Death's Empire in the Steel City


Two men entered an old building which had long seen its last tenant pass from within its halls. Clad in makeshift gear scavenged from wherever they happened across it. The world known to the masses had disappeared and was replaced by a world that more resembled hell than earth.


“Hey, Seth, do you think these are any good?” one of the men said as he held up an old can of pasta. He remembered it from his youth the bland red sauce, the soggy noodles and the strangely smug look of the chef adorned across the face of the can. He could remember the taste, but he doubted it would still be preserved within the can.


The other man came over and studied the can smiling as he did.


“When I was a kid my babysitter would feed my brother and I these disgusting things. I have to laugh a bit because who knew that when the world went to shit this is all we would have left.”

He turned the can on its side.


“Yup, still good. Doesn’t expire for another five years. Delicious preservatives. It’s ironic that the push for preservative free foods was done to make us healthier, but the only chance we have for survival rests with the ingredients that no one could pronounce.”


The two men shared a laugh as they packed away a few of the cans. They had pushed their way from the northern shore into the Hill District. Once an area fraught with criminal activity, it was now a haven for the supplies left behind its inhabitants. When the Great Pandemic struck the cities began to empty. The plague was rumored to spread through simply bodily contact. The exchange of cells was supposedly enough to spread the virus. The CDC had debunked that theory, but could not pinpoint where the virus started within the body. Air, blood or even rats were considered as catalysts. The greatest pathologist in the world had met at the university and started testing a vaccine, but the virus had spread beyond the military’s control leaving not only the research, but the scientists themselves dead. It wasn’t until days later that the true horrors began.


“What time is it Ryan?”


Ryan check his watch and looked out the window. The sun had just started to recede towards the horizon.


“We’ve got some time till the Authority starts patrolling the hill. As soon as they turn on the bridge lights we’ll be trapped her so we are going to have to make our way back soon. Especially since we’re hoofing it.”


Seth knew the Authority only maintained a patrol downtown. The Authority, what was left of the US military in the city, had set up shop in the Steel Tower and now governed the area with an iron fist. Occasionally, the Authority would send bombing raids to areas known to have a dense population of the dead, but for the most part they kept the dead in line with a series of calculated measures. The bridge lights would come on and attract the dead by the thousands. He had no idea where they kept coming from, but with a population of over a million souls the supply seemed endless. Even the Authority couldn’t gun them all down.


“Seth, we’d better get moving. I don’t want to get caught out there when the sun goes down. The Authority placed those lights strategically to attract the dead and block our easier avenue escape.”

Seth studied a makeshift map of the city.


“If we head down Grant we will go right past the Steel Tower. If we leave now we should have enough time to get across the bridge and back to home turf on the shore.”


Ryan and Seth started down the steps towards the street level entrance whenever Seth heard screaming from outside. The two men raced down the steps guns lowered and out into the street. A young woman was at the end of the block beneath a church fending off one of the dead. Normally, it was every man for himself in Authority territory, but with the number of dead growing each day, humanity could use everyone it could find.


“Ryan, wing out right and take out some of the dead in the back. I’ll head up the middle and get her out of there.”


Ryan nodded and crawled down to a lower level parking lot beneath the street. As he raced up the side he realized that the horde was substantially bigger than he originally imagined. He watched as the woman struggled to fight off the biters. She was armed to the teeth, but with that many dead even the hardiest survivor could get caught out in the open.


Seth charged ahead towards the woman’s position. She was down to a half broken baseball bat and what appeared to be an old machete nearly rusted down to the hilt. He had to get to her if they had any hope of rescuing her. He began to fire rounds from his M-14 as he approached her striking a few of the dead that were nearly upon her. She briefly turned to see Seth unload another round at the dead, but her attention quickly turned back to a rushing dead plunging her rusted machete into its skull the blade breaking off at the hilt. She was down to her broken bat. Her hopes rested on Seth and Ryan’s experience in the field.


Ryan pushed around the dead’s position and realized that Seth and the mystery woman had no idea the hornet’s nest that had been stirred up. Nearly a hundred shambling and ravenous dead pushed past the church and towards their position. He looked up at the steeple of the church and for a moment found peace in the dilapidated statue of Jesus. It was a rare moment in this hellish world that he found any semblance of spirituality. He decided he could cherish it later, but for now he needed to do act and fast.


