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By Darren Shan
Little, Brown Books for Young ReadersCopyright © 2013 Darren Shan
All rights reserved.
The London Dungeon used to be one of the city's top tourist attractions. It was a fun but grisly place, a cross between a museum and a horror house. It re-created some of London's darker historical moments, bringing back to life the world of people like Jack the Ripper and Sweeney Todd. It featured sinister, imposing models of buildings from the past, props like hanging skeletons and snarling rats, nerve-tingling videos and light shows, and actors to play the various infamous figures. There were even some stomach-churning rides. I visited it quite a few times when I was alive, and always had a brilliant time.
I haven't been in the Dungeon since returning to County Hall as a revitalized, but right now it feels like the most natural part of the complex to head for.
I wander through the deserted rooms, enjoying the isolation and the gloominess. The actors are gone, and someone must have done the rounds and turned off all the projectors and video clips, but most of the lights work, and the sets and props haven't been disturbed. It's still the coolest damn place in London.
I also think, looking back, that it served as a taste of what was to come. The London Dungeon painted a picture of a blood-drenched city full of terror and murder, and the people who built it were right—this is a realm of madness and death. We were never more than one sharp twist away from total chaos, from demonic clowns prancing through the streets and tenderhearted but loopy scientists setting themselves up as spokesmen for God.
I thought I'd escaped the craziness when I came to County Hall. London had been destroyed, zombies had taken over, life as we knew it had come to an end. But Dr. Oystein seemed to offer sanctuary from the grim bedlam of the streets. I thought I could rest easy, make friends, learn from the good doctor, start to build a new life (or should that be unlife?) for myself.
That was before the doctor told me that God speaks to him.
I creep along a street that looks like it's been transported to the present day from Victorian London. I pause, imagining banks of swirling fog, waiting for Jack the Ripper to leap out and claim me for his own. That's not very likely, I know, but it wouldn't surprise me. I reckon just about anything could happen in this crazy, messed-up world.
That's what's so weird and scary about the story Dr. Oystein fed us. There was a time when I would have written him off as a kook, but given what I've seen and experienced recently, I can't say for sure that he is barking mad. He told me he was forced by Nazis to create the zombie gene—that's probably fact. It's clear that he's an expert on the living dead, having studied them for decades. He's the one who gave me the ability to revitalize.
If all that and more is true, then why not the rest of it? The world has always been full of people claiming to be in contact with God. Surely they can't all have been nutters. If some of them were the genuine article, maybe Dr. Oystein is too. The trouble is, how's an ordinary girl like me to supposed to be able to tell the difference between a prophet and a madman?
I curse loudly and slam a fist into one of the fake walls, punching a large hole through it. Someone chuckles behind me.
"Now there's a cliché if ever I saw one."
I turn and glare at Rage, who has followed me in from the riverbank. Mr. Burke is with him. Rage is sneering. Burke just looks uncomfortable.
"Why don't you go drown yourself?" I snarl at Rage.
"I would if I could," he smirks, then pokes his chest. "I'm the same as you. My lungs don't work."
I had left Rage, Burke and Dr. Oystein abruptly, without saying anything, once the doctor had hit us with the revelation that he was God's envoy, locked in battle with Mr. Dowling, aka the literal spawn of Satan. I couldn't take any more. My head was bursting.
"I haven't been in this part of the building before," Burke says, looking around.
"This was the London Dungeon," I tell him.
My ex-teacher nods. "I often meant to check it out, but I never got around to it."
"I came here lots," I sniff. "My mum hated the place, but Dad was like me, he thought it was great. He'd bring me here, just the two of us, and we'd have a wicked time."
"I bet," Burke says.
"What's that supposed to mean?" I shout, thinking he's having a dig at my racist dad, implying that he liked the horrors of the Dungeon because he was horrific himself.
Burke blinks, startled by my tone. "Nothing. It looks like it must have been a lot of fun back in the day. That's all I was saying."
Rage snorts. "Always thought the Dungeon was rubbish myself."
I laugh shortly. "That's because you're a moron with no taste."
"Yeah," he says. "That must be why I fancy you."
I give him the finger, but chuckle despite myself.
"So what do you think of old Oystein's story?" Rage asks.
I shrug and look away.
"He's off his head, isn't he?" Rage pushes.
"I suppose ..."
"Do you think any of it was real? Being imprisoned by the Nazis, inventing the zombie gene, working with governments and armies all these years to suppress breakouts?"
"Those are undeniable facts," Burke says quietly. "I discussed Dr. Oystein with my military contacts when I was leading a double life. Everything he told us today checked out."
