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By Darren Shan
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers Copyright © 2013 Darren Shan
All rights reserved.
I whirl away from the window that overlooks the Thames. A man has entered the room through a door that I didn't notice on my way in. He's standing in the middle of the open doorway, arms crossed, smiling.
My survival instinct kicks in. With a roar, I hurl myself at the stranger, ignoring the flare of pain in my bruised, broken body. I curl my fingers into a fist and raise my hand over my head as I close in on him.
The man doesn't react. He doesn't even uncross his arms. All he does is cock his head, to gaze with interest at my raised fist. His smile never slips.
I come to a stop less than a meter from the man, eyeing him beadily as my fist quivers above my head. If he'd tried to defend himself, I would have torn into him, figuring he was an enemy, as almost everybody else in this city seems to be. But he leaves himself open to attack and continues to smile.
"Who the hell are you?" I snap. He's dressed in a light gray suit, a white shirt and purple tie, and expensive-looking leather shoes. He has thin hair, neatly combed back, brown but streaked with gray. Calm brown eyes. Looks like he's in his forties.
"I am Dr. Oystein," he introduces himself.
"That supposed to mean something to me?" I grunt.
"I would be astonished if it did," he says, then extends his right hand.
"You don't want to shake hands with me," I sneer. "Not unless you want to end up with a taste for brains."
"I was an adventurous diner in my youth," Dr. Oystein says, his smile widening. "I often boasted that I would eat the flesh or innards of just about any creature, except for humans. Alas, ironically, I can now eat nothing else."
I frown and focus on his fingers. Bones don't stick out of them the way they poke out of every other zombie's, but now that I look closely, I see that the flesh at the tips is broken, a small white mound of filed-down bone at the center of each pink whorl.
"Yes," he says in answer to my unvoiced question. "I am undead like you."
I still don't take his hand. Instead I focus on his mouth. His teeth are nowhere near as jagged or as long as mine, but they're not the same as a normal person's either.
Dr. Oystein laughs. "You are wondering how I keep my teeth in such good shape, but there is no magic involved. I have been in this lifeless state a lot longer than you. One develops a knack for these things over time. I was brought up to believe that a gentleman should be neatly groomed and I have found myself as fastidious in death as I once was in life.
"Please take my hand, Becky. I will feel very foolish if you do not."
"I don't give a damn how you feel," I snort, and instead of shaking his hand, I listen closely for his heartbeat. When I don't detect one, I relax slightly.
"How do you know my name?" I growl. "How could you have been expecting me? I didn't know that I was coming to County Hall. I wandered in randomly."
Dr. Oystein shakes his head. "I have come to believe that nothing in life is truly random. In this instance it definitely was no coincidence that you wound up here. You were guided by the signs, as others were before you."
I think back and recall a series of spray-painted, z-shaped symbols with arrows underneath. I've been following the arrows since I left the East End, sometimes because they happened to be pointing the way that I was traveling, but other times deliberately.
"Z for zombie," Dr. Oystein says as he sees my brain click. "The signs mean nothing to reviveds, but what curious revitalized could turn a blind eye to such an intriguing mystery?"
"You know about reviveds and revitalizeds?"
"Of course." He coughs lightly. "In fact I was the one who coined the terms."
"Who are you?" I whisper. "What are you?"
Dr. Oystein sighs. "I am a scientist and teacher. A sinner and gentleman. A killer and would-be savior. And, if you will do me the great honor, I would like to be your friend."
The mysterious doctor waves his extended arm, once again inviting me to accept his hand. And this time, after a brief hesitation, even though I'm still suspicious, I lower my fist, uncurl my fingers and shake hands with the politely spoken zombie.
"You have a strange accent," I remark as Dr. Oystein releases my hand. "Where are you from?"
"Many places," he says, slowly circling me, examining my wounds. "My father was English but my mother was Norwegian. I was born in Norway and lived there for a while. Then my parents moved around Europe–my father had itchy feet–and I, of course, traveled with them."
I try not to jitter as the doctor slips behind me. If he's been concealing a weapon, he'll be able to whip it out and strike. My shoulders tense as I imagine him driving a long knife between them. But he doesn't attack, just continues to circle, and soon he's facing me again.
"I heard that your heart had been ripped out," he says. "May I see?"
"How do you know that?" I scowl.
"I had contacts in the complex where you were previously incarcerated. I know much about you, but I hope to learn more. Please?" He nods towards my top.
With a sigh, I grab the hem of my T-shirt and lift it high, exposing my chest. Dr. Oystein stares at the cavity on the left, where my heart once beat. Now there's just a jagged hole, rimmed by congealed blood and a light green moss.
