The Skull-Faced City — David Barr Kirtley

David Barr Kirtley has been described as “one of the newest and freshest voices in sf.” His work frequently appears in Realms of Fantasy, and he has also sold fiction to the magazines Weird Tales and Intergalactic Medicine Show, the podcasts Escape Pod and Pseudopod, and the anthologies New Voices in Science Fiction, The Dragon Done It, and Fantasy: The Best of the Year. I’ve previously published him in the first The Living Dead anthology and in my online science fiction magazine Lightspeed. He also has a story forthcoming in my anthology The Way of the Wizard that’s due out in November. Kirtley is also the co-host (with me) of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.

This story is a sequel to one that appeared in the first The Living Dead anthology. In “The Skull-Faced Boy,” Dustin and Jack, two recent college grads, die in a car accident and rise as intelligent zombies. Dustin—called “the skull-faced boy” due to his injuries—organizes hordes of mindless zombies into an army and declares war against the living, while Jack becomes his reluctant accomplice. Their rivalry over a girl named Ashley eventually leads Dustin to carve off her face as well.

When “The Skull-Faced Boy” appeared on the Pseudopod horror podcast, it was very well received, and several listeners requested more material set in the same universe. So it was in the back of Kirtley’s mind for a while to possibly expand the story into something longer. When I told him I was editing The Living Dead 2, I encouraged him to submit a sequel story.

“This is the first sequel I’ve written, and it’s hard,” Kirtley says. “For a long time I was stuck, since by the end of ‘The Skull-Faced Boy’ the conflicts and agendas of the characters are all pretty much on the table. My big break came when I considered creating a new main character, Park. And so as not to repeat myself, I made him completely different from my original protagonist, Jack. Jack is an ordinary young man, sensitive, kind of a doormat type, whereas Park is a very, very dangerous soldier.”

THE SKULL-FACED CITY
by David Barr Kirtley

Park watched from his car as a pickup screeched to a halt in front of the supermarket. He’d known they would come. The armies of the living were on the march, and the living needed food.

The pickup’s doors flew open and two figures leapt out—a black man and a blond woman. The man, who was older, maybe forty, carried a shotgun. He sprinted toward the store and the woman ran close behind him, her hands wrapped tight around a large silver pistol. The man threw open the entrance doors and vanished into the darkness while the woman waited outside, keeping watch. Smart. But it would not save them.

Park slipped from his car, his scoped rifle clutched to his chest. He crept forward, using abandoned cars as cover. Finally he lay down on the asphalt and leveled his rifle at the pickup.

A dead man in a green apron wandered around the side of the building. He spotted the woman, groaned exultantly, and stumbled toward her, his arms outstretched. The woman took aim at his forehead.

Park pulled the trigger at the same moment she did. The report of her pistol drowned out the soft pinging that his round made as it drilled a neat hole through her pickup’s gas tank. The dead man’s skull smacked against the pavement, and the woman lowered her gun. She didn’t notice the gas pooling beneath her truck.

Park sneaked back to his car and got in. He waited, watching as the woman took down several more of the moaning dead who strayed too close. Later her companion emerged, pushing a loaded shopping cart. The woman hurriedly tossed its contents into the bed of her truck while the man dashed to the store again. This was repeated several times. The commotion attracted an ever-growing audience of moaners, which the woman eyed nervously.

Finally the man and woman leapt into their vehicle and peeled out. The pickup careened across the parking lot, and the dead men who staggered into its path were hurled aside or crushed beneath its tires.

Park donned his black ski mask, pulled his goggles down over his eyes, and started his car. He tailed the pickup along the highway, keeping his distance. When the truck rolled to a stop, he pulled over too and got out.

The man and woman fled from their vehicle and into a nearby field, which was crawling with the dead. Park followed them through the grass and into the woods. He watched through his scope as the pair expended the last of their ammo and tossed away their guns, and then they stood back to back and drew machetes against the clusters of moaners who continued to stumble from the trees all around.

