May 23rd 2013
Monday, May 23rd, 2005
Ayaan shoved the helicopter’s cargo loading door open with one booted foot and dry desert air rushed into the body of the helicopter. The aircraft wobbled and soldiers grabbed for stanchions and nylon loops to steady themselves, but Ayaan just shifted her footing. The warrior stuck her head out into the blue sky, the graying ringlets of her hair bouncing in the wind. Her face wrinkled as she squinted at the burning sands. There were people down there—alive or dead, she couldn’t tell—and they were advancing in the direction of her encampment. For once this was no false alarm. “Get me a close approach,” she shouted.
From his position at the controls Osman didn’t turn to answer but the crew all heard him over their radio headsets. “Of course, girl. How close would you like? Do you want to smell them?”
Ayaan ignored him, instead turning to Sarah. She gave the younger woman a warm smile and beckoned her to come over. “Don’t worry,” she said, “I won’t let you fall out.”
Sarah moved to the open door of the Mi-8 and leaned out over the fuel pods. She needed to get a better look at the army below them, without the interference of the copter’s fuselage between her and the mob. Fifty feet below grey arms strained toward the helicopter as if they could grab it and pull it down from the sky. The dead had lousy depth perception.
“I need an estimate of their strength,” Ayaan demanded. “Are they fresh?”
Sarah studied the crowd as Osman slewed the copter around in a wide turn over them. This army had come out of nowhere. The dead rarely announced their movements but a group this size required some kind of coordination. Mindless ghouls didn’t work together unless some strong will was directing them. What they had come for was a mystery. What Sarah did know was that Ayaan wouldn’t allow it. This little stretch of the coastline of Egypt was her nation, maybe the last nation of the living left on Earth. She wasn’t about to let the dead take it for themselves. Ayaan had always prophesied that something like this would happen. For years they had drilled for exactly this kind of attack and finally, inevitably, it had come. They had scrambled the copter the moment the first reports of movement on the perimeter had come in.
Now Ayaan wanted Sarah’s opinion about how to proceed. Sarah was younger, just out of her teens, so she had better eyes. She also had other senses that Ayaan lacked.
Trying to ignore the howling of the wind outside of the helicopter, the glare of the sun on the sand, Sarah pulled the hood of her sweatshirt up to cover her hair. She focused her attention on the parts of her that could sense death, just as she’d been taught. The hair on the back of her neck and on her forearms. The sensitive skin behind her ears.
She closed her eyes, but she kept looking.
What she saw startled her. The ground below teemed with purplish energy, dark splotches where the dead smoldered cold and hungry. But between those shadows burned beacons of golden light, stronger, more vital—alive. Impossible. The dead and the living couldn’t work in close proximity. The dead existed only to devour life. Still. She saw what she saw. Even as she attempted to process what that meant she saw one of the golden shapes moving, lifting something to its eye. Something held with both hands. She opened her eyes and saw a living man with pale white skin aiming a rifle right at her.
“Look out!” she shouted into her microphone, loud enough to make herself wince. Before anyone could respond a bullet tore upward through the fuselage of the Mi-8, barely missing the foot of one of Ayaan’s soldiers. The woman shrieked and jumped backwards as automatic rounds tore through the thin skin of the copter’s belly. Light shot upwards into the cabin wherever a bullet came through, streaking the dark cool space inside. Noise drummed along the deck plates, pattered on the helicopter’s roof. Ayaan started shouting orders but Osman was ahead of her. The helicopter banked around so hard Sarah could hear the airframe wanting to come apart. The pilot yanked back on his control yoke and they popped up into the air like a cork out of a bottle, gaining altitude fast enough to make Sarah’s stomach curl up on itself like an injured animal. She swallowed back the vomit that rushed up her throat and lifted one hand to try to brush the sweat from her forehand. She stopped in mid-gesture, though, when she saw her hand was sticky with blood.
Terrified of looking, too scared not to, she turned slowly around. The interior of the helicopter had been painted bright red. Blood had pooled between the crew seats and was draining slowly through maybe a hundred narrow bullet holes. What remained of a dead woman lay sprawled across the deck, one shattered, thumbless hand so close to Sarah she could have reached down and held it. She felt a perverse desire to do just that.
