“Let me see if I get this right. My instructions are to – shut up and let you do all the talking?”
“Yes, Ms. Graham. Tommy’s words exactly.”
“I see. Did Tommy – the Director – mention anything else, Dr. Morales? Perhaps something concerning the mission?”
“Call me Richie. Here’s the mission briefing that you can read on the way to Half Moon Bay.”
“I’m fairly certain that we’re not supposed to keep any sort of paper documentation, that’s why we were assigned smartpads with AES-256 –“
“Yeah, but they tend to fail when you need them. Now, read and memorize the stuff I gave you; we have to burn them before we arrive on site.”
“Oh. You’re Richard Morales.”
“The one from the Philippines.”
“Yep. Can we go now?”
“I thought I was working with Dr. Richelieu Morales. From U.C. Berkeley.”
“Nah, you lucked out and got me instead.”
“I thought you looked too young to be a Ph.D.”
“I’m older than I look.”
“Say, Richie – can we stop by the quartermaster first? I think I need to fill out some insurance forms and get some extra ordinance.”
The drive to Half Moon Bay is uneventful. None of the usual omens to chalk up to mission jitters: no long lines of crows sitting on white farm fences, no dark clouds gathering on the horizon as we travel down lonely country roads, no strangers watching us intently at the gas station when I stop and ask for directions. Just a lovely summer day.
It makes me worry that I’m heading in the wrong direction.
On the other hand, it does allow me to get the new girl – Ms. Melanie Graham – up to speed.
She’s a quick study – I’ll give her that. Not only did she read everything quickly, she managed to pick out some anomalies that bugged me about the reports as well: the suicide in the attic with an indecipherable final diary entry, deviations from the approved architectural plans for the house, a succession of quick transfers of ownership, and so on. Unfortunately, she’s far too reliant on the pistols and far too enamored with the special bullets issued by the Bureau.
“Richie, I’m perfectly comfortable with leaving the talking to you, as long as you leave the fighting to me.”
“Nice gun, but you don’t need to check if it’s loaded every –“
“I’m not completely clueless, Richie. I’ve heard about how these things play with your memory, with your perceptions.”
“Well, in my experience –“
“You’ll forgive me if I ignore yet another speech on your experiences in the Bureau, as they all seem to end with your partners dying or being horribly injured.”
“Or promoted to the position of Director.”
“Shut up. The point is, I don’t intend on dying on this mission.”
“I don’t intend on you dying either. Please put the gun away.”
“Fuck that, Morales! I’ve heard about you and your missions. Your partners always end up getting shot. Well, this one’s going to shoot back.”
“There’s a reason most of them got shot.”
“Yeah, what is it?”
“They didn’t listen to me. Oh look, we’re here.”
The house is a two story affair, with space for two cars in the driveway and two more in the garage. It has that Bay Area look to it – white windows, grey siding made to look like wood, and a dark grey slate roof. I’m sure there’s a stunning view of the sunset inside, once our advance team lets us in.
Unfortunately, they seem to be missing.
Mel, who’d just agreed to put away her sidearm unless absolutely necessary, is getting antsy, hands straying to her shoulder holster.
I slide my phone from my hip and give Phil – the lead for the advance team – a call. It rings but no one answers.
Odd, but not sinister. Not yet. Electronics have a tendency to malfunction in blighted areas.
But then a huge dark cloud sweeps in from the east, a flock of startled blackbirds suddenly takes flight from further down the road, and I see a dozen tattered silhouettes appear over of the crest of dunes that we passed on our way in.
Mel beats me to the front door.
“Morales, I have my main pistol and my backup in my ankle holster – what do you have?”
“My pistol, some clips, and some colored chalk.”
“Chalk. Now, if we’re done with the inventory check, why don’t you tell me what you see?”
“Zombies in the driveway – about 20 of them clustered around the front door, some around the car. More coming up the road.”