"What about his direct line to God?" Rage jeers.
Burke sighs. "That's where we hit a gray area."
"Nothing gray about it," Rage says cheerfully. "The doc's a lunatic. I don't believe in God, the Devil, reincarnation, nothing like that. Even if I did, his story doesn't ring true. The all-powerful creator of the universe teaming up with a brain-hungry zombie? Get real!"
"Many prophets were outcasts of their time," Burke murmurs. "They were mistrusted and feared by their contemporaries, mocked, abused, driven from their homes. Christ was crucified, John the Baptist's head was chopped off, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake."
"Yeah," Rage says, "but they were human, weren't they? They were alive."
"Lazarus," I say softly, the memory coming to me out of nowhere. "Jesus raised him from the dead. The first zombie."
Rage starts to laugh, then considers what I've said and frowns. "You think the doc's telling the truth?"
I pull a face. "How the hell do I know? It sounds crazy, but ..."
"I don't do buts," Rage says. "It's a simple world as long as you don't let others complicate it for you. The doc's a genius, no one's denying that, but he's mad too. I respect him for the Groove Tubes, bringing the Angels together and all the rest, but I'm not gonna pretend there wasn't steam coming out of his ears when he started telling us about his cozy chats with God."
"So what are you gonna do?" I ask.
"This war he wants us to fight. The Angels versus Mr. Dowling and his army of mutants. If you don't believe God's on our side, or that we're fighting the forces of darkness, where does that leave you?"
"Right where I want to be," Rage smirks. "In the thick of it all."
He walks up to the plasterboard wall I punched and studies the hole I made.
"We're built to fight," he whispers, rubbing together the bones sticking out of his fingers. "We were reborn as perfect killing machines. I always wanted to join an army. I had it all planned. I was gonna give myself a couple of years after school to see the world, have some laughs, sow my wild seeds."
"Oats," Burke corrects him.
"Whatever. Then I was gonna join the French Foreign Legion or something like that. Go where the battles were, test myself on the field of combat, maybe become a mercenary further down the line, hire myself out to whoever paid me the most."
"You don't believe in loyalty to a cause?" Burke asks diplomatically.
"Loyalty's for mugs," Rage says.
Burke looks disappointed. "Then you're not going to stay with Dr. Oystein?"
Rage frowns. "Weren't you listening? I want to be where the action is. Dr. Oystein's five cans short of a six-pack, but if he's gonna start a war with the clown and his mutants, I want to be there when they clash. So, yeah, I'm his man if he'll have me."
"You're going to stay even though you think Dr. Oystein is mad?" I gape.
"Of course," Rage says calmly. "War's in my blood. I want to be a warrior and Oystein's offering me the best fight in town. Why would I turn my back on the chance to go toe-to-toe with an army of mutants and their diabolical leader? Hell, if we win, I might end up saving the world from the Devil—how ironic would that be, given that I don't even believe in the bugger?"
Rage turns to leave.
"And what if the Devil makes you a better offer?" Burke asks.
Rage looks back uncertainly.
"What if Mr. Dowling asks you to join him somewhere down the line?" Burke presses. "Would you consider a proposal from our enemy?"
"Might do," Rage nods. "Offhand I can't think of anything he could offer to tempt me, since money doesn't mean anything these days. But never say never, right?"
"You'd sell us out?" I shout.
"In a heartbeat," Rage says, then flashes his teeth in a merciless grin. "God, the Devil, forces in between ... It makes no difference to me. I'll go where the going's good. Right now I'm best off sticking with Dr. Oystein. But I'm not in this game to save the world or what's left of mankind. I'm just a guy in search of some kicks to pass the time before my tired old bones give up the ghost."
Rage cocks his head and grunts. "If the doc's right about us being able to survive for thousands of years, that's a lot of time to play with. I'll need a lot of kicks. Maybe spend a century working for the good guys, then a century for the villains. Or take on the whole lot of you together—Rage against the world. Wherever the opportunity for the most excitement lies, that's where you'll find me.
"Take care, folks. And watch your backs."
Then, with a laugh, he's gone, leaving Burke and me to stare at each other in openmouthed disbelief.
"Maybe you were right," Burke mutters. "We might have been better off if we'd killed him when he was in the Groove Tube."
I chuckle. "You don't really mean that."
"No," he smiles. "I suppose I don't. But I'll have to keep a close watch on him. I hadn't realized he was this dangerous."
"The clue was in the name," I note drily.
