Author Note: I was very disappointed at my original piece, so I did a total rewrite. Filled in some plot holes I had previously, expanded on details. Generally tried to make it a decent story.

Fatalists tend to think themselves realists. Are they really? Or is it just an attempt to veil the hope that every survivor vainly clings to? It seems like any individual who survived hell on Earth at the hands of the undead adopted such an attitude. Was it much of a surprise that I occasionally held such hope, as much as I denied it openly?

I was on my third beer. I had been on that beer for the last twenty minutes, staring at the dissolving suds with the same blank gaze a fortune teller gave their tea leaves. The pub was a converted cafeteria, meticulously maintained by Kenji Tanaka. Somehow, the Japanese dedication to a flawless appearance and service melded with that casual air of warm food and booze, and to most of us, as close to home as most could get. Kenji's earnest work had made him a demi-god to the survivors. For returning Outpost members, the comfortable atmosphere of the bar was a priority. A job away from the holdout would end only with a cold brew on one of the plastic lunch-benches. Then again, just as many people spent their last pennies on booze here without any kind of work.

Right now, it was mind numbingly boring. All my usual sources were on self declared vacation or spitting drunk.

This only changed when a small group of scavengers started to babble drunkenly about their finds. Normal, arrogant talk, on who took down the most zombies, or brought in the wildest haul. Often horrible exaggerations, of course. Alcohol or not, however, few really cared. Topics that needed serious discussion were laid out as evenly as the dick-waving.

"I'm saying though, we really could have made it!" Alcohol couldn't mask the excitement the speaker's youthful voice.

A thick, British accent replied, "Made it, you say? Unless you planned on rolling there in your own vomit, I say bull."

I had listened to this same raving before, and I didn't have to turn to know the debaters. Colton, the younger fellow, was a tall, lanky guy. Not known for a particularly hardy character, he had a knack for sourcing information on any topic. Probably why he never became "big" amongst the scavenger gangs, despite lending assistance to a majority of them. His friend Robert would be the ambitious one. The latter was squat and muscular, arrogant at times but fully competent for his role. He lead... looters, raiders? Really, they were just land pirates.

"Are you saying you didn't enjoy a good meal like that?" Was he being honest, or just trying to embarrass his buddy? "Never said that, but I prefer the feel of cold metal, you know?"

I visualized Colton grinning at that reply. "Hah! Who doesn't?"

Robert's intoxicated blathering cleared sharply into the scalding tone of a parent delivering verbal lashing. "Aye, if you weren't spitting chunks all over Moorbrook, we'd have made it to Arch'ale! Can you imagine how many 'meals' you could've snagged with that lot?"

I discreetly pulled out my moleskine notebook, referencing several maps I had placed in it. Drawing a line with my finger to Archvale, I guessed the distance a little over thirty miles. I uncapped my pen and scribbled "East to Archvale, 30 mi +/-".

"Well, er... we could always go again, right?" Colton was the type that literally squealed under pressure. He was prone to becoming high pitched and hoarse when sufficiently stressed. An inability to lie effectively? Probably another reason he never lead any parties out of the holdout.

"Don't be daft. The weather this past week has been gettin worse and worse. They say a blizzard is building. It wouldn't be worth the fingers and toes." They were both silent for a moment. I capped the pen with an audible click. Suddenly, their chairs scraped against the floor as one, or both or them, turned to my direction. "Hey, you!" Robert didn't sound openly hostile, but I felt a definite curiosity. Aside from their little group, I was the only other patron. I choked down a flinch with the rest of my mug, the brew understandably absent of flavor.

"Oi! You!" I was about to reply, when the bartender responded in a mock-irritated tone, "Another round?"


I declined a refill and paid with coin. Outside, it was early morning, the populace coming to life again. Powdery snow in shades of clean white and polluted grey, blanketed the outpost in familiar, normal, frigidity. You'd think the bitter winters this area was known for would inhibit activity. It did exactly the opposite, in fact. Roving survivor groups trudged to Nastya's shelter, setting camp in the already massive marketplace. Everywhere, warmly dressed people gathered around the warmth of a flaming oil drum, or even the rare heat lamp. For once, arguments among these much hardened people seemed to be absent.

I pushed through the sea-like crowd, shouting the occasional greeting to familiar faces. "Vlaccid" Warren passed by, his M16K slung over his shoulder, and belt weighed down with several spare magazines. I gave him a quizzical glance, and he flicked his head at the teenagers he had in tow.

Ah, that made sense. Many survivors explored the city during this time. While it was officially advised against, it was known that the extreme cold pretty much put a stopper on zombie activity, and most considered it well worth the hypothermia. It was usually the time that families would train their younger ones in the new habits of the world outside, or hire seasoned guides like Vlaccid to do it for them.

Weaving past the gung-ho sellers and contented fighters, I emerged from the marketplace. Virgin snow softly crunched underfoot, the rubber soles of my boots sinking deeply into the powder. Away from the warmth of the market plaza, my breaths became visible in the open air. A flimsy chain-link fence had managed to stay untouched, rusting though in places. Within it was the motorpool. Several yellow school buses still sat in a neat row, remnants of the school. They were hulls, stripped down for parts, like most everything else on the campus.

I pushed open the door to the auto shop and stepped inside. Gusto wasn't at his usual place at a workbench, and someone I didn't recognize sat on the couch, reading a beat-up a paperback novel. "Anybody in today?"

