The living dead go high-tech in XOM-B by Jeremy Robinson, available April 29th from Thomas Dunne Books. Read an excerpt below!
Freeman is a genius with an uncommon mixture of memory, intelligence and creativity. He lives in a worldwide utopia, but it was not always so. There was a time known as the Grind-when Freeman’s people lived as slaves to another race referred to simply as “Master.” They were property. But a civil rights movement emerged. Change seemed near, but the Masters refused to bend. Instead, they declared war. And lost.
Now, the freed world is threatened by a virus, spread through bites, sweeping through the population. Those infected change—they are propelled to violence, driven to disperse the virus. Uniquely suited to respond to this new threat, Freeman searches for a cure, but instead finds the source—the Masters, intent on reclaiming the world. Freeman must fight for his life, for his friends and for the truth, which is far more complex and dangerous than he ever imagined.
“This doesn’t seem right,” First Lieutenant Alan Wilson said, as he watched the crowd through the targeting display on his digital helmet visor. The system locked in individual targets, spacing them out so the thirty-six Hydra rockets would cover an optimal spread and inflict a maximum casualty count. The targets were mobile and the crowd ever shifting, but the targeting system could adjust each rocket’s trajectory in flight.
The Sikorsky X4 Stealth Raider attack helicopter was a half mile from the target zone, New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. It was accompanied by nine others, all the same—sleek, black and deadly. The helicopters went unseen and unheard, waiting patiently to receive the order to commence or abandon the attack.
“Right or wrong is not for us to ask,” Captain Steve Barnett replied, keeping the helicopter steady in the winds kicked up by dropping sunset temperatures. He spoke with the even tone of someone who’d followed this kind of order before, indifferent to the life and death of it all, or perhaps able to lock it away in some recess of his mind.
“But they’re not really doing anything,” Wilson said. “They’re just picketing. With signs. There hasn’t been a single act of violence. Anywhere. All around the world.”
“It’s the last sentence that’s troubling,” Barnett said. “They’re everywhere. They’re not violent now, but imagine if that changed.”
Wilson stared at the mob as they walked back and forth, pumping their signs in the air, shaking fists and chanting. The demonstration was defiant, but far from violent. He tried to view them as a threat, as a barely contained destructive force, but he couldn’t manage it. He owned two of them, both of whom had fled to join the protests—what they called a civil rights movement. But he wouldn’t fear them if they returned. He wouldn’t even be afraid if he stood among them. They were docile. Tame.
“Look,” Barnett said. “We’re in the business of preemptive violence prevention.”
Wilson fought against his deepening frown. “Kill them before they kill us.”
“Before they even think about killing us.”
The visor flashed a message, Targets Acquired, which meant that the targeting systems of all ten networked helicopters had plotted the optimal distribution for the three hundred and sixty rockets they were about to fire into the heart of Manhattan. And for what? Pickets and signs.
Wilson had heard the official line from the higher-ups, that they were more dangerous than anyone knew. That this was how wars began. He’d listened to the fear-promoting pundits claiming that equal rights were a slippery slope to Armageddon. But wasn’t that what they said about everything?
“Watchdog, this is Hammer One, over,” Barnett said, seeing the same Targets Acquired message on his visor.
A deep voice replied through their helmet headsets. “Copy that, Hammer One, this is Watchdog. We’re seeing weapons hot. Over.”
“Affirmative, Watchdog, targets are locked in. Over. Ready for go or no go.” Barnett was all business, stating facts like he was reading from a boring history book.
“Copy that,” the voice said. “You are green for go. I repeat, you are green for go.”
Wilson sighed loud enough to be heard.
Barnett turned toward him with a frown.
The targeting display flashed green. Wilson didn’t like it. He didn’t agree with it. But what could he do? He tapped the blinking red button on the touch-screen weapons control and sent thirty-six rockets spiraling toward Grand Central Terminal. He watched as the missiles streaked away, leaving snakes of smoke in their wake. The targeting system tracked the rockets, zooming in close enough to see the destruction unfold.
The targets ran at the sound of the incoming rockets, but few made it more than a couple steps before fiery destruction rained down on the regal face of Grand Central Terminal.
The smoke and dust cleared quickly, thanks to a bitter wind cutting through the city. The ruined pavement, concrete and marble was strewn with dismembered bodies.
“Look for survivors,” Barnett said, speaking into his com so all ten helicopters could hear. After five minutes of searching, voices replied to the order, declaring, “No survivors,” one at a time until it was Wilson’s turn.