Park approached, using his rifle to pick off the nearby dead men. One shot to each head, cleanly destroying each brain—what was left of them.

He pointed his rifle at the living man and shouted, “Drop it.”

The man shouted back, “Who are you? What do you want?”

Park shifted his aim to the woman and said, “Now. I only need one of you alive.”

“Wait!” the man said. “Damn it.” He tossed his machete into the brush. “There. Okay?”

“And you,” Park told the woman. She hesitated, then flung her weapon away as well.

Park said, “Turn around. Kneel. Hands on your heads.”

They complied. Park strode forward and handcuffed them both. “Up,” he said. “Move.”

The pair stood, and marched. The woman glanced back at Park.

“Eyes front,” he ordered.

She gasped. “Oh my god.” To the man she hissed frantically, “He’s one of them! The ones that can talk.”

The man turned to stare too, his face full of terror.

“Eyes front!” Park shouted.

The man and woman looked away. After a minute, the woman said quietly, “Are you going to eat us?”

“I don’t intend to,” Park said.

“So why do you want us?” she asked.

“It’s not me that wants you,” Park answered.

“Who does then?” the man demanded.

For a long moment Park said nothing. Then he removed his goggles, exposing dark sockets and two huge eyeballs threaded with veins. He yanked off his ski mask, revealing a gaping nose cavity, bone-white forehead and cheeks—a horrific skull-visage.

“You’ll see,” he said.

***

As dusk fell Park drove down a long straight road that passed between rows of corn. In the fields, dead men with skull faces wielded scythes against the stalks.

“Crops,” said the man in the back seat. “Those are crops.”

Beside him the woman said, “What do the dead need with food?”

“To feed the living,” Park answered.

For the first time her voice held a trace of hope. “So we’ll be kept alive?”

“Some are, it would seem,” Park said.

And Mei? he wondered. He just didn’t know.

In front of his car loomed the necropolis, its walls clumsy constructions of stone, twenty feet high. Crews of skull-faced men listlessly piled on more rocks.

The woman watched this, her jaw slack. She murmured, “What happened to your faces?”

Park glanced at her in the rearview mirror. The car bounced over a pothole, and the mirror trembled as he answered, “Faces are vanity. The dead are beyond such things.”

He pulled to a stop before a gap in the stone wall. The dirty yellow side of a school bus blocked his way. He rolled down his window.

From the shadows emerged one of the dead, a guard. This one did have a face—nose and cheeks and forehead—though the flesh was green and mottled. A rifle hung from his shoulder. He shined a flashlight at Park, then at the captives.

“For the Commander,” Park said.

The guard waved at someone in the bus, the vehicle rumbled forward out of the way, and Park drove on through.

The woman said, “That one had a face.”

“That one is weak,” Park snapped. “Still enamored with the trappings of life. And so here he is, far from the Commander’s favor.”

Park drove down a narrow causeway bordered on both sides by chain-link fences. Every few minutes he passed a tall steel pole upon which was mounted a loudspeaker. Beyond the fences, scores of moaners wandered aimlessly in the light of the setting sun. The man and woman lapsed again into silence. Plainly they could see that this army of corpses presented a formidable obstacle to either escape or rescue.

Park remembered the first time he’d come here, almost three months ago, pursuing a trail of clues. Upon beholding the necropolis his first thought had been: The city that never sleeps.

He passed through another gate and into a large courtyard. “End of the line,” he said as he opened the door and got out.

A group of uniformed dead men with rifles and skull-faces ambled toward him. Their sergeant said, “You again. Park, isn’t it? What’ve you got?”

“Two,” Park replied. “Man and woman.”

The sergeant nodded to his soldiers, who yanked open the car doors and seized the prisoners. As the pair was led away, the sergeant said to Park, “All right. Come on.”

