"Dallas..." Clayton said over the shared comm as he detonated himself. Texas? Fort Worth? Was the man delirious?
The flash came first, bright enough that the cement wreckage of the buildings Parker Grissom was running towards glowed with reflected light even before the blast could be felt. Sensory filters protected the fleeing squad from the deafening eruption of sound and force as Clayton’s Nitro-Thermite charge unleashed a pulse of super-heated force that disintegrated two more skeletal buildings in a flame-tinged molten cataclysm. A roiling mass of orange-white incandescent flames marked the last-stand of Parker Grissom’s team-mate. His burning sacrifice had ignited four more structures, now wreathed in soaring fires. Although the entire squad was equipped with enviro-armor insulated against 200 degree Fahrenheit temperature swings either side of zero, he still felt the heat painfully on his backside as he fled the incendiary eruption.
There would be no pursuit from that particular mob.
"Clayton’s..... Testament... uploaded." Carter confirmed with a glance to his wrist-top as the squad slowed down, to catch their breath. But they would listen to it later.
"Mission first," The Captain reminded them. "Time... to remember him... back in the Preserve."
Just a small rift in his armor. That was the only reason. Stupid accident. The blast had vaporized upwards of two-hundred of their enemy, but the four-man, now three-man squad dared not drop their guard. Training took over though, not allowing Clayton’s loss to weigh on their collective psyches. Almost back at the vehicle. Hopefully, the thing that had tripped off their motion detectors wasn’t still following them.
They had enough to worry about right here in front of them.
The city of Boulder, Colorado had reached a population of millions in the years before E-day. And those millions had never left.
Despite having died.
The symmetrical anatomy of all natural living things was buried beneath masses of festering sores and encrusted tumors-upon-tumors. Each individual wretch was a riotous biological calamity. No natural pestilence could inflict such an overwhelming corruption on living flesh without killing the host. (Not that death mattered to them) Some in the mob had varying numbers of fingers. Most were simply sloughing and peeling like gas-bloated corpses festering in the hot sun. But all had obscene bulges, wart-like protrusions, and milky eyes staring as lifelessly now as when they had been living. If ’living’ was the right word. Those dead eyes glaring at Parker and his team reflected a broken promise; the conceit down through the ages that the dead would have the decency to stay that way.
A luxury that survivors these days could no longer depend on.
"We’ve always known the Elees have a Mass-Control signal, "Captain Jean-Claude Alistair reminded his remaining squad, as if any of them would be surprised anymore to be confronted with a slavering legion hundreds-strong of the living dead between them and their destination.
"Everything here could have been pushed in this direction by one of them. This could be more than it seems, it could be the prelude to another raid." The captain explained. Grissom frowned beneath his sealed helmet. He had believed for some time that the captain had an indecisive tendency. He wasted too much time justifying his decisions. But, after so many years there was almost no one left alive with any of the formalized military training of the United States as it was before E-day. That soldierly discipline was fading, degenerating as surely as the crumbling buildings.
But for now, all that mattered was laying down a corridor of automatic weapons fire to grind these freaks into even deader meat. Grissom’s squad had seen it all; and killed most of it. To his right fought broad-shouldered and gruff-talking Carter. And Captain Alistair, who tended to over explain his line of reasoning, yet they all knew he had personal secrets of his own. And... Clayton who - don’t think about him yet. Time for that... later.
Grissom was as hardened to the mind-numbing horror of his brutal task as if his very soul bore the layer of calcified, tumescent wart-calluses. There was no evasion from their overlapping patterns of fire, forming a blood-drenched kill-zone. But it was more like a black, rotting ichor than blood, at this point. Not that the creatures tried to evade. Here and there an arm exploded. One would be shot through the chest.
The latest among the horrors that Parker Grissom gunned down was a graying mass of tormented flesh. It did not seem to have eyes; only swollen tracts of cancerous tissue obscuring all facial features save for a gaping maw of blackened, jagged teeth. The muzzle of his weapon flashed blue-white as the zombie was torn in half. A poor shot. While the creature no longer possessed the lower half of its body beyond the diaphragm on a human, the attacker seemed to have no awareness of its own dismemberment. Crawling, grasping, and hungering for human flesh, even as its own comrades trampled over it in their haste to feed.
And there were more. The monstrosities that defied biology as they shambled beast-like, in animal ignorance of the humanity they had lost. That was getting harder to accept; that these cancer-crusted horrors had once been men, women, and children. They spilled up from darkened ruins in small gangs of four to five, then growing into a seething mob of groping, skeletal hands, wart-riddled faces, and gangly limbs rotted and wounded down to the bone. Yet still they maintained their obscene mockery of life. Most appeared to be walking corpses but the malignancy that consumed them also produced novel anatomical oddities.
A hunch-backed sub-human with a gnarl of horn-like bone jutting from its shoulder. A bloated, maggot-white, festering figure that might have once been a woman, with a literal third eye sprouting from her forehead. A freak with a mound of hardened warts for a head, and a lop-sided toothed opening near its clavicle that passed for a mouth. And more, some beyond description in their repugnant corruption.
Grissom fired and fired again, mechanically. For some time, he had started seeing blue-white muzzle-flashes from standard issue mag-pulse guns in his dreams; nocturnal visions constituting a screeching parade of vortexing particulate rounds as they tore endless, bursting tunnels through a rising wall of zombie flesh. Yet awakening from those dreams brought him back to a reality that was depressingly difficult to distinguish. An inescapable circle of zombie-churning violence from which the only escape would be to join in death that which he killed; continuing the cycle from the other end.
Damn it, Grissom - can’t think that way! Can’t allow despair a foothold... That was why they had Testament charges in the first place!
It was sooner than Grissom expected, yet it took far too long to finally blast their way back to their vehicle; armored boots crunching festering globs of infected tissue like pus-laden necrotic grass as they finally reached their destination.