It was Mariam. The expert sniper of the platoon. It had been Mariam. It wouldn’t be for long.
The hand twitched. Closed into a loose fist. The dead soldier convulsed upward, her shoulders rolling as she sat up to look at Sarah with blank eyes. Her mouth opened wide, blood spilling out from between her teeth. Most of her rib cage on the left side had been blown away. She definitely wasn’t breathing.
It could happen that quickly. Sarah had witnessed the rise of the dead before. Ayaan had taught her what to do about it. She took her pistol out of her pocket and lined up a shot with the dead woman’s forehead. Even as the new ghoul lunged at her she fired. A little splutter of blood burst from the woman’s right temple. It wasn’t a solid kill. She could feel the ghoul looming over her, getting closer. They were slow but deadly—a single scratch or bite would be enough. Her fingers shook as she lifted her weapon and tried to aim.
Ayaan rushed Mariam and grabbed her by one shoulder and her remaining hip. “Cover,” she shouted at Sarah. Sarah protected her face and head from clawing fingernails as Ayaan rushed Mariam out of the open cargo door. Her undead body pinwheeled down to smack the sand in the midst of the army below.
Ayaan and Mariam had been together since they were schoolgirls, since before they had gotten their first periods. Since before they learned how to shoot. Nobody said a word in protest or outrage. The thing Ayaan had dumped into the sky hadn’t been Mariam anymore and they all knew it. It was just that kind of a world, and it had been for twelve hard years.
Osman kept climbing until they were well out of range of the guns below. The dead kept reaching for the helicopter but the living stopped firing and they were safe again. “Firearms,” Ayaan said, wagging her jaw around to pop her ears. “The dead don’t shoot.”
Sarah steeled herself. She needed to be part of this conversation. “There were living people down there, too. Maybe a third as many as the dead. They were all carrying rifles. I don’t claim to know how that works.”
Ayaan nodded. “We knew there had to be one of them providing close support.” One of them. A khasiis. The Somali word meant “monster”. English speakers used the word “lich”. The not-so-mindless dead. When a ghoul managed one way or another to preserve its intellect post mortem they also tended to develop certain new faculties. They learned to see the energy of death, just like Sarah did. Some of them learned to control other undead, to communicate with them telepathically and bend them to their monstrous wills. Ayaan had some experience with liches. She had shot one in the head years prior, one named Gary. Gary had not only survived that shot—he’d gone on to enslave an entire city. It took a raging inferno to finally bring Gary down and Ayaan had lost plenty of friends in the process. One of those friends had been Sarah’s father. “There must be a top-level asset nearby,” Ayaan said.
“Top-level is right, if he can override their natural instinct to devour the living.” Fathia, Ayaan’s second in command, leaned her chin on the stock of her assault rifle and looked scared. “Gary could do that, for a little while. But even he had limits. If this army has been moving together for a long time, marching together—it would take a stronger khasiis than Gary. And there’s only one of those that we know about.”
“The Russian,” Ayaan said. Her eyes narrowed to thin, angry slits. “The Tsarevich.”
Sarah knew it had to be true. But what would the world’s most pre-eminent monster be doing in Egypt? Everyone knew the boy lich’s story. He’d been injured in a car accident, a hit and run, back when there had still been cars. He had languished in a semi-comatose state for years in a hospital bed, half dead even before the Epidemic began. When the dead rose the boy had been abandoned where he lay, only to die and rise again with his intellect intact—and with new senses and abilities, new supernatural powers no one had ever seen before.
They said he had an army of the dead, and a cult of the living, and that in some parts of Siberia he was considered to be the second coming of Jesus Christ. The stories about him always revolved around his cruelty and his power. They made him sound like a devil. For himself he claimed only to be a Tsarevich, a Prince of the Dead. Everyone knew the stories, but no one had thought he would ever come so far.
“He came here himself,” Ayaan said. “He’s here, now.” Her cold eyes lit up, but grew no warmer. “He has made a mistake.”