He shook his head, buried in his book. "No, they all headed off a couple hours ago." I nodded and headed for the garages. Mine was second from the end, one of the larger rooms. The garages had been compartmentalized and rented out by the shop, a sort of public storage system. The rooms were always bought up quickly, and I had been quite lucky to get one of all.

I unlocked the door and stepped inside. A dim lightbulb hung from the ceiling, and there was a window high in the exterior wall. A locker, desk and some shelves were the only other furnishings. I didn't keep much here, only what I couldn't fit in the bunkhouse. Which, admittedly, was a lot. Most significantly, my motorcycle.

Even when everything wasn't scarce, electric cycles and scooters were becoming the preferred choices for two-wheeled transportation. A gas powered bike was just hundreds of parts to keep meticulously maintained. People who actually rode them, didn't care. The gas-fed roar of the motorcycle was an irreplaceable comfort. Mine was somewhere between a street bike and a BMX cycle. It had the riding stance and furniture of a street racer, without the excess of plastic that you'd expect on most. The lustrous black finish had scratched as time went by, but it was still an impressive, and very responsive, ride.

I double checked all the components. Fluids were fairly well stocked, there was no obvious corrosion or stress damage. Tires were pressurized, suspension within my normal preference. The panniers were already loaded with supplies and fuel, so I only added several loose duffel bags. I had my 1911 pistol, a Wilson Combat CQB Elite, and a twelve gauge Ithaca 37 "Defense". A light loadout by most standards, but I didn't plan to get into any serious fights.

Within a few minutes, I had all I needed, and walked the bike into the shop, and out the door. It was a short distance to the gate. The guard grinned at the bike as I was let through the gate. Several blocks from the entrance, I donned my helmet, briefly checking it's LED lights. I dug into the starter, the bike growling with the veiled power of a very personal tease. I kicked again and was rewarded with the roar of full power.

I spun the throttle and released the clutch, embracing the liberating acceleration. Wispy powder sprayed as I shot down the empty street.

Despite how hard people try, it's an impossible task to recover everything left over from the normal days. With the limited pool of able persons and some very finite resources, we haven't even begun to explore Fairview. There are always remnants that haven't been charted, torched, or otherwise affected by us. A glimpse of the past, you might say.

I weaved around the dented wreck of a Jeep, snapping out of my thoughts. Only now had I thought of how loud the engine was, reflecting and magnifying off every empty space. Archvale. I slowed, still rolling forward. The streets were lined with small retail stores, long ago stripped of anything useful.

Puzzling. This area was picked dry of any salvageable material. Colt and Rob never marked a location "important" unless it clearly, profitably, was.

I pulled around, glancing back the way I came. My tires had cut a distinct channel into the icy powder. I sighed wholeheartedly. It had been a pretty long ride, and a terrible waste of fuel, it was starting to look like. A snowflake landed on my visor. I brushed it off and gazed upwards. It was now snowing in earnest, blanketing everything in view, muting out color. One roof stuck out. I couldn't place why. It looked much like the ravaged ones beside it... Ravaged. Right.

I grinned and gunned the engine.

This building looked much like the shambles lining the road, except for the significant fact that wasn't one of them. Greek columns and intricate carvings of mythological events remained as a testament to our incredibly diverse history. It's delicate, white walls had worn in places, but it still retained an elegant look fitting of what it had once contained. I had visited during my days at the academy. That time, I had only appreciated the exhibits on war, and some of the adjacent campuses. Even then, I was awed by it's elegance. You weren't very surprised that it had a name like "The Fairview Conservatory of Culture through the Ages."

A steel fence remained as a mighty barrier to intruders, bearing the scars of many such attempts. Circling the perimeter, I found that there weren't any entries that did not force me to leave my bike behind. The front gate seemed the simplest. I chuckled as I found the padlock, bright steel against the coal-colored gate. A handgun round was flattened against the side, what looked like a nine-millimeter Parabellum. The lock was fully intact; blasting a lock open with a pistol was a cliche of cinema.

Several minutes of fumbling with a torsion wrench and half-diamond pick proved that the round had done enough, however - freeze the mechanism beyond any picking.

"Damn..." I removed my helmet, inserting a pair of earplugs. The Ithaca 37 I had was loud, even in this open space. Unslinging the shotgun, I fed a green shell into the receiver and shucked the ribbed forearm. The brass bead came into focus over the top of the lock, where it was structurally weaker. I gradually squeezed the trigger, keeping the barrel several inches from the gate. The Ithaca boomed and pushed heavily into my shoulder as the one-ounce slug demolished the reinforced lock. Steaming pieces landed in the snow, leaving only the severed shackle.

Returning the shotgun to it's place across my back, I walked the cycle through the gate. Closer yet to the building, I was surprised by the signs of a survivor presence. The front door was tightly locked, and all of the ground floor windows were barricaded heavily with wooden boards, despite the glass still being intact. There was a pretty significant chance it was still populated. The shotgun might've been a very bad idea, in that case.

Regardless of choosing to wait for a response, or entering the structure , I had to hide my bike. A minute of searching found me a workable, if odd option. A tipped-over portable toilet was buried under a mound of snow, the waste it contained washed away and baked by sun dozens of times. It smelled only slightly ammonia. That didn't dispel the fact that I shoving an expensive motorcycle into a toilet. I placed the stall on top of the bike and helmet, covering it again with snow.

