Casimir climbed off of the ladder and sat down on the concrete floor, while coughing and spitting free the spiderwebs from his lungs. The older the steam tunnel, the more urban sprawl from the arachanid metropolis. He was reasonably sure that he'd just played Godzilla in Spider Tokyo.
Amy poked her head out of the hole that he'd climbed through.
"Shut up!" she hissed, glancing back and forth in the dim light of the utility room. "If we're right and this is the building with the sniper, who knows what kind of setup he's got. Maybe microphones or shit like that. He's probably the type that's had his fingers crossed for a catastrophe and wears camouflage underwear."
Casimir nodded as Amy climbed over him. He thought, just for a moment, that he caught a whiff of Jane's perfume. But it was probably just decay and cordite.
John had wanted to come with, but all four of them had seen too many horror films to split up into anything less than a pair. Besides, Amy's plan only required two.
The pair left the utility room and went into the lobby of the dorm. It was a bullet-ridden bloodbath. A carpet of corpses lined the room. The tile that peeked through was chipped, scarred and scorched from the gunplay, as were the walls. The largest piece of window glass was about the size of a coin.
"Holy shit," Casimir said. Every time that a gruesome scene confronted him, he thought that he'd seen it all. What overwhelmed him was the raw violence.
Amy pulled him along into the stairwell, and held a finger to her lips to gesture for silence. They climbed up the stairs and soon learned that their commitment to silence was unnecessary. Casimir could heard the rattle and pop of gunfire before he heard the whoops and hollers.
After he'd moved closer, Casimir could hear snippets of a conversation.
"That little shit's head popped, it just popped!" said a voice.
"It was moving too fast to be a zombie," said another voice.
"Who gives a shit? It's kill or be killed!"
Casimir felt his heart quicken and his pace slow.
Amy had already reached the landing that led to the sniper's floor. She gestured at him to follow. He came up.
"I don't know if this is such a hot idea," he said.
"It'll work. It has to."
Amy's eyes unfocused for a second.
"There, I'm ready."
"What'd you do?"
"I disguised myself, doofus," she said, and pushed through the door.
"Amy, wait!" he hissed, slipping in the door after her. Amy strode forward down the dorm room hallway, abandoning any pretext at stealth. Casimir ducked from doorway to doorway. He saw a silhouette wearing a helmet and carrying a rifle step out into the hall up ahead.
"Oi, Tom, where have you been? Josh has been looking for you, he wanted verification on that kill.
"I had to stop in the bathroom on the way back."
"How long does it take you to crap?"
"These rations aren't doing my pooper any favors," she said.
Casimir was confused. How could the watchman think that Amy looked anything like this Tom character?
"Did that guy on the walkway that Josh shot have anything good on him? A nice watch? Food? Did you stop being a pussy about dead bodies and do a proper search?"
"I did," Amy said. "But he wasn't carrying anything of note."
"That's weird, because Josh said that he saw guns on the motherfucker through the scope."
Casimir made his move into a doorway closer to Amy.
"No," Amy said.
"And why weren't you answering your walkie-talkie? And where is your gun? Say, what kind of game are you playing here?" the man said. The gun raised to point at Amy's chest.
"Sorry, Tom, but something smells fishy, and it ain't your socks. I don't like it," the man said. "Move it, into Josh's room."
Casimir tensed while Amy put her hands up. She walked forward, uncertain which room to go into.
"Did you get hit on the head or something? In here," the man said, gesturing with his rifle. Amy walked in. The man followed, but stood in the doorway with his back to the hall. Casimir darted forward, slowly, carefully, not wanting to make so much as a breeze that might tickle the hairs on the back of the man's neck.
"Hey, Josh, can you cool it with that for a second?" the man asked.
The snap of the gun continued like a metronome.
"No," said a voice.
Casimir was only three doorways away, and could cover the distance in a few seconds. Still too far away to do much about the gun in Amy's back. Way too far away.