“Seth!” Ryan called out over the short wave radio they had scavenged from an Authority cache a few months back. “I know you said not to use these unless it was an emergency, but there are hundreds of the dead coming towards your position. You need to get the fuck out of there!”


Seth could barely make out Ryan’s commands over the sounds of snarling and blood curdling screams. He tried to get a fix on his position, but the dead keep coming. He fixed his bayonet and decided to try a different approach lunging forward and driving the dead back one by one until he and the mystery woman had enough room to circle back towards Ryan’s position.


“Ryan, we’re headed your way! Circle back and we’ll head into the hold administration building near the on ramp.”


Seth grabbed the woman by the arm and sprinted down the street. The dead were closing in fast and he could almost feel their ravenous teeth on their flesh. In the background he could hear Ryan unloading rounds into the horde, but Seth soon realized that the group was much larger than he had anticipated. He had to ask himself, what the hell did this girl do to get put into that situation? If they ever got free from the hungry dead he’d find out.


Ryan finally was able to circle back and catch up to Seth and the new girl. He had run out of ammo, but splitting up now wasn’t an option. This little diversion had cost them precious time, but if he thought it couldn’t get worst he was about to be surprised.


The trio was step ahead of the dead and nearly to the administration building, but without warning the screech of A-10 fighters could be heard. It was the Authority. Their little fire fight had attracted a large amount of the dead and apparently took notice.


“Seth, we need to get indoors! We’ve got the attention of the Authority!”


Seth tried to turn and look for the tank killers, but realized that the zombies hadn’t given up pace. He grabbed the woman’s arm and took a sharp turn down an alley near the city administration building. Ryan quickly followed. The three survivors climbed a rusted fence and fell exhausted to the other side. They looked as the dead frantically tried to push through the fence. Seth and Ryan pushed a dumpster against the fence and slipped into a nearby building the sounds of Gatling cannons mowing into the zombie horde.


Seth checked himself for wounds and looked over at Ryan.


“I think we’re okay for now. I’m out of ammo though. We’ll need to see if the Authority left any caches in here.”


Ryan nodded then looked over at the panicked woman who suddenly began to sob.

“Are you okay? What the hell happened out there?”


Seth walked over and placed his hand on her shoulder and looked her over for wounds. If she was wounded from one of the dead then she was a lost cause. Somewhere in the city a vaccine lay dormant, but he didn’t have anything that could stop the spread.


“Ma’am, you okay? We have a survivor network on the north shore, but for now we need to game plan. We don’t want to be stuck out in the city at night. Especially near the Hill. Can we have a name?”


The girl wiped her eyes and looked at Ryan and Seth.


“I suppose I should thank you guys for saving me. You didn’t have to do that. I know in this world its toughest protecting yourself let alone strangers.”


Seth and Ryan knew she wasn’t wrong, but the only reason they had survived this long was through each. Strangers prior to the Great Pandemic, Seth and Ryan met up fighting in a local militia against the dead. Both lost their families, both lost their friends, but both knew that survival depended on humanity banding together. Unfortunately, the Authority did see it that way and felt that only the strong should survive and in this case it was only their own that should survive. The dead and the other survivors were considered one and the same.


“You don’t need to thank us. We were doing what we felt was right and besides we did find some delicious preservative loaded canned pasta. Just like momma used to make whenever we were in a hurry. The good news is it doesn’t give me the trots like it did when I was a kid.”


The woman rolled her eyes and walked over to the window.


“Looks like those planes took out the corpse army. Didn’t they see us running though? They could’ve killed us. Oh and my name is Kate. I don’t think I caught your names?”


Seth pulled Kate away from the window.


“My name is Seth and this Ryan and those fuckers in the planes were the Authority. It’s what was left of the military in the city. They formed a makeshift government out of the Steel Tower. Some say they are working on a vaccination in there, but others say they have more sinister motivations. Either way they don’t like us and we are in deep shit if we stay here.”


Kate walked over and looked at her pack. She took out a 9mm pistol, butcher’s knife and a compass. It was a meager inventory and with Ryan being out of ammunition himself their chances of survival diminished dramatically. The sun had not yet set, but it the night wasn’t far away. The day belonged to the Authority, the night belonged to the dead and the survivors were caught in the middle just struggling to live another day.