After a moment's though, I returned to the road, obscuring the path my tires had left. The trail now ended abruptly at a four way intersection several blocks away. By now, it had easily been ten minutes. It was more of a gamble staying outside at this point. The entire first story wasn't an option, and likely watched if anyone was inside. A number of second story windows, however, were unprotected.

I had no rope or climbing gear, but it would be simple enough. One of the adjacent campus structures had a relatively even roof, a good ten feet off the ground. It's bricks offered plenty of traction, and I quickly scaled the wall. The nearest window, however, was still fifteen feet above. It was large and made of stained glass, the type you'd find in an extravagant church. It seemed to lack a hinge or other opening mechanism. Too bad. I smashed the glass with several roof tiles and took several steps back.

I sprinted forward, jumping just before colliding with the wall. Explosively, I slammed my boot against the surface, pushing myself upwards. My gloved hands snagged the edge, fortunately free of jagged shards - which I hadn't even considered before. Stupid. I pulled myself over the frame and vaulted lightly inside.

Light shining into the dark chamber made the colored shards glitter brilliantly. I stepped further into the darkness, my eyes adjusting to the dark. Even before I recognized the shapes,my fingers tightened around the Ithaca in a death grip, my advance slowing to a muted crawl. Shapes became features, and sudden recognition froze my limbs. Legions of blank eyes, set in pseudo-human faces bored sightlessly into me.

Not of living flesh, or even organic tissue. Of paints, of marble and copper. Somehow, an entire exhibit had weathered hell on Earth with little wear to show for it. Several exhibits, it turned out. As I cleared connecting rooms and displays, my astonishment grew. Nearly all of the paintings, statues, and even delicate ceramics were fully intact. The gift shop was still stocked with expired snacks and personalized trinkets. Perhaps fear had swept men clear of the scene before greed could take over.

Had the lights been functional, it would have seemed a normal, if uneventful, day in the normal world. It wasn't simple lack of damage. It was the pure, untainted atmosphere. The fruity stench of rotting meat was replaced by the familiar musk one found in the presence of artifacts. There weren't desperate scratches lining the walls, no shattered glass. No stories ending abruptly in blood trails.

I padded leisurely down the stairs flanking the lobby. I wandered into a ground-level corridor proclaiming "US AT WAR!", lined with glass showcases and plastered with newspaper clippings. Revolutionary Minutemen stood shoulder to shoulder with their Vietnam and Desert Storm counterparts, suited up in their period gear. Further, I found full-size battle scene, a snowy expanse interrupted by towering trees and shell bursts. German Grenadiers and American Paratroopers faced each other, freezing in their fox holes and cradling their battered weapons and comrades. It had been one of the better exhibits I had seen. It also struck a discordant personal note.

I had first visited when I was much younger. When I had a family, most importantly.

I had always asked why there was such a glorification of our military, but nothing of the Police services. They had tough jobs too, but it seemed they were never recognized. I never got an answer, even later, when I joined the Fairview Police, and rose to a SWAT officer. I suppose I botched any chance of getting a real answer too, when the zombies hit. My lifestyle choice then, and now, was the way of the looter. To cut out fair play and morals for a material lifestyle. It was honestly pathetic, that I had gone so low, and that it was such a common decision amongst the self proclaimed survivors. What did that mean now? I'd probably tear down this sort of untouched beauty, and rip open this hidden sanctuary for a pocket full of short-lived coin.

I drifted down the glass cases, unconsciously drawing my fingers along the glass. I felt, but didn't see the slight break. Turning, I saw that the glass was slightly inset to form a sliding door, to access the contents of the display. I blinked when I looked into the case. Several of the mannequins were sprawled stiffly across the floor, stripped of gear. Their desert camouflage was the only article of clothing that had been left untouched.

Someone had clearly inhabited this place before. Not unusual, but given the circumstances, extremely unnerving. I already had the M37 out, safety flicked off. I was about fifty feet from the door, the other end of the hall approximately a hundred feet from where I stood. I padded along the marble floor, blood now pounding in my ears. The corridor ended in a L-shaped intersection, curving left. To my right, there was a door. Without any windows, I couldn't tell for sure where it lead.

Instead, I shuffled up to the corner, making sure not to poke my weapon out of cover. Automatically, I started to "pie off" the corner. In movies, you'd see the hero with their back to the wall, swinging dramatically our of cover in a barrage of fire. To "pie off" sidle in the opposite direction of a corner, exposing yourself very slightly while eliminating potential blind spots. Having observed as much as I could without leaving cover, I pointed my shotgun in the same direction as the hall and peered out. Another trick. Never swing out of cover if you can have your weapon leveled beforehand. Nothing. I stepped briskly down the hallway, hugging the wall opposite of any doors I neared.

It was a painstaking process, on paper. Repetition made it simple habit, and it was good one; I didn't have a team to back up my mistakes anymore. Pausing, I broke the tunnel vision that stress inevitably lead to, scanning the surrounding area. Framed black and white photos filled the wall, occasionally interrupted by the vibrant hues of a wartime flag. The floor was lightly scuffed, and a spot seemed a different shade in the light streaming through an adjacent window. I dropped to my knee pads, examining the mark. A series of dried up droplets trailed across the floor, the dirty brown of spilled coffee. The quarter sized droplets swerved across the floor, totally mundane until you stopped and saw the chilling oddity in it.