"Fascinating," the doctor murmurs. "We zombies are all freaks of nature, each a walking medical marvel, but one tends to forget that. This is a reminder of our ability to defy established laws. You are a remarkable individual, Becky Smith, and you should be proud of the great wound which you bear."
"Stop it," I grunt. "You'll make me blush."
Dr. Oystein sniffs. "Not unless you are even more remarkable than the rest of us. Without a heart, how would your body pump blood to your pale, pretty cheeks?"
Dr. Oystein makes a gesture, inviting me to lower my T-shirt. As I do so, he steps across to the window where I was standing when he first addressed me. County Hall boasts one of the best views in the city. He looks out at the river, the London Eye, the Houses of Parliament and all the other deserted buildings.
"Such devastation," he mumbles. "You must have encountered horrors beyond your worst nightmares on your way to us. Am I correct?"
I think about all of the corpses and zombies I've seen ... Mr. Dowling and the people he tormented and killed in Trafalgar Square ... his army of mutants and his bizarre sidekick, Owl Man ... the hunters who almost killed me ... Sister Clare of the Order of the Shnax, the way she transformed when I bit her ...
"You're not bloody wrong," I wheeze.
"The world teeters on the brink," Dr. Oystein continues. "It has been dealt a savage blow and I am sure that most of those who survived believe that there is no way back, regardless of what the puppets of the military might say in their radio broadcasts."
"You've heard those too?"
"Oh yes. I tune in whenever I am in need of bittersweet amusement." He looks back at me. "There are many fools in this world, and it is no crime to be one of them. But to try and carry on as normal when all around you has descended into chaos ... to try to convince others that you can restore order by operating as you did before ... That goes beyond mere foolishness. That is madness and it will prove the true downfall of this world if we leave these people to their sad, petty, all-too-human devices.
"There is hope for civilization as we once knew it. But if the living are to rise again, they will need our help, since only the conscious undead stand any sort of chance against the brain-hungry legions of the damned."
Dr. Oystein beckons me forward. I shuffle towards him slowly, not just because of the pain, but because I've almost been mesmerized by his words. He speaks like a hypnotist, slow, assured, serious.
When I join him at the window, Dr. Oystein points to the London Eye, turning as smoothly and steadily as it did when thousands of tourists flocked there every day.
"I consider that a symbol of all that has been lost but which might one day be restored," the doctor says. "We keep it going, day and night, a beacon of living hope in this city of the dead. But no ordinary human could operate the Eye—they would be sniffed out and besieged by zombies. We, on the other hand, can. The dead will not bother us, since we are of no interest to them. That lack of interest is our strength and humanity's only hope of once again taking control of this planet.
"You are not the first revitalized to find your way here," Dr. Oystein goes on. "There are others–weary, battered warriors–who have crawled through the streets of bloodshed and nightmares in search of sanctuary and hope, following the signs as you did."
"Are you talking about zom heads?" I ask.
"Yes," he says. "But we do not use that term here. If you choose to stay with us and work for the forces of justice and mercy, you will come to think of yourself as we do, not as a zom head but an Angel."
I snort. "With wings and a harp? Pull the other one!"
"No wings," Dr. Oystein smiles. "No harp either. But an Angel nonetheless." He moves away from the window, towards the door. "I have much to show you, Becky. You do not have to accompany me–you are free to leave anytime that you wish, and always will be–but, if you are willing, I will take you on a tour and reveal some of the many secrets of the newly redefined County Hall."
I stare at the open doorway. It's shadowy in the corridor outside. There could be soldiers waiting to jump me and stick me in a cell again.
"Why should I trust you?" I ask.
Dr. Oystein shrugs. "I could tell you to listen to your heart, but ..."
The grisly joke eases my fears. Besides, there's no way I could turn back now. He's got me curious and, like a cat, I have to follow my nose and hope it doesn't lead me astray.
"All right, doc," I grunt, limping over to him and grinning, as if I haven't a care in the world. "You can be my guide. Just don't expect a tip at the end."
"I will ask for no tip," he says softly. "But I will ask for your soul." He smiles warmly as I stiffen. "There's no need to be afraid. When the time comes, I believe you will give it to me gladly."
And with that cryptic remark, he leads me out of the room of light and into the vast, dark warren beyond.
"This is an amazing building," Dr. Oystein says as we wander through a series of long corridors, popping into massive, ornately decorated rooms along the way. "Four thousand people worked here at its zenith. To think that it is now home to no more than a few dozen ..." He makes a sighing sound.
"I came here a few times when I was younger," I tell him. "I went on the Eye, visited the aquarium and the London Dungeon, hung out in the arcade, ate at some of the restaurants. My dad brought us up one New Year's Eve for the fireworks. We were in line for ages to get a drink from a shop nearby. Worth it though—it was a cool show."
