Read an Excerpt
By Darren Shan
Little, Brown Books for Young ReadersCopyright © 2014 Darren Shan
All rights reserved.
There's a tunnel beneath Waterloo Station that used to be a haven for graffiti artists. Anyone was allowed to paint whatever they wanted on the walls, floor or ceiling.
The zombies put a stop to the artists with their stencils and spray paint, but the art remains, bright, bold and colorful. It covers every inch of the tunnel. If humans ever eliminate the undead and take control of the world again, I bet a lot of people will come to this place to admire the paintings.
But I'm not here today for the graffiti.
I'm here for the zombies.
We usually keep this tunnel clear of the living dead. It's easily done. Zombies have sensitive ears. High-pitched noises cut through our skulls and make our teeth shake. When Dr. Oystein moved into County Hall, he placed speakers in hidden places around the area and played a loop of sharp noises through them, guaranteed to send any zombie within range running for cover. It keeps the drooling, brain-hungry riffraff from our door.
But we haven't been playing the loop in the tunnel for the last few nights. We wanted company and figured the dark, quiet space would draw a crowd once we cut the power to the speakers.
We figured right. There are twenty-five or thirty zombies in residence, a mix of men, women and kids, some in suits or nice dresses, others in more casual wear, a few naked or close enough. Blank expressions, long, sharp teeth, bones sticking out of their fingers and toes, wisps of green moss wherever they were bitten or cut when they were alive.
I study the zombies with a touch of nerves, but no disgust, revulsion or pity. They're my own kind. Except for the fact that my brain works, I'm no different than them.
I'm part of a group of six. The others are the same as me, revitalized Angels, soldiers in Dr. Oystein's undead army. Carl Clay stands to my left, looking impeccable in his top-of-the-range, designer gear. Ashtat Kiarostami is to my right, dressed in a blue, loose-fitting suit, with a white headscarf. The bulky Rage is on the other side of Carl, wearing the leathers that he's favored since his time as a zom head. Shane Fitz and Jakob Pegg are next to Ashtat, Shane looking like a gangster wannabe in a tracksuit and with a gold chain dangling from his neck, Jakob pale and sickly in a pair of jeans and a shirt that sags on his bony frame.
We're all unarmed.
"Do you think there are enough of them?" Carl asks, frowning as he counts the zombies.
"Five to one," Shane sniffs. "Those are good enough odds for me. How many more do you want to face?"
"There aren't many men among them," Carl notes.
"Are you suggesting that women are inferior?" Ashtat asks coldly.
Carl winces. "No. But generally speaking they're not as strong as men. It's the way of the world. You can't argue with that."
"In life, no," Ashtat says. "But death levels the playing field. I have noticed no real difference between the sexes in our battles so far. Muscles are not the factor they once were, not in reviveds. Or revitalizeds," she adds pointedly.
Carl makes a sighing sound, which isn't easy when you don't have functioning lungs. "All right. I don't want an argument. Are we all happy to press ahead? We don't want to wait another day in case more of them come to seek shelter here?" He looks around and everyone shrugs or nods. "Fair enough. We'll crack on. How about you, Reilly? Are you ready?"
The soldier is standing behind us. He's not a happy bunny.
"I can't believe I let Zhang talk me into this," he mutters. He's sweating. That's something no revitalized could ever mimic. The walking dead don't sweat.
"Don't be a baby," Rage grins. "We've all got to be prepared to make sacrifices for the cause."
"Yeah?" Reilly snarls. "What have you sacrificed lately?"
"My sense of compassion," Rage snaps. "Now quit moaning or we'll leave you here by yourself. Are you ready or not?"
"I suppose," Reilly mutters miserably. He's really not enjoying this. I don't blame him. It can't be easy, placing your life in the hands of a surly shower of teenage zombies.
Ashtat and I nudge apart and Reilly steps through the gap. He's covered himself from the neck down in thick leathers and he's wearing a helmet with a tough glass visor. The gear won't protect him for long if a zombie gets hold of him and rips in, but it should guard him against casual swipes, spit and flying blood.
Reilly moves a couple of meters ahead of us, gulps, then calls out loudly, "I don't suppose any of you creeps have seen Banksy?"
The zombies didn't pay much attention to us when we filed in. They could tell from our moss-covered wounds and the bones jutting out of our fingertips that we were in the same boat as them.
Reilly is a whole different kettle of fish. When he shouts, they jerk to attention and lock their sights on him. They note his covered form, his shaky grin behind the visor. They clock his heartbeat. They smell his blood, fresh and pure, his sweat, the scent of the food he ate that morning on his lips and tongue, his juicy brain.
The zombies howl with glee and hunger, a penetrating, fearsome sound. Then they move as one and surge towards us, fingers flexing, teeth gnashing, primed, deadly assassins whose only purpose in this world is to attack and tear asunder.
It's killing time!