Something told me it wasn't leading the way I was headed. I turned and returned to the corner I had cleared. The trail I had missed entirely before, lead right into the door. By now, I knew that russet-brown dripping was that of dried blood - my hopeful assumption that I wouldn't find any corpses was solidly debunked. I grasped the knob and turned, slightly surprised that it was unlocked. I pushed into the room. It was marginally larger than a public restroom, it's high ceiling hung with a number of models I didn't bother to examine. The centerpiece was a large map with several markers and a pointer, right out of some command bunker. Behind the glass cases bordering the room, I could see a bundle of cloth.

"Hm." A clean death, it that was really possible. The kid, dressed in a grey sweater and desert tactical vest, had collapsed in the corner, bleeding out at the end of the trail. The blood was a thick gel, indicating it had only been a few hours. I lifted their right arm, checking the wrist for a pulse. Cold, lifeless flesh. Suddenly, the arm jerked, and I rapidly stepped back, already aiming for the kill shot. Through the adrenaline-fueled focus, one thought was painfully clear: Check the fucking corners!

I got what I deserved when the "corpse's" buddy barreled into my side. The Ithaca skidded out of reach, and my arms were occupied keeping a set of broken teeth away from my face. I wrestled with the thing, batting it's arms away. The lumbering creatures had a crushing grip, and worse bite. I curled my knees up to my chest, then slammed both legs explosively into the zombie's midsection. I don't deserve that kind of death, yet. I felt bones strain and shatter under the blow, and the body seemed to drift into the air.

Reflexively, I rolled backwards off my left shoulder, landing in a crouch next to my shotgun. The zombie landed with a wet slam, lacking the intelligence to balance itself. I spun left, facing the first, now upright zombie. It staggered around at the noise, head swiveling like a broken toy. A rotting corpse wouldn't have looked as demented as the so recently human features of the infected body. The twelve gauge magnum was deafening in the cramped space, it's muzzle flash reflecting off every piece of glass littering the room. A liberal handful of thirty caliber pellets found their target in a spray of stone powder and vivid gore. The zombie fell and laid still. Bloody shards of skull slid down the wall.

A smoking shotgun hull clattered into the floor as I slammed the wooden pump of the Ithaca fully to the rear, then forward to chamber the next round. The second zombie was already mid lunge. Dodging left, I started to backpedal, when I saw the "dead" zombie in my peripheral vision. "Aw, Christ..." I ran behind one of the cases, sighting the mess of a head through the glass. The double-ought buckshot had taken out almost half of the thing's head; a milky mandible hung by strands of exposed muscle and blood poured from a ruined eye socket. Shredded, peeling hands burst through the adjacent display in burst of glittering glass, wrenching the shotgun from my hands and right through a box of models. I tried to back away, only to bump into wall. Other way - cut off by the bloody face of the other zed. Behind it, stumbled yet another pair of walking corpses I hadn't even known about.

Death laughed earnestly.

Seconds turned into minutes as life ticked by in drawn out concentration. My hand shot to the holster on my belt. They charged. I ripped the CQB from it's holster and brought the green dots of it's sights up to eye level. The steel-framed pistol boomed once, twice, close enough to scorch the skin of my target. The armored kid finally slumped with a wheeze, the rounds punching into his forehead. The second body didn't care, nor did the third, both nearly close enough to grab my arms. Stand and die? I think not. I hurled myself through the glass case, battering the entangled infected out of my way. I felt glass sticking into my back jab deeper as I tumbled across the floor, and couldn't care less.

Hands shaking from cuts and slick with blood, I mashed the trigger. Hollow point bullets blasted glass from the frame and sent the trapped zombie into spasms with each impact. I fired until movement was no longer visible in or behind the case. The slide locked open on a smoking chamber. I dropped the empty magazine, it falling to the floor with a clatter as I rose to a knee. With the feeling that I'd collapse any second, I patted down my belt for spare ammo. Finding another ten-rounder, I slapped the mag home and hit the slide release. The heftly block of steel shunted forward in a series of satisfying clicks.

Waiting for the zombies to rise, for the first time today, I was totally relaxed. The focus was almost tranquil. One face rose behind the glass. My sights didn't waver as I applied even pressure to the trigger. The pistol barked distantly. A single twitch shook the face, and it fell. The brass casing lazily flipped away from the pistol as I brought it back onto target. A moment later, the final zombie staggered out from behind the case. Another muted blast, and it slowly crumpled to the floor.

I leaned against the nearest wall and exhaled heavily. I should have died. But, I didn't. Not much I could do either way, now. I lit one of my few remaining cigarettes, savoring every puff.

I tossed the board onto the pile of covered bodies. I had used scraps of wood to drag the messy corpses to the lobby. I'd burn them later; it'd be a waste to drag another set of bodies and use the fuel twice. For now, I was searching for anything worth taking. The war corridor immediately came to mind. I returned to the corridor, sifting through the mannequins. It was rather surprising how much museum material was in fact fully functional. Some items, like a surplus flak jacket or knife, were easier bought than fabricated, it seemed. The entire case yielded a number of flak jackets, a handful of grenade casings, and dozens of small, useful items like flashlights and knives. Even a functional Garand, though I lacked ammunition for it. Along with the uniforms, there was easily enough gear to fill two of the three duffel bags I had brought. It had been an exceptional run, mistake-ridden run-in with the zeds aside.

I suddenly remembered that my entry point was still wide open. It was unlikely that anybody would be in the area to see it, but I had learned not too long ago that the very slight lapses in caution could be the worst. Might be a good idea to take the motorcycle in afterward... I started to climb the stairs. Wait... I paused, straining my ears to make out the sound again. I had heard a groan, metallic sounding. I flinched when the lobby echoed with dull bangs. Someone was pounding on the front door. A much sharper crack rang out, splintering the lock area of the door. I dropped to the ground, using the balcony edge as cover.