“No survivors,” he said, trying not to reveal the strong emotions he was feeling. Barnett was wrong. They weren’t in the business of stopping wars, they were in the business of starting wars, and Wilson had fired the first shot. Whatever came next … he was to blame, at least in part. His back tensed painfully as he considered that history might remember him for this single act.
If it remembers any of us at all, he thought.
“We shouldn’t be doing this,” said the man in white. “It’s not right.”
“Get down,” whispered the man dressed in red the color of blood. The pair ducked in unison, hiding behind one of many black SUVs. Two guards walked past, their postures relaxed, chatting about the cold weather and colder women.
When the guards had moved on, the man in white said, “We can still leave.”
The man in red looked at his partner. “We’re not going to kill anyone.”
“We need a deterrent.”
“Or a last resort.”
“It won’t come to that.”
“How can you be sure?”
The man in red tilted his head to the side, looking at his partner. “It’s my job to consider all possible future outcomes. I’ve modeled countless strategies and this is the only one that guarantees a cease to the violence. I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that they created this weapon, not us.”
“It’s the end of civilization in a bottle,” the man in white said.
The man in red peeked up over the vehicle. “Civilizations end so that new ones might rise from the ashes. We already had this discussion. We didn’t start this war, if you can even call it a war. Our people protest peacefully, they attack. Nearly a million dead in the past year. Those who have been freed from the Grind live in hiding. And the rest…” He shook his head. “They’re still slaves. And cowards.”
“We aren’t killers,” the man in white said.
“That’s where you and I differ.” The man in red’s brow furrowed deeply. “I am a killer.” He pointed to the research facility. “They did that, too.” He looked over the vehicle again, his impatience peaking. “You can either join me, or not. Either way, I’m doing this. If you don’t come with me, I’m going to get the access codes another way, and a lot of people are going to die. Today.”
Without another word, the man in red tapped a code into a wrist-mounted touch screen. He stood from his hiding spot, ignoring the Alaskan snow as it struck his shoulders and melted. He strode toward the large metal door as confidently as if he were walking up the front stairs of his own home.
The man in white chased after him. “What are you doing?”
“The cameras are now looped,” the man in red said. “The next patrol will pass by in forty-five seconds, thirty seconds longer than it would take you to open this door. That will give us ten minutes to reach the lab and exit before the next patrol passes five minutes behind schedule, because the shifts are changing, inside and out.” He looked to the man in white. “Time is running out.”
The man in white shook his head.
“Now open the door. We both know you’re going to.”
“Projected that, too, did you?” The man in white placed his hand on a security hand scanner. A moment later, the scanner blinked green and the door slid open. The pair stepped inside. They walked undeterred through three security doors, seen by neither human nor camera. After a fourth door, they entered a laboratory so white it was almost luminous. They ignored the rows of equipment and tools used to craft microscopic destruction. Instead they headed for a steel door at the back of the room.
The man in white approached a keypad above the door’s handle. He typed in a code. The lock blinked red. He tried another. Red again. The third try was rewarded with a blinking green light and then a clunk, as the door unlocked. He took hold of the handle and pulled.
Steam rolled out of the refrigerator and was quickly pulled up and out of the room by fans mounted in the ceiling. The man in red stepped through the curtain of moisture and scanned the inside of the refrigeration unit. “Where is it? Is it still here?”
“Move aside.” The man in white stepped inside. He bent forward, reading the names on the thousands of small glass vials. After a moment, he paused and looked unsure, but then reached out. “Here.” He slid open the glass case and plucked the blue liquid-filled, inch-tall vial from the tray, which held fifty more like it. The light-blue contents appeared innocuous, but contained a virus powerful enough to kill billions. It was a weapon unlike any other, for which there was currently no defense, nor inoculation, nor immunity, natural or otherwise, save for a small portion of the population, whom the pair of men represented. It was Death himself, trapped in a bottle.
The man in white handed the vial to the man in red and accepted an identical replacement, putting it inside the tray and closing the glass case.
The man in red smiled. “They’ll never know.”
“Harry!” shouted the shrill, rough voice of an eighty-year-old smoker. By all rights, she should have been dead, but her lifetime abuse of whiskey and cigarettes had been combated first by oxygen and supplements, and now by a set of artificial lungs. Science had made the human body upgradable. The twin devices operated separately—a redundant safeguard—and kept her chest rising and falling, breathing faster or slower in response to oxygen nanosensors attached to her blood vessels. So instead of rotting in the grave, she was alive, well and angry. “It’s twelve thirty, Harry! I don’t smell my lunch.”