Park was escorted across the yard. From a loudspeaker mounted on a nearby pole came the recorded voice of the Commander:

“Once you were lost,” said the voice, “but now you’ve found peace. Once you were afflicted by the ills of the flesh. The hot sun made you sweat, and the icy wind made you shiver. You sickened and fell and were buried in muck. You were slaves to the most vile lusts, and you gorged yourselves on sugar and grease. But now, now you are strong, and the only hunger you feel is the hunger for victory, the hunger to destroy our enemies, to bend them to the true path by the power of your righteous hands and teeth. Once you were vain, preoccupied by the shape of your nose, the shape of your cheeks. You gazed into the mirror and felt shame. Shame is for the living. Let them keep their shame. We are beyond them, above them. Your face is a symbol of bondage to a fallen world, a reminder of all that you once were and now rightfully despise. Take up your knife now and carve away your face. Embrace the future. Embrace death.”

Park was taken to a nearby building and led to a room piled high with ammo clips and small arms—the currency of the dead. He filled a duffel. As he made his way back to his car, another skull-faced man came hurrying over and called out, “Hey. Hey you.”

Park looked up.

The man gestured for him to follow and announced, “The Commander wants to meet you.”

This is what Park had been waiting for. He dumped the duffel in the trunk of his car, then followed the man to an armored truck. They drove together toward the palace. The building had been a prison once, but now hordes of dead laborers had transformed it into a crude and sinister fortress.

The truck arrived at the palace, then stopped in a dim alley. Park got out and was led inside. He surrendered his handcuffs to an armed guard, walked through a metal detector, then retrieved them.

He was shown to a large chamber. Against the far wall stood two throne-like wooden chairs, in one of which sat a slender skull-faced young man who held an automatic rifle across his lap. Beside him sat a skull-faced girl with long auburn hair. She wore an elegant white gown, and Park imagined that she must have been very beautiful once. The man in the chair wore a military uniform, as did the row of a dozen skull-faced men who stood flanking him.

Park stepped into the center of the room.

“Welcome,” said the man in the chair. “I am the Commander. This is my wife.” He gestured to the girl beside him. “And my generals.” He waved at the assembled dead. “And you are Park.”

“Sir,” Park said.

“You’re quickly becoming our favorite supplier.”

Park was silent.

The Commander leaned forward and regarded him. “Tell me, Park. How did you die?”

Park hesitated a moment, then said, “Friendly fire. When my base was overrun.”

And he’d been damn lucky in that. Those who died after being bitten by the dead always came back as moaners, as the rest of his company had.

The Commander said, “You were a soldier?”

“Scout sniper, sir.”

The Commander nodded. “Good.” He added wryly, “I like the look of you, Park. You remind me of myself.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“But tell me,” the Commander went on. “Why do you keep bringing us the living? I’m grateful, but you can’t still need the reward. You must have plenty of guns by now.”

“I want to do more,” Park said. “Help you. Convert the living. End the war.”

The Commander settled back in his chair. “Yes,” he said thoughtfully. “Perhaps you can help us. We’ll discuss it after dinner.”

Dinner. The word filled Park with dread. Fortunately he had no face to give him away.

***

She reminded him of his grandmother. A woman in her seventies, naked, gagged, and tied to a steel platter. When she was placed on the table, and saw a dozen skull-faces with all their eyeballs staring down at her, she began to bray into her gag and thrash against her bonds.

The Commander, who now wore his rifle strapped to his shoulder, said to Park, “Guests first.”

Park leaned over the woman, who whimpered and tried to squirm away. He wanted to tell her: I’m sorry. I have no choice.

He bit into her arm, tore. The woman screamed. Park straightened and began to chew. No flavor at all. The dead couldn’t taste, though he did feel a diminishment of the perpetual hunger that the dead bore for the living.

The Commander turned to the skull-faced girl and said, “Now you, my dear.” She began to feed. Soon the others joined in.

When it was over, Park looked up and noticed that the living man and woman he’d just brought in were now present. They stood in the corner, naked and trembling, held up by dead men who clutched them by the arms.