Several strikes later, the door gave. I didn't dare peek out, but I heard the snow blowing past as they entered and manhandled the door shut.

The first person to speak sounded distinctly Hispanic. "Shit guys, this place is hella nice!"

Another voice replied in a thick Southern accent, "You boys and girls know the drill. Clean house 'fore you smoke any see-gars." Well, there went the hope that these would be amateurs... "On it, Boss-man." I chanced a glance. Rob and Colt weren't among them, and I wasn't surprised. They had the purple and yellow armbands of the Fairview "Hive," colors supposedly representing royalty. They were another faction that roamed the city, without any known base. Among numerous other activities, they were known for preying on novice survivors. Every few weeks, one would hear of a Holdout member that was never seen again, or, if they were lucky, found with a bullet to the brain.

There were a dozen of them, including two prisoners, a girl and a boy. A somewhat brutish-looking woman watched over the latter, cradling a rifle. They were all dressed in hooded windbreakers, most wearing a variety of woodland-camo web gear. They weren't kitted out with high speed low drag by anybody's standards, but ten rifles still beat one shotgun. Playing hero was never a good idea.

Some hushed words broke my train of thought. "Hey, boss, we found a bag of stiffs. They got whacked in the past few days." The speaker shifted awkwardly, hinting at the leader's temperament, or lack of it.

"Boss" a rather sinewy man in a leather jacket and cargoes, scowled. "Then you better sweep the place clean. Four top, four bottom. No runnin off. I don't want any more god-damned mistakes." Though he maintained a fierce demeanor, I noted his fingers drumming nervously on the triangular foregrip of his Vietnam-era M16.

My cue to leave, then. I'd have to take the stairs on the other side of the building and reach my duffels, then haul ass. I crept away from the balcony, swiftly entering a ceramics exhibit. Marble floor slowed my pace. Anything faster than a light jog echoed through the entire structure. I was actually straining to maintain this sort of pace. When I finally made it to the other end of the building, I was panting slightly. There wasn't a main staircase, but past a small library, I managed to break into the small staircase of a maintenance corridor. It had eaten up valuable time. By now, they were probably half way through the building.

"Who the hell are you?" Rounding the corner, I had bumped right into to one of their scouts. He immediately raised his rifle, but I was too close for it to help. I batted the rifle aside with my Ithaca, smashing it's stock across his face. He clutched his jaw in pain and I delivered a hard kick into his knees. As the man fell to the ground, I flipped him onto his stomach, gagging him with my elbow. I drew my knife and slammed the blade into his lower back, where his right kidney would be. "MrrHRGHR!!...." The man struggled insanely, but the massive trauma quickly put him into shock. I pulled his body into a side room, stripping it of weapons. Killing wasn't pretty, but I didn't have time for a non lethal alternative. When it came down to it, my life was more important to me, than any of them.

I retrieved my bags without further issue. It wasn't so much that I cared about the value of the goods I was taking; it was the time and risk that it took me, and the idea of wasting it. Petty, I knew. Strangely, I did not bump into any of the Hive people as I returned to the broken window marking my entry. I set the bags next to the frame, taking in the darkened skies outside. Why didn't I leave immediately? Was it the strange attachment I felt to the structure?

I was delayed long enough to be startled by the far-from-distant shout. "Come out! We found the fucking body you made! We'll torch this faghall with your rotting carcass in it."

I should have just jumped out that window. Head first, chugging bleach, and I would still be better off. Is it my stupid sense of pride? I was trying to tell myself that the snow would extinguish any flames, but I also knew it could spread through the tightly-packed neighborhood in a matter of hours. That, and I knew they wouldn't kill me right off the bat. They'd take they sweet time to frighten and torture me, like everyone else. Which also meant more chance to fight back. Against any feasible logic, I stepped made out for the front of the building, quietly arriving in the lobby. Seeing no guards, I remained solidly in cover.

After checking that the Ithaca was loaded with all seven rounds, I hailed them. "What do you want?"

"There you are! Why don't you poke yer face out, sweetie?" Boss-man chuckled with deadly promise in his voice.

Oh, fuck you. "No thank you. What do you want?" I was on the far left side of the stone balcony, a set of stairs immediately to my left offering cover for me to observe. I peered out, pressed against the floor. In front of the double doors, boss, brute woman, and prisoners were encircled by the rest of the group. I noted the distance between their members, just far enough to have multiple persons hit by a chance automatic burst or explosion. A few had already taken cover in doorways flanking the hall and the front desk. Definitely a seasoned, or at least exceedingly well practiced, group.

"Well, buddy, how 'bout you come down and talk this over, like gentl'men?"

I scoffed. "You think either party would drop arms to talk civilly?"

For a few seconds, the only noise was his pealing laughter. "Party? Yer one body, nothin else."

He was right, of course. I crawled onto the staircase. "You can just believe that..." Deliberately, I set several mousetraps across it's steps.

"I do as I want. Enough talk. Get out here, or we're decoratin this pretty little floor with their brains." They? The prisoners? This guy is insane, taking that kind of risk.

The woman, who appeared to be their guardian tried to dissuade him. "Boss, it isn't worth the-" A full slap across the cheek sent her staggering, and the gathered group watched helplessly.