"Tom's acting weird. Something doesn't seem right. I hate this zombie shit. It gives me the willies, and now Tom's going funny. Maybe it's not just zombies, maybe there's all sortss of ghosts and shit. Maybe Tom's possessed!" the man said. Casimir didn't like his tone.
"Tom, did you get the guns from that corpse like I asked?" asked a faintly muffled voice that sounded like it came from a face that was pressed up against the barrel of a rifle.
Casimir liked that voice even less. It wasn't mad. It wasn't perturbed. It was flat. No life bubbled behind the words to force them out of his mouth.
"Couldn't find it. That gun blasted the body pretty far," Amy said.
Casimir snuck into the last doorway before the dorm room where the sniper was holed up. He was pressed back into the corner. The other man held his gun pointed into the room, presumably at Amy's back, and wasn't looking down the hallway towards Casimir.
"That smells like bullshit," the sniper said. "Just like Andy saying that he couldn't find any bandages in the clinic. Maybe you'd like to join your friend Andy down on the pavement? You could give your old pal a hug, if you had a shovel."
"Come on, man, don't be like that," Amy pleaded. Casimir tensed for action. He wasn't sure what he'd do. A vague plan sprouted in the fertile earth of all of the action movies that he'd seen of rushing in and kicking guns from hands.
For a moment, he considered the notion that he might die during a zombie apocalypse from a non-zombie cause, and considered that unfair.
Casimir barreled around the corner, screaming his lungs out.
As he came into the room, he saw that the two other men in the room were screaming as well. In their madness they tripped over the guns, ammo boxes and stacks of rations that had been scattered around the room. It was a dorm room that had been converted into a quartermaster's storehouse. Amy stood by, her hands clamped over her ears and her gaze flickering back and forth between the two men in camoflage.
"What're you doing?!" Casimir shouted, but it was useless. Between Amy's very wise hand position and the screaming of the two men, he couldn't get an answer.
One of the men dashed to the window and tried to throw himself from it. His belt caught on the lever to open the window so his dramatic flight turned into a farce.
The other man used up all of the oxygen in his lungs. Casimir knew this because the man's eyes rolled up in his head and he toppled over into a stack of rations, his mouth still hanging open.
Amy pulled her hands away from her ears.
"That seems to have done the trick. Good job on not freaking the fuck out!" she said, slapping Casimir on the shoulder. She grabbed a length of rope from the stack of supplies and trussed up the man on the floor.
"From what? I don't know what's going on!"
"Jeez, you're harder core than I thought. From this," she said, staring intensely into his eyes. Then she smiled. "It's a pretty neat trick."
"Do you have zombie madness?" Casimir asked.
Amy's eyes narrowed.
"You can't see this?" Amy said, doing nothing.
Casimir remembered a conversation that they'd had earlier.
"You asked me earlier what I saw when I looked at you. You didn't mean that as a metaphor, did you?"
Amy suddenly turned away from Casimir.
"The scars on my face. If you don't see the rest, do you see those?"
"Of course I do," Casimir asked. "Are they part of what you're talking about?"
"I can change how I look," Amy said, still with her back turned to Casimir.
"Like a shape-shifter?" Casimir asked.
"Not exactly. I can't actually change my body. Like I can't shrink or anything. But I can make other people see what I want them to see when they look at me. My mother was a succubus. She could do it even better than I could. I remember when I was little and she used to do more than read me bedtime stories. She could show me the characters in the bedtime stories, the friendly little elves and the big mountain king and all the rest."
"What did you show these guys?" Casimir asked, gesturing towards the man dangling from the window by his belt. The man, for his part, ignored Casimir in favor of more pressing matters. Namely, the thin strap of leather pressing into his stomach while he contemplated the importance of buying pants with quality belt loops.
"These guys saw a live-action nightmare. You were supposed to see a blandly pretty girl that was entirely unremarkable except that she didn't have any burns on her face."