“Not good. The backyard path to the beach seems clear, but there’s a lot of loose sand and some big dunes and brush that could hide other things. Why didn’t you jump back in the car?”
“Morales, we have to find –“
“Answer the fucking question, rookie!”
“I panicked. Besides, you had the keys. Listen, we have to –”
“You’re sure it was panic? It was a good call – damn car probably wouldn’t have started. Anyway, don’t fuck things up now! Follow procedure and secure all exits on your half of the floor! And keep an eye out for Phil and the rest of the advance team!”
We don’t find Phil or anyone else from the advance team on the ground floor, but once it was secured, we retreated upward.
The remains of three members of the advance team approached us with halting yet unmistakably homicidal intent, prompting a truly spectacular display of skill from my partner: double taps to the heads and chest of each of our former comrades.
We dumped them in the stairwells to the ground floor and secured exits once more. I didn’t hold out much hope for finding Phil – the only member of the advance team still unaccounted for – but was somewhat heartened by the discovery of a fantastic beach view, marred by the sight of several hundred more deadheads shambling toward us.
“I’m going to get killed by run-of-the-mill zombies. On my first mission.”
“That’s good; think positive.”
“Up yours, Morales. I know how this works – you’ve got some kind of ace up your sleeve. You’ll get out, and I’ll die horribly.”
“What happened to ‘shooting back’?”
“Not enough ammo. Fuck.”
“Wouldn’t matter if you had enough bullets for all of them – those aren’t biological zombies. No bite marks on any of them, no signs of decomposition, and so on. Killing them all won’t get rid of the main problem. So, cheer up.”
“These deadheads were killed and brought back wholesale by some kind of extra-dimensional entity or a really powerful wizard-type. We’re talking major league power here given the scale. Happy?”
We light some decorative candles in case the power goes out, and every half-hour we check the 2nd floor exits in sequence.
After three passes, I have Mel take over on the checks for the exits while I begin scratching inert spell circles onto key locations – cardinal points on the floor, the walls, smaller wards on the doors, and on the ceiling.
As the clocks spin closer to midnight, Mel begins to grow more and more sullen, until at last she breaks and begins to frantically search for a way to the roof or attic.
“For the last time, Mel: we don’t want to go up there.”
“Maybe the Bureau’s sent a chopper to evacuate us. Maybe they got our emergency messages. We can make a signal somehow – a flare?”
“Mel, we dropped off their grid as soon as the clouds rolled over our location. They probably already have an evac team in place, but they’ll never find us – unless we find the locus of the disturbance and end it.”
“How are we going to fucking find that damned locus when we’re trapped in here?”
“Where do you think the locus would be?”
“Ah, shit – it’s this house, isn’t it.”
“They’re drawn here for a reason, and it isn’t braaaaiiiiins.”
“I should just shoot myself now.“
“Go ahead, Mel. Afterwards you can trade stories with the rest of my dead partners.”
“I hate you.”
“You won’t mind if I dump your body out the window, right? I don’t want to have to deal with your reanimated corpse after you off yourself. It would really lower my morale.”
“What the hell have you got that makes you think you’re going to make it out of here alive?”
“See, that’s the problem with rookies. Always thinking about survival.”
“What should I be thinking about, Morales?”
“Finding the locus, banishing it, sealing the gate, and sowing the ground with consecrated salt. ‘We are the last, best, and only line of defense against the evil that howls beyond the gates of our perception’, remember?”
“You don’t really believe in that bullshit, do you?“
“Of course I do. Why else would I choose to stay in the field so long? Now help me finish these circles; we don’t have much time left.”
There’s a lot you have to learn about the spaces between this world and the others. And some things you just don’t teach to would-be agents in training.
Experienced agents don’t worry about the approach of midnight. They worry about that hidden hour that hides in the shifting seconds between 12 midnight and 1 o’clock. Some call it the 13th Hour, others call it the 25th Hour, and still others call it the Hour of the Veil – the hour that is given to the hidden evils and fallen intelligences to work their influence on the world.