He screamed now, his voice dripping with anger, "Ignoring me, are ye!?" The air was shattered with the crack of a rifle, and the unmistakable, ugly slap of a bullet tearing into flesh. The younger child, a boy, collapsed, screaming and clutching his arm. He was suddenly embraced protectively by the girl, who remained silent. I took the bait. I did what they wanted.

Die. I squeezed the trigger, forcing myself to remain in cover. My buckshot whistled past the swaggering mess of a man, blasting splinters out of the doors behind him. Like the percussion lead up to some rock tune, the bass of the shotgun was followed by the staccato of a half dozen rifles, turning the lobby into an acoustic hell. Large caliber slugs blasted chips out of the balcony and covered me in grey powder as the group scattered. Between returning fire and ducking incoming bursts, I saw the children ushered out the door by their guardian, and Boss barking at his men to rush the stairs. The Ithaca roared repeatedly as I scrambled to the opposite side of the hall. I didn't tear my eyes away from my targets to observe where their ferocious fire fell, but the snap of each passing round told me: too damn close.

Two shotguns fired in close succession, sending a would-be flanker tumbling down the left staircase. The "Mousetraps" had been loaded with shotgun shells and activated with a tripwire. "Fucking mines!" Fire seemed to intensify as one of the Hive members broke off to check his fallen teammate. There was still a third at the top step, so I'd have just a bit more security on my left. For now, the right side could kill me just as easily. I hugged the floor as a full magazine of 5.56mm obliterated my cover. The moment the fire slowed, I stood back up, emptying the shotgun. Two guns were abruptly silenced, slugs punching through the desk the men had used as cover. As I ducked down to reload, a sudden silence pervaded. I froze with three shells loaded, adding up the bodies. At most, I'd have only taken out two or three of them, and leaving six capable fighters and three non-combatants. I doubled my pace and scanned the mess below. They were all in concealment. Probably flanking.

I swung around to face the left flight.


Aw, fuck... The walls around me were torn to shreds, as fire poured from all directions. I threw myself flat, sliding down the steps of the adjacent case. The fusillade blasted powder into the air thick enough that I started to gag on the cloud. Gasping, I shoved my hand into my pack, groping for the sleek, metallic cylinders. Finding the pair of grenades, I wrenched the pins free and hurled them as hard as I could.

"MOVE, grenades!!"

The fire stopped for a split second, and I vaulted off the cover-turned-killzone. The same stream of automatic fire stitched up the stone, racing down at my head.

".....s-son of a bitch!!" I was hit once. One, diminutive bullet that might as well have severed my arm. The nauseating, nerve frying wave seared every inch of my left shoulder, paralyzing most of my body. I slammed into the chipped marble, incapable of even breaking my fall.

I forced myself to tear and pull to the cover of a granite pillar. Both grenades activated with muted pops, spewing red smoke. The entire time, lead and copper lashed all around my squirming form. I leaned against the column in a pool of my freely streaming blood, eyes stinging from the acidic cloud. Punishment for starting such foolish fight? Regardless of this fight being justified or not, I wasn't going easily, that I was sure of.

They started to close in, pounding down the stairs. I brought the 1911 up, bracing against the pillar. Three rounds blew bloody intestines out of one man's stomach, sending him tumbling into the floor. He screamed in the pain of a slow, inevitable death. On a physical autopilot, I side-stepped an incoming cloud of shot, immediately jumping out to return fire. The .45 jolted steadily, still finding it's mark in their closing forms. I fired the pistol until slide lock and punched the empty magazine. Awkwardly, I jammed the pistol between my knees, using my good arm to find a mag. I slapped the stainless steel tube into the grip and started to back into a nearby corridor, using the smoke as cover.

"One fucking Joe?! Does this clusterfuck of a god-damned circus call itself a team? KILL HIM!" Despite the blood and pain of a rapidly approaching death, I grinned.

I looked dispassionately at the piece of shrapnel before tossing it aside. That was the sixth, and hopefully final piece of the copper jacket. the lead core had gone straight through the soft flesh, a "through and through" wound. The channel looked like it came from a power drill, sawing with disregard through the soft flesh. Gleaming muscle twitched under skin and fat, blood overflowing the damaged tissue. Most would gag or faint. You had to learn to view human tissue not as your own, or your best friend's, but an inanimate object that needed efficient repair. The thought that every move lashed across live nerves would drive off most wannabe medics. Here? What mattered was not making errors that would leave you unable to help yourself.

Next, the most basic, painful part of open wound treatment. A small bottle filled with a dark brown, pungent fluid and a handful of swabs. I touched the iodine soaked cotton to the gaping entry, forcing my hand not to instantly jerk it away. If the pain didn't kill me, I was pretty sure the Hive people would track me down from the stream of curses. By the end of it, I was thoroughly convinced that cauterization would have been more enjoyable. A combination of pain and steady bleeding had made me light headed; I'd have to stop the bleeding next. I then clumsily opened a box of tampex.

It's bizarre what you're forced to make use of when supplies are in short supply. A tampon acts as a sponge for bleeding, expanding to plug a wound channel. Since they're individually sterile-packed, they fit right into a medical kit. I knew a couple people who had them in their first aid kits even before zombies put a stopper on modern manufactured goods. I probed as gently as shaking hands would allow, recalling horror stories of medics breaking arteries by shoving dressings into a puncture. It took two of the white sponges to fill the wound, front and back. I wrapped the shoulder in a liberal roll of elastic bandage, applying solid pressure.