The trio searched the building killing a few stray zombies and thankfully coming across an Authority ammunition cache. There were hundreds strewn across the city. During the early days of the War of the Damned, the US military actually was winning. It wasn’t until the total collapse of the East Coast that the military took a defensive posture. The Authority was eventually formed from that very same decision. From time to time the benefits of that retreat were reaped by the survivors. Ryan looked down at his watch and realized that time was no longer on their side. The sun was a mere fifteen minutes from setting and the bridge would be off limits then. The lack of light and tight environment was a recipe for disaster either at the hands of the Authority or the ravenous hunger of the dead.


“We’re going to have to take the subway tunnel. The Authority doesn’t patrol it anymore and according to our scouts it should be cleared of the dead. There might be a stray zombie here or there, but if the Authority was good at anything it was killing the shit out of anything that moves.”


Kate slapped in a clip and tossed Seth a spare for his M-14.


“We should be careful then. Let’s get moving. My group was coming down from the north when we ran into that horde. We lost fifteen people…it was hard. We were running out of supplies living in the country. Sure the dead population was lower, but so was the population density which means less supplies. Hence why we migrated here. Just never expected this.”


The trio ventured back out into the streets. A few street lights managed to flicker on. The Authority managed to get some of the utilities up and running at least on a local level. The group moved back towards where the first encountered the horde. The bodies piled high. The moans and groans of the surviving zombies provided a frightening level of background noise that also masked any potential threats. They needed to move fast if they wanted to get to the subway before the sun was completely gone. The dead were more active at night.


“We’re only about a block away from the subway entrance. There’s a convenience store nearby. Think we should stop for supplies? We aren’t exactly bring back a bounty.”


Ryan realized that Seth had a point plus they were bring back another mouth to feed, but the store was so close to the Authority headquarters it could be a fatal decision. He didn’t want to go hungry, but he’d rather be hungry and alive they killed by the Authority and reanimated as a mindless pile of flesh.


“Let’s just the fuck back man. I’ll deal with the others. If they give us shit then I’ll answer for it.”

Seth nodded and moved to the point. The three spread out in a skirmish line and headed around the old arena taking the long way. The Authority had built immense walls at the base of the tower and were constantly vigilant, but if they moved quietly and slowly then they should slip under the radar. The Authority were more concerned with the dead than with a couple of survivors or least that’s what they hoped.


Seth “Here’s the entrance to the subway. There might be patrols down here or worse a zombie horde. We need to be on our toes here. I want us back in one piece.”


Only a few moments passed as the trio descended into the darkened subway station when they overheard radio chatter and it wasn’t their own. They kept a secret channel open that only their people knew about. Somehow it had even eluded the Authority’s technology.


“Ryan, what are they saying?”


Ryan began to listen in on the conversation and realized that the Authority had taken notice of their presence and sent out a recon team. They did have some time to get a head start because the recon team was also cleaning up any of the undead stragglers that they A-10’s may have missed. He found it hard to believe that twin chain guns would miss anything, but the dead were a resilient bunch and could never be underestimated.


“We’d better get moving. The Authority is on the move and I’m guessing we’re the subject of investigation, which unfortunately won’t be good for us.”


Ryan pulled out an old transit map and laid it out on a café table.


“The transit line in this city is really straight forward, which thankfully for us should make this relatively simply move, but we should be weary of the Authority. Since it is so straight forward it would be easy to block the tunnel.”


Kate stepped up to the map and pointed out each stop.


“It’s likely that each stop has a block or at the very least a patrol, but to be honest I’d be more afraid of risers than any armed humans.”


The three decided to make haste into the tunnels and take their chances. It was few miles to the shoreline then it would take some skill to get past the Authority stronghold at the stadium. As they descended into the darkness they realized that their meager lamps only gave them a light radius of a few feet. The trek was going to be much slower than any of them realized.

Seth’s frustrations began to mount.


“I can’t see a fucking thing in this darkness. If there are any risers then we’re sure as shit dead.”


Despite his objections to continuing on he did have a point and soon they would come upon the first train car. During the evacuation of the city it was full to the brim of people until the government realized that people were leaving the city unchecked. The tunnel had been gassed leaving all inside to a slow and agonizing death. The rumor was that the Authority had removed the dead so they couldn’t rise again, but Seth, Ryan and Kate were about to find out that may not have been the case.