Now, who the idiot was who gave that hour to these things, I don’t know. But I’d sure like an hour to discuss things with him in private.
As per procedure Mel and I sit back to back in the center of the living room, calling out the minutes as midnight comes and goes – waiting for the wall clocks to stop and our personal timepieces to keep on ticking.
And, at 12:13 am, they do.
“See anything out of the ordinary?”
“No – god, what is that stench?”
“Evil. Right, Phil?”
“I am no longer Phil, Mr. Morales.”
THINGS LIKE I-USED-TO-BE-PHIL are fond of showing off and playing with their prey and are thus predictable. It appears near the beachside windows, right at the periphery of our shared vision – my extreme left, Mel’s extreme right.
Looks like Phil had a rough time of it. His forearms are scored by dozens of self-inflicted cuts – an old Bureau technique to help remain conscious and keep track of how many times you had to do it. His clothes are tattered and frayed with measured precision, giving the impression of a human porcupine with very fine quills. And his face, bruised and battered and burned, is twisted into a rictus grin.
Before he can do or say anything more, I squeeze off three rounds from my pistol.
The first bullet – twice-blessed, crossed with silver, and fashioned from cold iron – punctures Phil’s throat, destroys his vocal chords, and chips his spine. The second bullet enters through Phil’s left eye and punches through the cranial cavity, causing sufficient hydrostatic pressure to cause Phil’s brains to explode out the back of his skull. The third bullet shatters the sternum and drills straight through Phil’s heart.
The thing that was Phil topples over, gurgling.
When he hits the hardwood floor, there is the sound of stone shattering and wood splintering beneath a great weight, followed by a long sibilant hiss.
Then for a long minute… silence.
Mel begins to edge toward the body, but I stop her with a shake of my head.
When Phil’s eyes snap open, I trigger all the chalk circle wards on the floor, disrupting his last-ditch attempt to reanimate. There is sudden sound – like a fire crackling, a balloon popping, and a high-tension wire snapping all at once. The last thing I see as Mel and I are thrown backwards by the arcane backlash is the still form of Phil spinning and crumpling into a flaming blue abyss.
Everything is quiet and dark and cold and I think about being more careful next time.
Then suddenly, sounds begin to seep in to my returning array of perceptions: a helicopter circling, the sound of heavy boots tromping up stairs, the distinctive sound of commands issued over a bullhorn.
I become aware of flashing lights: blue, white, and red. I see long sweeping beams of light crisscrossing the beach, and coming up the stairs.
“That was it?”
“You wanted more? Dueling magics? An exchange of threats?”
“I didn’t either. It had just slipped into phase with our world – its vessel was still bound by our rules. The nastier ones tend to wait before showing themselves, to allow time to reshape their host bodies according their own strange desires and laws of reality. It tried to do that anyway, but at least all that time drawing three chalk spell circles didn’t go to waste. The one on the ceiling was a real pain.”
“You talk a lot after a mission, Richie.”
“I’m not talking, I’m teaching. You learn anything, Rookie?”
“Yes, sir: brown chalk circles tend not to be noticed on wooden floors. I’ll requisition a set of colored chalk when we get back to HQ.”
“Good, now let’s let the cleaners scrub us down and give us a clean bill of health. I’m dying for a decent chiliburger, a hot cup of chocolate, and a good night’s sleep.”
“Sounds like a good idea to me.”
Alexander M. Osias is frequent visitor to the worlds of science fiction and fantasy as a reader and a writer. His work has been published in the Digest of Philippine Genre Stories and several Philippine Speculative Fiction volumes. He’s lived all over the world, including places like Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, and the U.S.A. Now based in the Philippines, he resides in a secret headquarters located in the bustling Ortigas Center area where he enjoys spending time with his lovely wife and rambunctious son.
Zombie illustration is from here.