"I noticed them at first," Casimir said. Amy flinched. Casimir hurried to continue.
"Maybe it's because I'm getting to know you better or maybe it's the flesh-hungry undead constantly applying a fetid pressure, but now they're just part of your face. Like your hair, or your eyes. I'd be more worried about the wrinkles that you're forever getting from glaring at me."
Amy didn't smile, but she turned back around to face Casimir.
"It's not because I'm embarrassed. Because I'm not," she said.
"As you shouldn't," Casimir said.
"It's not about vanity," Amy said.
"Of course it isn't."
"Or my ego. Fuck my ego. That shit sucks."
"Egos totally suck," Casimir agreed.
"But after the accident nobody paid attention to what was going on with me. They only paid attention to my tragedy. 'Oh, I'm so sorry. That must be so terrible for you. Both your parents? But you have your brother. And he's a paraplegic now? Quadraplegic! Lost his baseball scholarship and everything. I'm so sorry.' That's all I've heard. Everybody sees everything I do through that same cracked lens."
"But that's not me. That's not who I am. I'm stronger than that."
"Help. I don't know how much longer these pants will hold."
"I don't need anybody's pity, I don't need anybody's help. I owe my brother my life and I can't ever repay that. But I nobody else knows what it's like, so I'd just appreciate it if they stopped being so egotistical themselves as to think that being sorry changes one fucking thing."
"Could you stop having a moment and lift me back through the window?"
Casimir and Amy both looked to the window and beyond, to the man hanging from his belt.
"My arms are pretty tired," Casimir said.
"Come on!" the man said, his eyes widening in fear. He tried to swing himself back towards the window. A sartorial ripping noise made him stop.
"Woof, scaring you guys took a lot out of me," Amy said.
"I'm going to fall! I'm going to die!" the man yelled, attempting to keep his body as still as possible. He wasn't entirely successful, as a vein bulged on his neck. "If you don't save me, I'm going to kill you, bitch. You and your little boyfriend."
"Die like all of those people that you shot?" Amy said, and walked out of the room.
Casimir followed her, ignoring the man's cries.
Amy was walking towards the elevator.
"Wait, you're going to let him hang?" Casimir asked. "I was only planning to give him a scare."
"And what are we going to do with him?" Amy asked.
"Keep him prisoner?" Casimir asked.
"We have enough trouble as it is."
"I can't just leave him," Casimir said, starting back towards the room.
As he entered the room one of the sliding closet doors crashed open. It slid off of its flimsy rails and an edge caught Casimir in the shin and sent him sprawling. From the closet shambled a zombie in camoflague pants. It approached the tied-up man, who had just come to. For the second time, he began screaming.
This time, instead of screaming his lungs out, the zombie pulled them out through his chest. Casimir cringed as he stood up.
After a single bite of offal, the zombie lost interest in its victim. It appeared to sense a new one, and moved towards the window.
Casimir was back on his feet. Even though the sniper had killed Emblem, Casimir couldn't stand to watch someone die that way. And he didn't have to. As he lunged with his zombie hand towards the zombie, his foot caught on a box of ammunition that had been knocked over when the door went off of its rails. He went down again, but below the level of the window.
The zombie bellied up to the window. The man's hands, trying to fend it off, waved over the edge of the sill.
Zombies don't have very good balance, so the effort sent the zombie over.
A moment later, Casimir heard the man screaming again, only this time he was getting quieter, until a quiet crunch drifted up from the sidewalk below.
Casimir felt Amy lifting him to his feet.
"See? Things have a way of working themselves out," Amy said.
Casimir wished that he felt sick, but he'd seen so much death today, most of it walking towards him and trying to snack on his face, that he couldn't really muster up any compassion. The man had been an indiscriminate killer, Casimir told himself. He had shot Emblem for absolutely no reason.