What now? Park wondered.

The old woman was moving again, moaning. The Commander ordered her released. He murmured, “We eat of this flesh, and proclaim death.” To the woman he added, “Rise now in glory. Go.”

There wasn’t much left of her, really. A crimson skeleton festooned with gobbets. The thing that had once been a woman dragged itself off the table and lurched as best it could toward the exit.

“Now,” the Commander said. “We have a bit of after-dinner entertainment. Some fresh material.” He waved at Park. “Thanks to our friend here.”

Park followed as the captives were dragged out the door, down a long corridor, and into another chamber. This room was smaller, with chairs lined up along one wall, all of them facing a king-sized bed. The man and woman were brought to the bed and dumped upon it, where they sat dazed. The seats filled with spectators. The skull-faced girl sat beside the Commander, who assumed the centermost chair.

The Commander pointed at the living man and said, “You. Take her. Now.” The generals watched, silent but rapt.

The man stood, made a fist. “Fuck you, freak.” Behind him the woman sat pale and stricken.

The Commander shrugged. “Maybe you’re not in the mood. We have something for that.” He turned to the door and called, “The aphrodisiac, please.”

For almost a minute nothing happened. Then from the corridor came a terrible groaning. The sound grew louder, closer. The woman on the bed wrinkled her nose and whispered, “No.” A dark form appeared in the doorway.

It was one of the ones who had been buried in the ground before coming back. They always returned as moaners too, and had always rotted terribly.

The man and woman scrambled away, onto the floor.

Around its neck the moaner wore a steel collar, which was attached to a chain held by a skull-faced guard. The moaner shrieked, and slavered, and swiped at the air with clawlike fingers. It lunged at the living, and its handler, just barely able to keep it under control, was half-dragged along behind it. With each charge, the creature came closer to the man and woman, who cowered on the floor in the corner, the man kicking feebly in the direction of the monster.

When the thing was just a few feet away the man shrieked, “All right! All right! Get it off me!”

The Commander lifted a hand, and the moaner was hauled back.

The man and woman trooped grimly to the bed. The woman was young, maybe twenty. Mei’s age, Park thought. Had Mei gone through this? No. Don’t think about it.

The woman lay down on the bed and the man climbed awkwardly on top of her. The Commander stared. He reached over, took the hand of the skull-faced girl, and held it. For a long time the living man nuzzled the woman, pawed her, rubbed against her, but he was too frightened, and couldn’t become aroused.

Finally the Commander called out, “Enough!”

The figures on the bed froze.

The Commander stood. “This grows tedious. Another night, perhaps?” The pair on the bed pulled away from each other and watched anxiously. The Commander said to them, “Don’t worry. There’ll be other chances. Next time will be better.” To the generals he instructed, “Take them away. Put them with the rest.”

The rest? Park thought.

“Park,” said the Commander. “Walk with me.”

Park followed him through several doorways, then up a few flights of stairs. They emerged onto what must have once been simply a rooftop, but which had been augmented through the exertions of the dead with a sort of parapet.

The Commander said, “So how did you enjoy that?”

“I… it was… ”

The Commander said sharply, “Don’t dissemble. I don’t like that.” All of a sudden there was real anger in his voice, and Park was afraid, but just as suddenly the man’s eerie calm returned. He went on, “You were uneasy.”

Park thought fast. “I just… you always say lust of the flesh is—”

“For the masses,” the Commander cut in. “Black and white. Right and wrong. But men like you and I must take a more nuanced view. Besides, it’s for a greater purpose. You’ll see.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”

“And don’t apologize,” the Commander said. “Now… there’s something you want to discuss?”

“Yes.” Park collected his thoughts. Then: “In what way does one become an officer in your army?”

“I am the way,” the Commander said. “Tell me why you want to join.”

“I hate the living,” Park said. “Always have. Even when I was one of them. Especially then. But I never saw any alternative. Until now.”