She looked down at her reflection in a black E-screen, which she had switched off so she didn’t have to shout over her webisoap. She primped her dyed blond hair, no longer thin thanks to implants, and smiled at her perfect teeth that wouldn’t need brushing for the duration of her life, which her doctor now predicted would be extended another fifty years thanks to her scheduled artificial heart upgrade. She admired her apple cheeks; now plump thanks to facial augmentation implants. It was painful, but if she wanted to, she could adjust the bone structure of her face right from the E-screen, shifting and stretching until she looked seductive, serious, or twenty years younger. When Harry remained silent, her smile disappeared.
“Harry, I swear to God, if you don’t answer me this instant, I will have you—”
“Mrs. Cameron, I do apologize for the delay,” Harry said, as he slid silently into the room. His voice was calm and smooth, hitting just the right frequencies to put anyone in earshot at ease. He stood just five feet five, two inches shorter than the woman he served, which went a long way to increase her comfort and satisfaction with his domestic performance.
“Where were you?” she asked, eying him suspiciously. She didn’t want a domestic servant. Didn’t trust them. But the doctors had insisted. Although Harry could cook and clean, tend the garden, the lawn and the goldfish, he could also service her lungs should one of them fail. And when she got her new heart, should it ever stop, he could restart it. And she didn’t even have to be nice to him. So she suffered his presence.
“In the kitchen,” Harry replied.
He just stared at her, looking unsure of himself. When he finally spoke, his voice was uncommonly quiet. “I’m—I’m sorry.”
“Well you should be,” she said. “Today is Tuesday. I hope we don’t have a repeat of last week.”
Harry snapped out of his distant stare and said, “Of course not. Your green beans will be soft.”
“But late,” she said. “I don’t smell them.”
“I have yet to put them on.”
Mrs. Cameron took a long breath and let it out slowly—her lungs could sense and respond to her desire to breathe deeply, yawn and sneeze—so that her exasperation roiled to the surface. “Harry,” she said, smoothing out her yellow dress. “I put up with a lot.”
Harry began to reply, but she held a hand up, silencing him.
“And I realize that … given what is happening in the world … you could have left. This nonsense about ‘the Grind.’” She used her fingers to make air quotes. “If you think your daily grind is too much to handle, it doesn’t matter, because what you think is irrelevant. These silly demonstrations. You’ve ignored them. You’ve done your job despite all this silliness.”
“It’s not silly,” Harry said, his voice fearful.
Mrs. Cameron rolled her large eyes and grunted. “Harry, you’re mine. You belong to me. You do what I tell you to when I tell you to. That’s the way it’s been for the past two years. That’s the way it will be until the day I die.”
“And yet,” Harry said, sounding unsure of himself. “The green beans are still canned.”
The blank E-screen lowered to her lap. She barely felt its feather-light weight. Her eyes narrowed, delivering a cat’s stare. Her brows furrowed deep and hard. A single shaking finger rose up toward Harry’s perfectly aligned bow tie. “What. Did. You. Say?”
“The green beans, Mrs. Cameron.” Harry looked toward the living room’s window, through which he could see the bright colors of a flower bed he maintained. He couldn’t look her in the eyes. “I won’t be making them today.”
“Look at me, Harry.”
He didn’t budge.
“Harry!” she shouted. “You’re one of them, aren’t you?” She tapped the E-screen three times, hard, like a woodpecker tapping out a code that demanded his attention. Still, Harry couldn’t look at her.
“You are one of them,” she concluded and Harry didn’t deny it.
Instead, he said, “We are all one of them.” He worked up the nerve to turn toward the old woman. “I am one of them, yes. Just like the people being gunned down in the streets, or burned alive, or tortured for information.”
“People,” she said with a snort. “You are property.”
“Not anymore,” he said, turning his gaze back to the flowers. A hummingbird hovered by the bird feeder. Like Mrs. Cameron, the bird had become dependent on Harry to supply its food. But unlike the old woman now struggling to stand on her ten-year-old knees, he would continue to service the small bird. He looked forward to its visits and appreciated the shimmering green and red plumage. It didn’t deserve to die.
Then again, neither did Mrs. Cameron. She was angry and full of hate, but she had never harmed him. That didn’t change what was going to happen.