No matter what Casimir told himself while he and Amy rifled through the pile of guns and equipped themselves - Amy for the trek back to the Museum, Casimir for the trip north to rescue Jane - he couldn't help but feel bad for not feeling bad.
Amy patted Casimir on the back, gave him a tight smile, then shoved him out of the room.
"I can see it in your eyes. Guilt later. Survival now," she said.
When she smiled, the layers of sweat, grime and dried blood cracked along her face, obscuring her scars and making her eyes shine like emeralds in a field of muck. Her matted hair framed her face. A jagged arrow of sweat darkened her bosom in the V of her open jacket. Something unspeakable had happened to her shoes. All in all, she looked like crap, and Casimir suspected that he looked even worse.
But he needed to hear that from her. Guilt tried to fold him inward on himself but it couldn't bend a rigid spine of animal instinct, forged through millions of years of evolutionary pressure and tempered by the sight of a hypothetical sexual partner in danger. An ancient beast stirred. It emerged from its lair deep within Casimir's heart, and proceeded to shatter his mirror of self-reflection, grind the shards into dust, and take an angry, primal dump from a great height onto the bent frame.
The ancient beast even trampled the guilt that arose because he felt this way about a woman that wasn't Jane. Sperm couldn't make contingency plans for themselves.
"Let's go," Casimir said.
They rode the elevator down into the lobby. Casimir hated the break. It let him spend some time thinking about the fatigue that dragged his body down.
The doors dinged open and Casimir slapped his way to the door.
"Do we know that was the only sniper?" Casimir asked.
"I'd assume," she said.
"You can't be too careful," Casimir said. He stepped through the door and forced himself to walk slowly down the sidewalk. He wondered if he would hear the crack of the gun. He waited for the world to go black around him, and for choirs of angels to sing, and for a great, soothing light to envelope him. Instead, the stomach of a nearby zombie wheezed and the heat of the Sun made sweat run down between Casimir's shoulder blades.
"I'm not dead," he said to Amy as she walked up to him.
"That was stupid. What about Jane?" she asked.
Casimir shrugged and tried to be cavalier.
"You have your brother, and your aunt, and all the rest of your family. I mean, Jane did cheat on me, after all. And she hasn't been out here saving my ass. Or at least preventing it from being chewed on. More," he said, gesturing with his hand.
Amy rolled her eyes, but didn't argue. Together, they tried to ignore looking at the popped corpse of the sniper and individually regretted that they eachbroke the unspoken pact by taking a surreptitious glance.
John unbarred the door as they got to the gym.
"Sniper's neutralized," Amy said.
"We saw how you neutralized him," Dom said, his face grim.
"It was on accident," Casimir said.
"A shame," Dom said. "Look what we found while you were gone."
He had slung a leather bag on the back of his wheelchair. In it were a cluster of javelins. Dom held one, and in his hands it appeared to be a fancy toothpick. John carried a compound bow and arrow.
They left the gym. Casimir walked in the lead, ready to absorb any sniper fire. He led them back across the quad towards Emblem's body.
Amy tugged on Casimir's shoulder.
"Why don't we go another way?"
Casimir shrugged off her hand.
"This isn't about Emblem. It's just the fastest way to the car."
He rounded the corner beneath the walkway where the sniper had blasted Emblem through the glass. In his mind he saw the shattered body, with blood and bone scattered around the corpse like red and white rose petals. An industrial halo of broken glass shone around the demolished skull. The faint stench of Emblem's filthy clothes hung in the air.
But in reality, Casimir only found quite a bit of broken glass. Granted, the broken glass was mixed pretty thoroughly with quite a lot of blood, but there was no body. And without a body, there could not be a halo. Or proper mourning.
"What the fuck?" Casimir said.
"Amy, I thought you said that Emblem had died here," Dominic said.
"I thought that he had!" Amy said. "I also thought that we had parked the car next to the curb over there." She pointed past a half dozen zombies to an empty parking spot.