the device was set on mute.

A frantic call into the city's dispatch center had mobilized her unit into the heart of Chinatown, where a suspected nest of zombies maybe hidden behind the Wen Ho Ming plaza near the main nucleus of the former tourist attraction. A missing persons notification came with the details: young male, late teens or early twenties, of East Asian descent.

Someone was out past curfew.

Dana didn't hold onto much hope that the young man would be found alive. After dark, even though the units were out on regular patrols, zombies came out of whatever hiding place they went to during the day. They roamed in packs, searching for something, anything to relieve their relentless hunger.

Rick moved again, and she followed closely. They slipped deeper into the shadows, careful to keep their steps soft and steady. Rainfall from earlier in the evening stirred up the heavy, cloying stench of produce. Broken pallets, soggy boxes and piles of shredded trash bags littered the tight corridor between buildings. When they rounded another corner, the flashing colors of a neon sign broke through the darkness like a beacon. Static buzzed with each flicker of the light. Sidestepping another mound of trash, they approached building's entrance. When her squad leader paused by the open doorway, she came up beside and followed his gaze down. She drew in a sharp breath and stepped back. The desiccated remains of a human torso lay strewn across the threshold. A large rat crouched atop it, its faded red gaze staring unseeingly as it gnawed on one of the jagged rib bones protruding through tattered flesh. Several roaches, as large as a two-dollar coin, covered its hairless back, no doubt trying to chew through the rat's thick hide. Between gaps in the ribcage, Dana could see where several more rats fed, their movements fluid, their tails curled about them like worms. More roaches crawled over the torso, chittering. Her gaze moved back to rat at the rib-bones. With each frantic tug, the corpse's skin flapped to reveal pale, wiggling maggots. Another rodent squeezed itself from the torn neck area and scurried into the interior of the building, leaving a smear of blood along the dirty tiled floor in its wake.

Her eyes slammed shut. Her stomach twisted, lurched, and sent a knot of acidic bile into her throat. She swallowed several times, so not wanting to barf in front of Rick. Especially not tonight of all nights. Visions of the scene before her replayed themselves in sickening clarity, and her throat worked again, harder. When she opened her eyes, she glanced up at Rick. He met her gaze with a blank expression.

Oh great, she signed inwardly, now he thinks I'm a total loser.

Dana tightened her resolve and blew out a breath. It's now or never. Just as she started to move, the rat atop the torso reared up on its haunches and hissed, sharp gore-stained teeth bared in warning. She jerked back, and before she could say anything, Rick hauled off and kicked it with enough force to send the rodent slamming into the side of a nearby metal bin; the rat's shrill, outraged squeals ended abruptly. The other vermin continued to feed, oblivious to any danger.

A huff of nervous laughter escaped her lips. She glanced up at Rick again. This time, his mouth held a trace of a smile. She stifled a grin before she carefully stepped around the remains to take position on the other side of the doorway. They peered inside, guns raised. Seeing no immediate danger, they lowered their weapons.

Dana caught her breath as the heavy, rancid smell of blood—fresh blood—wafted through the stench of filth and decay. The odor, stronger than that of the torso in front of her, filled her nostrils to curl down in her throat, the aftertaste lingering in her mouth. She raked her teeth over her tongue and turned to spit.

Soft taps against the door-frame prompted her to look back up at Rick. He pointed to his ear and mouthed: Listen.

Dana tilted her head and focused. The faint slurps, gurgles, and frenzied moans of a feeding in progress filtered through the darkness. A sharp, pain-filled screech ripped through the air. Jolted by the sound, she gasped and, without thinking, turned to flee.

She was slammed back against the roughened brick, Rick's forearm pressed across her upper chest. His dark brown eyes blazed into hers, his face etched in anger. Dana quailed under his fury, her own heart hammering a mile a minute. He leaned in closer.

"Are you in or out? Don't waste my time."

She drew in a ragged breath, ready to shout that she wanted to go home when thoughts of failing again assailed her. She couldn't fail again, she just couldn't. Not after Angus...

"I-in..." she nodded jerkily and cleared her throat. "I'm in... s-sorry..."