Seth was the first to realize they weren’t alone.


“Jesus, they’re coming from everywhere! Go back, go back!”


But there was no going back. The tunnel began to crawl with the dead and the trio had to act and fast. Standing back to back, Kate, Seth and Ryan opened fire illuminated the now crowded subway tunnel. Normally, Seth and Ryan’s assault rifles would give them some space between them and the risers, but in the tunnel it was more of a point and click approach. Kate had lowered her pistol and in the other hand yielded a rusty machete.


“Keep pushing towards the shore. If we go back we’re done for in the city!” Ryan ordered as he unleashed another burst fire from his M-14. Each round striking a zombie in the skull. He was in the zone. He had never been so confined with the dead. Many times since the Great Pandemic had he been under attack, but he always had a way out. This time he had to shoot his way out and he was running low on ammunition.


“I’m out, I’m out!” Seth screamed as he pulled out his hunting knife. One by one he plunged the blade into the skulls of the dead trying to avoid getting their putrid, black blood on his lips. He had been covered in the blood of the dead before, but he didn’t believe he was immune. The virus was supposed transferred through fluids so he never wanted to take a chance. He used to have a gas mask, but he ran out of filters a while ago. Little did he realize that it still would’ve kept the blood off his face and out of his mouth.


Seth and Ryan had finally emptied their clips. Originally they had enough to search for supplies. They never expected to encounter so many of the dead during a standard scavenger mission, but in this world the expected can never truly be expected.


“We need to make a break for it!” Kate yelled as she struggled to pull her rusty machete from the skull of a zombified obese man. The large man fell on top of her chomping at her throat.


“Help! This fat fuck is going to rip my throat out!”


Seth pushed off another zombie and worked his way over to Kate trying to shove off the overweight zombie. If anything being dead wasn’t a very good weight loss plan. While he struggled to get the cumbersome body off of Kate, Ryan was beginning to tire from the constant pressure. Part of him wanted to succumb to the zombie strikes, but the human side of him refused to go down without a fight, but he began to notice a green light making its way towards their position.


“What the fuck is that?” Ryan yelled out as he shoved away another zombie crushing in its teeth with the butt of his gun.


A series of gunshots echoed through the tunnel and towards their positions. Ryan wanted to return fire then realized that the rounds were striking the dead and not him, Seth or Kate. The green lights continued to close in then Ryan realized that the lights were for night vision goggles. Something he didn’t think his buddies back on the shore had.


“I think the Authority has found us.”


Two men approached the trio rifles raised.


“Stop and do not move. Identify yourselves.”


Ryan and Seth looked at each other and realized the jig was up. They had managed to avoid the Authority for nearly three years and without firing a shot they were going to be taken prisoner and that was only if they were lucky. The terrifying rumors of people being experimented on for a cure or forced into slavery ran rampant in their minds. Their imaginations taking them from the depths of despair to the fear of death.


“We don’t mean you any harm. We are simply trying to get back to our home on the North Shore. Please if you let us go I assure you we won’t bother the Authority ever again.”


Ryan watched as the soldier pulled back his night vision goggles.


“The names Sergeant Patrick Ingomar and we are Bravo Squad. Yes we are with the Authority, but we patrol these tunnels. Seems like the dead never go away. What the fuck are you doing down here anyways?”


Seth wanted to tell them everything, but realized that revealing their stronghold would probably be the end of their combine. The Authority was probably aware of their presence, but may not have known about their base. There were nearly two hundred people that counted on them to keep their location a secret and he wasn’t going to cave in now.


“Like I said we are one our way back to our shelter. The streets were crawling with the dead and to be honest we feared being hunted down by the Authority.”


Sergeant Ingomar walked up to Seth and studied him closely and called over one of the other squad members.


“Take them back to be debriefed and we’ll get the truth out of them back at the base.” He turned to Seth. “Can you keep your mouths shut or do we need to gag and bag you?”


Seth shook his head. “No we can keep our mouths shut. I don’t want to die out here anymore than you do.”


With that they were led away from the jaws of the horde and into the maw of a power they couldn’t possibly comprehend.


End of Part 1

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