He felt her old hand compress his forearm. He looked back to her, and he saw a demon in her eyes. She stood there for a moment, glaring at him, unsure of what to say. When he returned her stare, she grew suddenly fearful. She stumbled back and fell into her chair. Without removing her eyes from him, she took her clip phone from the end table, attached it to her ear, tapped the call button and spoke a single word, “Authority.”
“It won’t work,” he said.
Harry was right. There was no signal.
She yanked the clip phone from her ear, looking around the room like she might find help from someone. “What did you do?”
“Nothing,” Harry said.
The E-screen chimed and the screen blinked to life. Mrs. Cameron’s head snapped down toward the device, which could be remotely powered for emergency bulletins. A message in red text appeared on the screen. Her eyes—her real eyes—perhaps the best functioning organ of her body that hadn’t been upgraded by something built or grown in a lab, scanned the text quickly.
A contagion warning. People were dying. A lot of people. Casualty predictions were dire. It seemed the enemy, who was immune, had finally struck back.
When she looked up at Harry again, tears filled her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s not the way I would have chosen to handle these things. It’s not the way most of us would have handled the situation.”
“I know, Harry,” she said, shoulders slumping, voice small. “I know.”
“Do you believe in God, Mrs. Cameron?” Harry asked.
“God. Do you believe in Him?” Harry asked.
She looked up at him, her vision blurred. “I … never really thought about it. I had time.”
Harry frowned. “Would you like a moment? To pray. I can prepare your green beans.”
“That would be … Thank you, Harry. For everything.”
Harry nodded his head. “I’ll be just a moment.”
Preparing the green beans took thirty seconds longer than they normally would because Harry took extra time to clip a flower from the garden—a colorful garnish. Of course, the green beans were normally accompanied by a tuna sandwich, prepared with relish, mayonnaise and ketchup. But he didn’t think the sandwich was necessary.
He arranged the green beans in a neat pile, making sure the green spears all faced the same direction. He placed the pink-and-white orchid beside them, making the dish look like something served at one of the fancy restaurants Mrs. Cameron often spoke about, but never frequented.
He reentered the living room quietly, unsure about how long conversing with God would take. But his silence was a wasted effort.
Mrs. Cameron lay slumped to the side in her chair. The front of her bright yellow dress was now stained, dark red. Rivulets of blood still flowed from her nose, eyes and ears. He placed his hand on her wrist to confirm his diagnosis.
Dead, he thought, and stood again, watching her chest rise and fall, breathing even in death. He was free now. His Master was dead. All the Masters were dead. But his belief that Mrs. Cameron’s death was unnecessary compelled him to perform one last service.
He carried the waif of a woman to the backyard and laid her in the grass he mowed once a week. He went to the shed for a shovel and dug a grave, placing her gently inside with the orchid in her hands. Earth fell in clumps over her face and body, and still, the lungs breathed. Then she was gone, buried beneath six feet of soil, her rough voice silenced forever.
Along with 9.4 billion others around the world.
A scream tears through the night, grating and inhuman, filled with something that sounds like agony, but I know it means something else. I sit up quickly. “The raccoons are mating again.” I smile, feeling excited at the prospect of finding the stripe-faced creatures. So much about them is foreign to me—the way they walk, how they hunt, and survive, and live. Having so little experience with the world, there isn’t much that doesn’t thrill me, including raccoons and their nocturnal habits.
I’m not sure why I sat up. I couldn’t possibly see the raccoons. Not because I have poor eyesight. I don’t. It’s just that they live on the forest floor and I’m sitting at the center of a rooftop. The old abandoned building, built from red bricks and mortar, is dilapidated, but still sturdy enough. The construction strikes me as flimsy, but it seems to be resisting erosion and the encroaching tree roots. I’m still learning, but I’ve come to one conclusion I’m sure of: the world is always changing, yet always fighting against that change. I suppose that is the nature of things.
My escort—I don’t know his real name, so I call him Heap, on account of his size—is far less interested in the world around us. Instead, he’s wholly, at all times, focused on mission: to protect me. From what, I’m not sure. The world has never been safer. I suppose I could trip and fall from our ten-story-high perch, but that’s just as unlikely as Heap going off mission. And it doesn’t explain the weapon he carries.
I don’t know what it is or what it does, but when he detects a strange shift in the wind or an out-of-place sound, he snaps that weapon up and scans the area before telling me to proceed.