“I understand,” the Commander told him. “You seem a useful sort, Park, and I’m always damned short of good men. I think I’m going to be glad I met you.”

The Commander turned away and gazed out over the battlements to admire his city, his domain. There in the darkness, with the man’s back turned and no one else around, Park allowed himself one fleeting instant to glare at the Commander with pure hatred.

No, Park thought. You won’t be glad. Not at all.

***

So Park was designated a “lieutenant,” and given a room in a far corner of the palace, and often he was called on to perform routine tasks, mostly drilling the other officers in marksmanship. The Commander’s voice was a constant presence, as the loudspeakers blared forth an endless mix of propaganda and instructions for the maintenance of the city. Sometimes pairs of living prisoners were brought out to perform for the Commander and his wife, but Mei was never among them.

Most information was still restricted from Park, and most areas of the palace were still off-limits. A few times he heard men refer to the top floor of the east wing as the “petting zoo.” Was that where the living were kept? The palace was severely undermanned, but even so trying to slip in where he wasn’t wanted would be chancy at best. Patience, he told himself. Wait, and watch. This is who you are. This is what you do. And when you strike, you strike hard, and they never see it coming.

One day Park returned to his room to find someone waiting in the hall. It was Greavey, a heavyset man with a scattering of red hairs whose jowls hung slack below his skeletal face.

Park nodded to him. “General.”

“Park,” said Greavey. “Can I ask you a favor? A private lesson?”

“Of course,” Park said.

He retrieved a pair of rifles from his car, then took Greavey to a muddy yard nearby, where Park lined up empty cans upon a wooden table. The two of them positioned themselves at the far end of the field.

Greavey took aim and fired. His shot went wide. He growled, and said, “I was a soldier too, in life. Like you. Never was a terrific shot though.”

Park fired and knocked over the first can. “It’s easier now. Your body is more still.”

Greavey raised his rifle again. As he sighted, he said casually, “You may have fooled him, but you don’t fool me.” He fired. A can went flying.

Park didn’t answer. He took another shot, took down another can.

Greavey’s voice was gruff. “You don’t buy all his bullshit. His little cult. And neither do I.” He fired again. Missed. “Damn.”

Park had been expecting something like this. He took aim again. “And what if I don’t?” He fired. Another hit.

“Listen,” Greavey told him. “You’re new around here. You don’t know what he’s like. We’re losing this war, losing bad, because of him. We don’t have enough officers, and every time one of us shows a little promise… well, he doesn’t like rivals much. So watch yourself. It’s only a matter of time before he turns on you too.”

“So what’s the alternative?” Park said. “The moaners are loyal to him. They’ve been listening to his voice every day and night now for how long? What’s going to happen if he’s gone? You think they’ll obey you? You think you can control them?”

“Man, they’ll listen to anyone—” Greavey waved at a loudspeaker— “who gets on that PA.”

Park raised his rifle to his shoulder and sighted downrange. “It’s too much of a risk.”

“That’s not what you’ll be saying when the living storm in here and blow our brains out.”

Park fired. Another can. “Who then? If not him?”

Greavey said, “You know he never did shit before all this? He likes to play soldier—all of them do—but he’s just some college kid. Now, he’s smart, I’ll give him that, but not as smart as he thinks he is. We need someone in charge who knows this army and who’s got real military training.”

“You then?” Park said.

Greavey shrugged. “Seems sensible.”

“I’ve got training,” Park said. Another shot. Another can.

“Look,” Greavey said. “You shoot real good, but come on. You just got here. Back me and I promise I’ll—”

“No.”

Greavey was silent a while. He raised his rifle, hesitated, lowered it. Finally: “What do you want?”

“Half,” Park said.

“Half what?”

“Half everything. The guns, trucks, troops—”

“No way.”

Park raised his rifle again. “Maybe I should see what he thinks about all this.”