We dart ahead of Reilly and tackle the onrushing zombies. I run into a woman who is wearing a bra and knickers and nothing else. There are curlers in her hair. Looks like the living dead caught her at home when she was getting ready to go out.
I strike swiftly at the woman, a flurry of blows to her face and neck. She snarls and tries to hit back. I turn quickly, raising my leg high, and kick the back of her head as I spin. She's slammed sideways. I'm on her instantly. Making the fingers of my right hand straight and hard, I drive the bones sticking out of them down sharply into her skull, piercing the covering of bone, digging into the vulnerable brain beneath.
The woman shudders, makes a low moaning noise, then falls still. I withdraw my hand and leave her to lie in the dust of the tunnel, truly dead now.
A man is rushing past me, hands outstretched, reaching for Reilly. I elbow him in the ribs. I can't knock the wind out of his sails–there's no wind in them to begin with–but the force of the blow sends him off course. As he staggers, I follow after him, fingers ready to crack open another head and rid the city of one more zombie.
I don't like doing this. I refused to kill reviveds when I was a prisoner in the military complex. But Dr. Oystein has convinced me that it's necessary. If we are to triumph in the war to come, we need to sharpen ourselves in combat. So, as much as I hate it, I kill as ordered, but I do it quickly and cleanly, not wanting to torment these poor lost souls.
The other Angels are busy around me. Each of us has a different ability and we've all been trained by Master Zhang to focus on our strengths. We've been told to test specific skills today, to only deviate from them if absolutely necessary. Mine is the speed with which I can strike—I have quick hands and feet, very nimble.
Ashtat is our pack's version of the Karate Kid. She whirls gracefully around the tunnel, chopping and kicking, leaping high into the air to casually swing a foot at a man's head—a second later it's been knocked clear of his neck. She lands smoothly, pounces after the head, comes down on it with a well-placed heel to squish the brain and put the zombie out of action.
Rage is a one-man wrecking machine. He's the strongest of us all. He lets his opponents get close, then clubs them over the head or grabs them in a bear hug and squeezes until their brains seep out through their eye sockets and ear canals. He laughs and cracks jokes as he kills. He doesn't have any of the reservations that I do.
Posh Carl can jump like a grasshopper. He leaps around, landing among the reviveds, disrupting and scattering them, pushing them over or tripping them up, then springing across the tunnel to strike again. He could kill easily but he's been told not to. Today he's just here to confuse and disrupt.
Jakob isn't killing either. He's under orders to protect Reilly from any revived that gets past the rest of us. Jakob can run very fast. He's skinny and unhealthy-looking, even for a zombie, the result of the cancer he was dying from when he was turned. He's always in pain, but he can shrug it off when he has to. In the tunnel he stays focused, pulling Reilly away from stray zombies, ready to pick him up and run with him if something goes seriously wrong and the rest of us get into difficulties.
Ginger Shane's fingerbones and toe bones are tougher than anyone else's. We can all dig our bones into planks or crumbling bricks, but Shane can gouge a hole in a slab of concrete. He keeps climbing the walls and dropping on our opponents. He's laughing like Rage–the pair have become thick as thieves–until one of the zombies snags the gold chain around his neck and rips it loose.
"Not my chain!" Shane roars as it flies across the tunnel. He loses interest in the zombie and hurries after the keepsake.
"Shane!" Ashtat snaps. "Don't abandon your position."
"Get stuffed," he grunts, shoving a zombie out of his way, scooping to reclaim his cherished possession.
A female zombie attacks him from the side as he's brushing dirt from the chain. He goes down with a cry of surprise. The woman tears at him, digs her fingers into his stomach, bites down hard on his left shoulder.
Shane roars and slaps the revived. He shouts for help. Ashtat curses and starts towards him, but Jakob is faster. Forgetting his orders, he abandons Reilly and races to the aid of his friend, tugging the zombie away, buying Shane time to get back on his feet.
"Where's my bloody guard gone?" Reilly bellows. Then, a second later, he moans, "Oh crap."
A couple of zombies have broken through and are bearing down on him. Reilly turns to run but the living dead are faster. One, a guy, grabs his waist. The other, a woman, tries to chew through his helmet.
For a second I freeze, imagining having to break Reilly's loss to Ciara, the always stylishly dressed dinner lady who fixes our meals at County Hall. The pair of living humans have recently started dating, after the shy Reilly finally worked up the courage to ask her out. He didn't tell her he was coming with us today. Didn't want her to worry.
Snapping back into action, I throw myself in Reilly's direction, praying I'm not too late. But Carl beats me to the punch. He leaps in out of nowhere, kicks the head of the woman chewing on Reilly's helmet, grabs the ears of her partner and tugs sharply. Zombies don't feel pain as much as the living, but we can be hurt. The man screeches and loses interest in Reilly. He bats Carl away, then dives after him.
The woman is back at Reilly's helmet again, but before she can bare her fangs and chow down, Ashtat is on her, kicking furiously, short, sharp jabs, forcing her to retreat.