Burke winces. "It's always a dark day when the student becomes the teacher. Especially a student as limited as you were. No offense."
We laugh, and for a while it's like we're back in school, just a cool teacher and a teenage girl sharing a joke.
"So what do you think of the whole Dr. Oystein and God thing?" I ask.
Burke sighs. "Does it matter?"
"Of course it does."
"Why?" he challenges me. "Isn't faith a personal choice? Don't we all listen to our hearts and choose to believe – or not – based on what we feel rather than on what other people tell us?"
"No," I snort. "We believe whatever our parents tell us, until we're old enough to decide for ourselves. Then most of us go along with what we grew up with because it's easier than trying to learn something new."
Burke claps enthusiastically. "My star student. Why did you never come up with airtight reasoning like that in class?"
"Because school was boring," I tell him.
"Ouch," he says, then sighs again. "You're right, of course. But whether we choose to believe or just stick with the faith we've grown up with, the truth is that nobody can ever say for sure if there's a God or not. Dr. Oystein is convinced that there is, and for all I know he's right."
"But if he's not?" I press.
"I don't think it matters." Burke grimaces. "I mean, under different circumstances I'd be wary of him. Lots of wars have been fought by people who used religion as an excuse. Kings, politicians and generals twisted the beliefs of their followers as they saw fit, playing the religious card to justify their crusades over land, oil, gold or whatever it was they were really fighting for."
"Isn't that what Dr. Oystein is doing?" I ask.
"I don't think so. He's asking us only to have faith in him, not in his God, to accept that he's working in the name of good, to overcome the forces of darkness that are stacked against us. Whatever you think about God, nobody can deny that we're facing dark times. The zombies, Mr. Dowling and his mutants ... These are forces we can't ignore, enemies that have to be faced. Every so often a war that must be fought comes along, and I think this is one of them."
"Yeah, fair enough," I mumble. "But is a nutjob the best man to lead the fight against the bad guys?"
"If not Dr. Oystein, then who?" Burke asks. "You?"
"Hell, no. I'm not a leader."
"Nor am I," Burke says. "It takes a certain breed of person to command. Dr. Oystein is a rarity, a man with the ability to lead but not the desire—he's told me that he's only doing this because it's him or nobody, and I believe him. The alternative is someone who craves power—the likes of Josh Massoglia or Dr. Cerveris. Do you really want to pledge yourself to someone like that?"
"No, but ..." I shift uncomfortably. "I didn't like Josh or Dr. Cerveris, but they ran a tight ship."
"Until Mr. Dowling penetrated their defenses," Burke says, then leads me from the Victorian chamber, through the rest of the Dungeon, and out towards the front of the building. When we're in the fresh air, beneath the shadow of the London Eye, he continues.
"This is a chance to start afresh," he says softly. "Whether it was divine retribution or a mess of our own making, the world has fallen, the old order has crashed and burned. If we can find a way to deal with the zombies, this is an incredible opportunity to begin again and try to improve upon the mistakes of the past.
"If you believe the stories of the Old Testament in the Bible, this isn't the first time this has happened. The Flood wiped the slate clean and people had to start over. Things didn't work out too well that time, but who's to say we can't do better now? The zombies and mutants are clear-cut enemies. Everyone can recognize them as a threat and join against them—Jew, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, white and black, all fighting together, differences set aside.
"If we win this war, power-hungry people will immediately start thinking about how to establish control over the remnants of mankind. They'll look for new foes and threats, and work the survivors up into an agitated state. Hatred and domination are the ways of the past and will in all likelihood be the ways of the future too. Unless Dr. Oystein and his Angels can help us change."
Burke makes a face. "I know I'm being a crazy optimist, but I can't help myself. The best that the old leaders can offer is a return to the status quo. I think, based on what I've seen of him, that Dr. Oystein holds the promise of true redemption. He's what a leader should be—a man who is reluctant to tell others how they should behave and what they should believe."
"I don't know if I agree with you," I say miserably. "I want to, but I can't get over the fact that this is a guy who claims to be in touch with God. It's hard for me to go along with someone like that."
Burke nods. "I understand. I won't try to pressure you, just as Dr. Oystein won't. If you can reconcile yourself to working with us, we'll welcome your support and you can help us take the fight to Mr. Dowling, rescue survivors, work with those who've established compounds beyond the confines of the city, search for a way to suppress the zombies. There's going to be so much to do, so many wars to be waged. We'll need all the help we can get.
Excerpted from Zom-B Baby by Darren Shan. Copyright © 2013 Darren Shan. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
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