Greavey stared as Park took down another can, then said, “Fine. If that’s the way it’s got to be. You and me. Full partners. All right?”

“All right.” Park glanced toward the palace. “Except… no one but him’s allowed to bring weapons in there. He’s always armed, obviously he never sleeps—”

“He comes out sometimes,” Greavey said. “To supervise things personally, or lead his army in the field. And like I said, you shoot real good.”

At this, Park nodded slowly. “I see,” he said, as he took down the final can.

Later, as Park strode through the palace, he thought: A good try. Convincing. Much of it likely true. Greavey plotting assassination? A lie. But the Commander too reliant on his legion of moaners? Eliminating clever officers who might become rivals? Probably yes. Also true: The Commander not as smart as he thinks he is.

Park turned a corner toward the Commander’s private suite. Two skull-faced men stood guard.

“I have to see the Commander,” Park said.

The men eyed him. One of them said, “Wait here,” and disappeared around a corner. A short time later he returned and said, “All right. Come on.”

They walked down the hall to an office, where the Commander sat behind a desk, his rifle leaning against a nearby wall. He held a combat knife, which he fiddled with absently as he said, “Talk.”

Park said, “Sir, Greavey is plotting against you.”

The Commander leaned back in his chair. “Give me details. Everything.”

So Park relayed the conversation, leaving out nothing.

Afterward, the Commander stood and began to pace. “This is good to know.”

Park said, “Sir, let me handle Greavey. I’ll—”

“Greavey’s fine.”

“Sir?”

The Commander pointed his knife at Park and said, “Listen to me carefully. Nothing happens in this city without my knowledge, without my order. Do you understand?”

Park feigned bafflement. “You mean it was… a test?”

“An exercise,” the Commander said. “I apologize, but it’s necessary. I’ve been betrayed before. I have to make sure.”

***

A few weeks later, just after dawn, Park heard a rumble from outside, as of distant thunder. He hurried to the window of his chamber and looked out. A giant plume of black smoke was rising from the southern end of the city.

A short time later the Commander’s recorded speech cut out abruptly. Then the Commander came on and announced, “The city is under attack. The south wall has been breached. Muster at the south wall. I repeat, the south wall.” The message continued in this vein, until the moaners got the idea and began to march to the city’s defense.

Park lay low, hoping to be missed in the confusion. He waited until he saw a column of trucks go speeding away to the south. Eight trucks—enough to carry most of the officers who lurked about the palace. Park knew he might never get a better chance to scout out the “petting zoo.”

He raced through the halls, but saw no one. The east wing seemed deserted. If anyone caught him—

No. They would not catch him. He’d make sure of that.

One time he heard footfalls approaching. He slipped into a shadowed alcove, and a guard passed by, heedless. Another time, as Park climbed a staircase, he imagined he heard wailing, but when he stopped to listen there was nothing.

He reached the top floor and moved quickly down a long hallway lined with windows. To his right was a door, open just a crack. He crept up to it and peeked inside.

On a nearby couch sat a woman with auburn hair, who was bent over something in her lap. She was murmuring, “Hey. Hey, it’s okay. Mommy’s here.”

Park shifted slightly and scanned the room. The walls were painted yellow. He saw cribs, toys…

Children.

Living children, six of them, none more than a year old.

The petting zoo. It was a goddamn… nursery. But… why?

No, he told himself. Ponder later. Get out now. Mei’s not here.

The woman on the couch raised her head, and Park caught just a glimpse of her skeletal profile as he eased away from the door.

He heard voices then, back the way he’d come. He hurried in the other direction. He slipped through a door and onto a balcony. At its far end was another door.

The wall to his left was crenellated, and as he hurried along he could see down into the yard below, where a few dead men wandered, moaning, “The south wall…” Apparently they were attempting to join the battle but were too witless to find their way there.

A voice at his side said, “Oh. Hey.”

Park leapt back, almost stumbling.