Dr. Oystein pushes open a door to reveal a room with a handful of beds. They haven't been made up and I get the sense that nobody is using them.
"I had no idea how many revitalizeds would find their way to us," he says. "I hoped for many, feared for few, but we prepared for an influx to be on the safe side. There are many rooms like this, waiting for teenagers like you who will in all likelihood never come."
I frown. "Why just teenagers? Don't you accept adults too?"
"We would if any came, but adult revitalizeds are rare."
"Why?" I ask.
"I will explain later," he promises.
He closes the door and pushes on. After a while the style of the corridors and rooms changes and I realize we've crossed into one of the hotels that were part of County Hall before the zombie uprising.
"Oh, for the simple comforts of life," Dr. Oystein says drily as we check out a suite that's bigger than my family's old flat in the East End. "Did you ever stay in a hotel like this, Becky?"
"No. And it's B," I tell him. "That's what everybody calls me."
"Is that what you prefer?"
He nods. "As you wish. We all have the right to choose our own name."
"How about you?" I counter. "Dr. Oystein's a mouthful. What's your first name?"
He smiles. "Oystein is my first name. It has been so long since I used my surname that I have almost forgotten what it is."
We double back on ourselves but take a different route. This place is a maze. My head is spinning as I try to chart all the twists and turns, in case I need to make a quick getaway. The doctor seems like a nice old bloke, but I'm taking nothing for granted.
"How many rooms are there?" I ask.
"Far too many to count," Dr. Oystein says. "We use very few of them. It's a pity we cannot make more use of the space, but we do not have the numbers at the moment. Maybe one day we can bring it fully back to life, but for the time being we must rattle around in it."
"Why don't you move somewhere smaller?"
Dr. Oystein coughs as if embarrassed. "To be honest, I always had a fondness for County Hall. When I was casting around for a base, this was my first choice. The Angels seem to share my love for the building. I hope that it will come to feel like home for you over time, as it has for us."
"So who lives here with you?" I ask. "You haven't told me about the setup yet, how you came to be here, who your Angels are, how you plan to save the world."
"Those questions will all be answered," he assures me. "We do not keep secrets from one another. We are open in all that we do. But there is no need to rush. As you adjust and settle in, we will reveal more of our work and background to you, until you know as much about us as I do."
I don't like being told to wait, but this is his gig. Besides, I'm exhausted and my brain hurts, so I don't think I could take in much more anyway. There's one thing that does disturb me though, and I want to bring it up before pushing on any farther.
"How come there are no regular zombies here? Every other big, dark building that I've seen has been packed with them."
"I had already recruited a small team of Angels before I established a permanent base," he says. "We drove out the reviveds before we moved in."
"That must have been messy."
"It was actually the easiest thing in the world," he replies. "With their sharp sense of hearing, reviveds–like revitalizeds–are vulnerable to high- pitched noises. So we simply installed a few speakers and played a string of high notes through them, which proved unbearable for those who had taken up residence. They moved out without any protest, then we slid in after them and shored up the entrances."
"I got in without any hassle," I remind him.
"We saw you coming on our security cameras," he says. "We switched off the speakers–we repositioned them around the building once we had moved in, and normally play the noises on a constant loop, to keep stray reviveds at bay–and made sure a door was open when you arrived."
We come to a huge room and I catch my first glimpse of what I assume are some of Dr. Oystein's Angels. There's a small group of them at the center of the room, in a boxing ring, sparring. They're my sort of age, no more than a year or two older or younger than me.
"They spend most of their days training," Dr. Oystein says.
I swivel to look at him, but he doesn't return my gaze.
"The years ahead will be hard," he says quietly. "We will be tested severely, and I am sure at times we will be found wanting. We face many battles, some of which we are certain to lose. But if we prepare as best we can, and have faith in ourselves and the justness of our cause, we will triumph in the end."
I snort. "I hate to burst your bubble, doc, but if those Angels are like me, you'd better tell them to get their arses in gear. In another year or two we'll be pushing up daisies. You can't win a war if all your troops are rotting in the grave."
Dr. Oystein frowns. "What are you talking about?"
"Our limited lifespan. We've only got a year and a half, two years max. Then our senses will dissolve, our brains will melt and we'll be dead meat. If you've got a war you want to win, you'd better crack on and–"
"You were told many things when you were a prisoner," Dr. Oystein interrupts. "Some were true. Some, you must surely know, were not. Your captors wanted to bend you to their will. They told you lies to dampen your spirit, to break it, to make you theirs."
I stare at him, hardly daring to believe what he's telling me. "You mean it was bullshit about me only having a year or two to live?"
"Of the highest grade," he smiles.
"I'm not going to die soon?" I cry.
Excerpted from Zom-B Angels by Darren Shan. Copyright © 2013 Darren Shan. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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