I attack the undead man from behind. I thrust a hand into his back and out through his chest. His heart bursts and chunks drip from my fingers. That won't stop him–zombies can survive without any organ except their brain–but it sure as hell distracts him. He writhes like a speared fish, trying to tear free.
I hold firm, wrapping my other arm round him, jamming my face in close to his back to present less of a target for his flailing arms. As he struggles, Carl makes a blade of his fingers, takes aim, then sends his left hand shooting through the revived's right eye. He goes in up to his wrist, then sneers at the zombie as he stiffens and dies.
"That'll teach you to mess with the Clay."
"Are you all right?" I shout at Reilly. He's patting himself, checking for rips in his leathers, features twisted frantically behind the visor. "Reilly! Are you okay?"
"I think so," he wheezes, starting to relax. "I don't think I've been scratched. Where the hell is Jakob?"
Reilly growls. "My boot's gonna be helping its way up his arse when I get him back to County Hall."
"No swearing," Rage crows as he grabs the head of a boy who can't be more than eight or nine years old. "You'll set a bad example."
"A lot of use you were," I throw back at him.
Rage shrugs. "Doesn't matter to me if Reilly gets turned. Just another monster for us to kill. The more the merrier as far as I'm concerned."
I curse Rage, not for the first time, and stride towards him. "Let the kid go," I tell him, before he crushes the boy's skull.
"Why?" he laughs. "Do you want to fight me?"
"No. But you know the rules—we need to check kids out before we destroy them."
Rage scowls. "I hate rules."
"Tough. If you don't obey them, I'll tell Dr. Oystein and we'll see how welcome you are at County Hall then."
Rage mumbles something to himself, then lets the boy go. The kid immediately sets after Reilly, every bit as anxious to sink his fangs into a living human's brain as the adults are. I tackle him and easily stop his charge. I pull out the cuffs that I've brought along especially for this and slip a pair onto his wrists. Letting go, I push him to the ground, then snap another pair shut around his ankles. As the boy struggles furiously to break free, mewling miserably, I assess the situation.
Shane is back in the thick of things. He looks ashamed and so he should. A sheepish Jakob has resumed his position and is protecting Reilly again. Ashtat and Rage are picking off the last few adult reviveds. Carl has cuffed a girl even younger than the boy and is moving in on the last remaining child, another boy, this one not far from my age.
It's clear sailing now.
A minute later every zombie has been dispatched except for the three kids. As the rest of the Angels brush themselves down and give each other high fives, I examine the cuffed prisoners, searching their thighs and arms for c-shaped scars. Dr. Oystein spent decades injecting children with a vaccine that would help them fight the zombie gene if infected. If we find any child with the mark, we take them back to County Hall in case they revitalize farther down the line.
Sadly, none of these three bears the scar of hope. They're regular reviveds, damned from the moment they were turned. I steel myself, offer up a quick prayer, then finish them off one by one. I feel sick every time I do this. I know they're undead killers, no different than any of the adult zombies that I've put out of their misery, but it still feels wrong.
I could ask one of the others to do it–Rage has no qualms about ripping the brain from a young zombie's head–but this is a hard world and Master Zhang has warned us that each one of us needs to toughen up if we're going to thrive and be of use to Dr. Oystein. So I grit my teeth and force myself to push through with the dirty deed. I just hope, if God is watching, that He understands and forgives me, though I'm not sure I'll ever be able to forgive myself.
"Nice work," Rage says when I'm done. He offers me his hand to high-five but I ignore him.
"I'm going to take that chain and help Reilly shove it up your arse," I bark at Shane.
"I screwed up," he winces. "I'm sorry. It won't happen again. But my dad gave me that chain. It's all I have left of either of my parents."
"Bullshit," Rage snorts. "I saw you take it from a shop last week."
The pair burst out laughing. "You shouldn't have told her," Shane giggles as I glower at him. "I had her going. She'd have melted and pardoned me."
"I wouldn't have," Reilly snarls, removing his helmet. "My bloody life was on the line. I haven't been vaccinated. There's no coming back for me if I get turned. You risked my safety over a bloody chain that you can replace any time?"
Shane's smile fades. "I really did screw up. I lost my head for a minute. I'm sorry, Reilly, honestly I am."
"You'd better be," Reilly says stiffly. "And note this, you little thug—if anything like that happens again, I'll kill you. Even if I get bitten or scratched, I'll make it my job to stab you through the brain before I turn. Understand?"
Shane nods and averts his gaze.
"Apart from that, we did brilliantly," Rage cheers, clapping loudly. "Now let's go tell Master Zhang how we fared and ask Ciara to rustle us up some delicious brain stew. I don't know about you guys, but killing always makes me hungry."
Rage licks his lips, the others laugh and cheer, then we trudge back to County Hall, experiment concluded, skills honed, one step closer to our hellish graduation.
Excerpted from Zom-B Gladiator by Darren Shan. Copyright © 2014 Darren Shan. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
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