A decapitated human head was impaled on an iron spike between two battlements. The head was that of a young man, blond, who even in this grisly state retained a look of gentle innocence. “Sorry,” said the head. “Didn’t mean to startle you.”

“It’s all right,” Park said, turning away.

“Wait,” the head called. “Who are you? I’ve never seen you before. I’m Jack.”

Damn it. Park said, “Look, I really have to—”

The head narrowed its eyes. “You’re not supposed to be here, are you?”

Shit. Park eyed the head. It could report him to the others. Should he destroy it?

“Don’t,” the head warned, anticipating him. “He’ll know something’s up. Listen, you can trust me. I’m not on his side. I mean, he’s the one who put me here.”

Park was at a loss.

“I can help you,” the head added. “I know things. What are you doing here?”

Park hesitated. Did he dare trust it? But what choice did he have? He said, “I’m looking for my sister. She was captured. I don’t—”

“How old is she?” said the head.

“Twenty.”

“Good.” The head gave him an encouraging look. “Then she was probably kept alive to breed. The prisoners are in the south wing, down in the basement. But you’ll need keys to the cells. Dustin’s got a set, and Greavey’s got the other.”

“Dustin?” said Park.

“The Commander,” the head explained. It added, “I knew him before all this. We were friends.”

Park whispered, “Why did he do this to you?”

The head gave a sad, wry smile. “I tried to free the prisoners,” it said.

***

Park slipped from the east wing without being noticed. Hours later one of the trucks returned. Park lurked in the corridor and watched as the Commander and Greavey strode back into the palace. The two men conferred, then the Commander headed off in the direction of his suite. Park tailed Greavey down a hallway.

After a minute, Greavey turned. “Oh, it’s you.”

Park sidled up. “What’s the situation?”

Greavey was grim. “The living are inside the walls. They’ll be here by nightfall. Tough bastards. Militia types, called the Sons of Perdition.”

Park knew of them. They had a ghastly reputation.

Greavey said, “The Commander’s gone to issue new orders. Where the hell have you been?”

Park nodded at some metal piping that ran up the wall from floor to ceiling, and said, “Over there.” Greavey turned to look.

Park grabbed the man and ran him into the pipes. Greavey’s skull-face rebounded with a crack, and he went down. Park straddled him, seized the man’s left wrist and cuffed it, then slipped the cuffs around the pipes and bound Greavey’s right wrist too.

Park dug through the man’s pockets. A keyring. Park hoped the head on the wall—Jack—had been telling the truth.

As Park made his way to the south wing, the Commander’s voice came over the loudspeakers: “Fall back to the palace. Defend the palace at all costs. I repeat, defend the palace.”

Park spent maddening minutes navigating the unfamiliar corridors. Finally he clambered down a set of metal steps and emerged into a dim, grimy hallway lined with cells. He donned his mask and goggles, then moved from door to door. “Mei?” he called out. “Mei? Are you here?” Vague figures huddled in the darkness.

Then, from a cell he’d just passed, a weak voice: “Hello?”

She was there, her tiny fingers wrapped around the bars. He ran to her. “I’m getting you out,” he said, as he tried a key in the lock. It didn’t fit.

“Park?” she said, unbelieving. “I thought—”

She stiffened then, as she watched him. In a near-whisper she said, “Take off your mask.”

He tried another key.

“Park,” she said, insistent.

He stopped. For a moment he just stood there. Then he carefully removed his mask and goggles, revealing his terrible skull-face for all to see.

Mei recoiled. “But… you’re one of them, one of his—”

“It was the only way,” Park said. He tried another key.

Beside her in the cell, a skinny white man with curly black hair said, “I know you. You’re the one who captured me, who brought me here.”

Mei said, “Is that… true?”

“Yes,” Park said. He couldn’t meet her gaze. He tried another key, which turned with a click, and he slid the door open.

The skinny man tried to rush out, but Park stiff-armed him back and said, “Only her.”