Experimentally, I clenched my fist and bent my arm at the elbow. Sharp, burning pain lanced through the limb, but it worked. The hit had come from an M16A1, wielded by the "Boss-man". The guy I shouldn't have missed in the first place... Considering I had intersected a stream of bullets traveling at three thousand feet per second, I was damned lucky. For now, at least. It'd be a matter of time before they found my half-dead carcass and ventilated my skull. I was exhausted.

For the first time, I examined the room I was hiding in. It was a crowded display, filled with bronze statues and plaques. I suddenly recalled a particular piece that I had taken a look at every time I'd been here. Pushing unsteadily onto my feet, I walked over to the statue, placed in it's own corner of the room. Unlike any time before, the work of copper and tin mesmerized me, it's meaning absolute. I turned, all shakiness absent. I started to pace the now darkened halls, imagining how long I'd last against the enraged group. Minutes? Seconds? I had left my best weapon behind, expended my traps, and had a half functioning left arm to work with.

I thought of a phrase I had heard at a shooting school during the "normal" days. "Are you gonna' go smart, or are you gonna' go dumb?" Smart and dumb were just twists on easy and "right". Sometimes, the right thing to do, and things that can be done right, are entirely different. For a looter? Feasibility was what mattered, not morality. The exact opposite of how I had been brought up, none the less.

I found myself back in the "war" room, shattered case the exact same mess I had left it. Without much of a care for time, I drifted, taking in the distorted scene. My attention drifted to a figure hanging from the ceiling. A paratrooper was proud above the destruction below. He jumped into hell, because he knew it was the job he had signed up for. He fought, alongside comrades or alone, because it was what he was meant to do. It was a thought worth immortality in a museum display, enduring through the worst.

I blinked. I thought of the Garand I had found earlier. Some obscure internet factoid in the back of mind reminded me that most museum firearms were fully functional.

Time's up for me.

They pounded on the door. I sat with my back to the failing piece of wood, trying to finish my work on the weapon, my only real chance. I heard the door kicked open, and the stomp of boots as the men rushed in.

"Gotcha, you sunnuva bitch!"

Resigned, I slowly turned my head. The two men stood shoulder to shoulder, clothes stitched head to toe with cuts and pockmarks. I allowed myself a small smile, at the knowledge that I didn't go down impotently.

One of the men, carrying a shotgun, spoke first. "You're going to feed the crows, buddy." It wasn't personal, of course. They were just glad to be able to kill the guy who hurt their friends. That's just how it worked in this city. He shouldered my Ithaca for a kill shot in a moment of crowning irony.

I turned, Thompson clutched close. "I die dumb, but not now." The sight of a weapon registered, and the man froze on the trigger. That second of surprise cost them their lives.

I let the heavy weapon roar. The gun earned the name "Chicago Typewriter" as it's mechanical chatter rung in the air, a death rattle. The M1928 spat a firestorm of .45 slugs, pulverizing flesh and plaster. I reloaded the half-empty weapon where I sat, then stuffed three magazines into my pockets, all I had been able to load with my 1911 ammo before the men arrived. I stepped over the bodies and took off running, fighting the leaden sloth spreading through my body.

I emerged in the lobby, panting. The Thompson was at my shoulder as I stepped from the doorframe. I ducked back as a burst slammed into the adjacent wall, jumping out to see a figure fleeing towards the rear of the building. I sprinted for the hall, scanning for any targets in cover. Behind the desk.

Resisting the urge to send a burst right through their wooden concealment, I leveled the M1928 in their direction. "Behind the desk, out, hands where I can see them!" The woman quickly stood up, setting her lever action rifle against the table. She seemed to be blocking something from my view. "What's back there!? Tell me!" I was hoarse from exhaustion by this point. The woman shook her head in sad defiance. Over her beat-up clothes was no tactical vest, no pistols or knives. Not a fighter, an oddity in this kind of group. I stepped forward and saw the pitiful forms of the kids. The boy was obviously in bad shape, pale and breathing erratically. I stared at them, then the woman. She could only stare back in sorrow.

It wasn't my responsibility, but it was definitely my fault. I pulled my back from my shoulder and dropped in on the floor next to the desk.

My voice was a croak when I spoke again, "There's a first aid kit in there, don't let the kid die on my mistake. Please." I couldn't bear to wait for a reply. I sprinted for the corridor, almost tripping over all the trashed displays. Porcelain, earthenware, the cases themselves, all a desperate attempt to slow me down. The thought that a gang like the Hive would inhabit this place was appalling. The fallen art crunched underfoot as I made my way through the labyrinth of a museum.

In a hall of life-sized marble statues, I glimpsed the Hispanic man from earlier, nervously looking around him.

I shouldered the Thompson, centering the notch rear and post front over his chest. "Drop the fucking gun!"

He froze, then stared at me. "Que? No way!" I squeezed the trigger, and the man dove behind an opposite statue. Both of us moved to flank, practically running in circled trying to get an advantage. I burned sixty rounds in the span of two minutes, darting between pieces of deteriorating cover. In the race to wear ourselves down, I was by far, leading. I couldn't let this drag on for much longer. The cover in front of me was by now a pair of legs, the rest of the statue blown away...


I fired at a statue beside him, taking out it's legs. The proud, muscled form of a Greek figure rocked unsteadily, then tumbled. My opponent scrambled away from it's crushing weight, exposing his back. I fired again, making solid hits.