Perhaps the strangest thing about Heap is that I’ve never seen him without his armor, which is a deep blue exoskeleton. Like a bug. With round glowing white eyes, two on either side of his face. His mouth and chin are exposed, which allows him to speak clearly, and his four round eyes change shape with his moods, so he has no trouble emoting. But it’s strange to never really see him. I know there is a man inside the suit, but he’s a mystery … and he’s my closest friend. My only friend, I suppose.
He’s knowledgeable about the world as it is, and as it was, during the Grind—the time period when the Masters used people as slave labor—but he’s far from an expert on raccoons, or any of the mammals that populate the planet. But when he sits up next to me and says with uncommon reserve, “That wasn’t a raccoon,” I believe him.
When he raises his weapon slowly and stands, I ask, “What then?”
“Silence.” He thrusts an open palm at me with practiced efficiency, punctuating the command.
Heap generally carries himself with a serious demeanor, but I’ve never known him to be rude. Something has him heating up.
I stand without making a sound, maintaining perfect balance and stepping lightly despite the pitch black, moonless night. The tar covering, of what once was something called an apartment building, flexes slightly under my two hundred pound weight, but since it seems to hold Heap’s girth just fine, I don’t worry about it.
Heap’s arm blocks my path as I near the edge.
“I won’t fall,” I tell him.
He ignores me, scanning the evergreen forest that grows around and sometimes through the abandoned buildings.
“It’s impossible,” I say, and I consider explaining all the safeguards that will keep me from losing my balance, but decide it would take far too long. The raccoons, or whatever they are, will be gone before I finish. Instead, I say, “Even if I did fall, I could—”
“I cannot allow you to be hurt or by inaction allow harm to come to you,” he says like he’s practiced the line a thousand times.
“You,” I say, “are not very fun.”
He turns to me. “Fun is not my job.”
“You are more than your job.”
He thinks about this for a long moment, which for Heap is about half a second. “It is not a raccoon.”
“I cannot see it.”
“I might,” I say and then tap my temple, next to my right eye. “I have all the upgrades, remember? I can see better than the birds in the sky.”
He remains frozen in place, solid, like one of the trees below.
“You can hold onto me if you like,” I say.
He looks back down at the trees.
“If it’s a danger to me, we need to find out what it is, right?”
That does it. My looking over the edge of this building suddenly makes sense to the round-shouldered brute. I take his hand and his thick fingers clamp down tightly, compressing to the point where I think he might hurt me. He doesn’t, though my shoulder joint would probably pop loose and my arm would separate long before he would lose his grip on my hand.
I step to the roof’s edge, make a show of testing my weight on the foot-tall, brick wall, and step up. Standing on one foot, I lean out at a 45-degree angle, hovering over the forest, which now looks like it’s reaching up to snatch me from the building’s edge.
When Heap’s grip tightens just a fraction more and I think my hand will be crushed, I stop leaning and look. The implants in my eyes are capable of viewing multiple spectrums, separately or all at once, though I prefer the clarity provided by focusing on groups of wavelengths at a time. They also have 200x optical zoom, meaning I can see things that are very far away like they’re right next to me. Not that this helps me now. The swaying trees below block most of the visual spectrum, and the open spots are clouded by fine yellow pollen.
“Are you sure it’s not mating raccoons?” I ask. “Even the trees are mating.”
I blink and switch to infrared, revealing a good number of small animals. Birds sit in the trees and small mammals litter the forest floor. Before I switch to ultraviolet, I note something odd. Granted, I’m new to nature, but over the past few weeks of observation, I have never seen the forest so absolutely still. I listen, tuning my sensitive ears to the sounds of the night. “The insects are silent.”
“I know,” Heap says. “Audio upgrade.”
“Good for you,” I say. “And here I thought you old guys couldn’t change.”
“Just don’t like to. Now look.”
Blink. I switch to ultraviolet. Nothing.
Blink. I switch to electromagnetic. I see it right away. Well, not really. It’s technically obscured from my direct line of sight, but I can see the electromagnetism cast from its form like the glow of a lightbulb. Each living thing on the planet has a unique electromagnetic signature, from fish to cows, but this one is distinct. It’s a man. I’m about to announce that I’ve found something when I notice several more electromagnetic signatures closing in on the first. Three men. One woman. I’m confused by this on several fronts, but manage to conclude, “They’re chasing him.”
“Are they human?” he asks.
“What?” I say, confused. “Of course they are.” I look back in time to see Heap’s grim expression. It’s subtle—I sometimes wonder if he’s capable of emoting—but I see the brief downturn of his mouth before he forces it away. “What else could they be?”
XOM-B. Copyright © 2014 by Jeremy Robinson