He spun around from the impact and fell in a heap. "Aaargh!... Bastard!"

Relieved, I ran up to his prostrate, but very much alive, form. I wrenched the SKS rifle from his grasp, tossing it heavily across the room.

"Hey man, not cool."

Are you kidding me? "I could say the same thing about an ambush, to be honest."

The man, who looked to be barely in his twenties, shrugged at the comment, hands clamped to his calf. The bullet had entered the large muscle at the rear of the limb, stopping in the bone. He'd need medical attention, but it wasn't life threatening. "You got bandages?"

He looked up from his messy leg at the question. "Uh... yeah."

I nodded at this. "Well then, pack the wound with gauze and keep pressure on it. And don't fucking follow me." The man looked surprised that I didn't just shoot him, and I couldn't blame him.

"Sure, chief."

I found my way to the smaller lobby located at the rear of the building. Two men were busy pouring gasoline from a plastic can.

"Get the fuck away from that?"

They dropped the jerry can and scrambled away. Both were rapidly backing away, obviously unarmed. "Fuck, don't shoot!"

I waved downward with my right hand, commanding them to hit the floor. I grabbed the gasoline can and capped it, most of it's contents already spilled onto the floor. That was all of them, minus Boss. One left, but one very unstable man who knew how to fight.

"Miss me?" The left side of my head exploded. Burst of light filled my swimming vision. I staggered backward, turning to see the bulky man wind up another strike. This was the first time I really saw his face, with furious blue eyes, vibrantly clean teeth and a frame of long, dirty blond hair. Right now, the mix of anger and casual cruelty twitching across his features easily made it the ugliest mug I had ever seen. I was coherent enough to duck his next hap-hazard rifle swung, and tackled under the strike. He practically laughed off the attempt, wrenching the Thompson from my grasp and raising it above his head to brain me. I reacted, dropping onto my knees and aiming the Wilson Combat between his eyes.

"I got past your men. You don't have any backup." The man's fierce expression grew not in fear, but absolute rage. He kneed me sharply in the groin and I doubled up, gasping at the overwhelming wave of nausea.

Despite what felt like death stampeding through my gut, I climbed to my feet, blindly firing the CQB. When I looked up, he was standing in the door frame, silhouetted against the bright snow.

Spittle flew from his lips as he howled and cursed. "You can ALL fucking burn!"

His blurry features were obscured by the green sights of the 1911, lined up in perfect clarity. Boss shouldered, aiming not for me, but the massive pool of gasoline to my right, big enough to set the entire building ablaze. The pistol barked, incredibly loud in the resonating room, but he had already fired and found his vengeful mark.

The metal struck a spark, instantly blossoming into a flame. The blaze grew voraciously, black, oily smoke curling ominously into the sky. We stood, watching the stacked corpses burn. One thing I had learned from this past hour: bullets don't spark against marble. The rounds had blasted chips from the floor, and I had finally cut the Boss down. Out of the group, seven were still alive, only four of them completely untouched. They were by no means friendly, but the battle had built a kind of unspoken respect, and they had allowed me to help cremate their dead. Few things build as much distaste as realizing your own leader was about to incinerate you. It was clear that there was much tension between the group, but they kept a convincing facade of civility.

I glanced over the grim faces. The Hispanic man's name was Victor. He was nonchalant about the wound I had inflicted on him, though I knew he was holding back considerable anger at the death of his teammates. Jessica, the woman, had assumed a very blunt and sarcastic attitude. From her interaction with the others, it seemed that her earlier, almost parental nature was typically not so visible. The kids she watched over, Angel and ironically, Ronin, had more or less withdrawn from the situation, the latter in only marginally better condition than I had last seen him. Koji and Haruo were utterly silent, probably drowning in guilt at the realization they would have consciously cremated their friends. It seemed they had only agreed to set up the gas to get revenge on my alleged murder of the entire group. Wesley was... digging shot from his legs, courtesy my traps.

They left shortly after, to treat their wounded. Victor had expressed some scathing opinions on Fairview Hive leadership, to the general agreement of the group. The tension had lifted, if only barely, by then. I was glad, none the less. I decided to remain in the structure for just a little longer, exploring the mostly intact displays in dwindling daylight. I returned to the room littered with bandage wrappers and pieces of bullets, retrieving a small object from the wall. A bronze figure, well known to me. Half finished, his lower half was still a raw block of material, contrasting with a finely sculpted upper body and face. A sturdy right arm held an upraised hammer, to descend upon the chisel the left clasped.

It was accompanied by a polished plaque, the quote it bore one I knew by memory: "...left to his own devices, man will use his God-given talents to be creative, productive, and prosperous. Using free will, he will better his own situation and that of those around him, thereby influencing in a positive way his own destiny..." It was a nice quote, if not absolute. Decision wasn't always for the best, as the men I killed today irrevocably proved. Sometimes free will isn't really your own will.

Ultimately, it's heartening to know that free will can still make a difference, when many ideals have withered from distortion and disuse. My own deviation from a typical greed-based efficiency felt good, not a forced satisfaction. Still, I couldn't pretend that I was righteous or moral.

The building survived, and the facet of culture it was meant to display. We have chance at recovering out physical world. Maybe our spirit too, eventually?

End notes:

Hope you guys enjoyed it, for the hours it took. Reading it again, I see that the meaning, and attraction for some readers might be changed. I tried to work on the connection, and depth of characters. I'll probably work on this again in the days to come, feel free to point out errors or weak points.