“No,” Mei said. “We can’t—”

“Mei, come here,” he told her.

She shook her head, withdrawing. Park looked down and saw that she was pregnant. She asked, “What’s happened to you? You’re—”

“I’m what I have to be!” he shouted. “To save you. Now come on!”

For a moment he thought he had her. She took a tentative step forward.

Then he heard clanging footsteps on the stairs behind him, and knew it was over.

The Commander strode into the hall, his rifle raised. Behind him came the skull-faced girl and Greavey. The handcuffs dangled from Greavey’s right wrist, and half his left hand was gone—he’d chewed it off to get free.

The Commander stared at Park with baleful eyes. There was a long silence. Then the Commander barked, “Get away from there!”

Park took a few steps back.

“Keep going! Move!” The Commander advanced. When he was even with the cell, he glanced at its occupants. “You brought us so many,” he said slowly, to himself. “Why a change of heart?”

Park glared back, said nothing.

“No,” the Commander declared then, with sudden triumph. “You’re not the compassionate sort. You only care about… one.” He swung his rifle around so that it menaced the skinny man in the cell, and demanded, “Who’s he here for?”

The man shrank back, holding up his hands defensively. “Her! The girl! Please.”

Park inched forward, but instantly the gun was back on him. The Commander said to Greavey, “Get her.”

Greavey strode into the cell and with his good hand snatched Mei by her long dark hair and dragged her stumbling into the corridor. He stood her there in the middle of the hall, then stepped aside. She trembled.

Behind the Commander, the skull-faced girl said softly, “Dustin, she’s pregnant.”

“Not for long.” He leveled his rifle at Mei’s belly.

Park stared at Mei, his sister, as she stood there right in front of him after so long, and he knew there was nothing he could do to save her.

Then the skull-faced girl shoved the Commander as hard as she could.

His rifle discharged, spraying rounds into the cement as he sprawled. The gun flew from his grasp and skittered across the floor, coming to rest at Mei’s feet. She spun and kicked it to Park, but not hard enough. The rifle slid to a stop near Greavey, who fell to his knees, grasping for it.

Park leapt forward and tackled him, and they went down together, grappling. Park wrapped both arms around Greavey’s meaty right bicep, pinning it. The man’s mutilated left hand brushed over the rifle’s stock, but couldn’t get a grip on it. The Commander scrambled to his feet.

Park pushed against the floor with his heels, pivoting him and Greavey. Park kept hold of Greavey’s bicep with one arm while with the other he reached out and snatched the rifle. He shoved the muzzle up under Greavey’s chin and held down the trigger. Chunks of the man’s fleshy jowls spattered across the floor, and his body went limp.

Park rolled off him and came up in a crouch with the rifle aimed at the Commander, who slid to a halt just a few feet away. “Back!” Park said, and the Commander slowly retreated, holding up his hands.

Park said, “Mei! Come here.”

She staggered toward him. “Park… we can’t—”

He held out the keys to her and said, “Get these goddamn cells open. Now.”

The skull-faced girl approached him. The prisoners watched her with a mix of unease and wonder. She said quietly, “And the children. Please.”

Park considered this. “All right,” he told her. “And the children.”

***

An hour later Park returned to the cell block with a duffel slung over his shoulder. The prisoners were free now, around twenty of them, and were armed with weapons from the trunk of his car. The skull-faced girl had fetched the children, each of whom was being carried by an adult. The guards had fled, and Park had taken care of the Commander.

Park said to the crowd, “You know the city’s under attack by an army of the living. They’re called the Sons of Perdition. You all know who they are?”

The crowd was somber.

“Anyone want to join them?” Park said. “Now’s your chance.”

No one moved.

“All right,” he said. “Then let’s get the hell out of here.”

They formed a convoy of vehicles and set out north, away from the fighting. Park drove his car, and the others followed. On the seat beside him rested the duffel, and in the back seat sat Mei and the skull-faced girl, each of them holding a child. At first Park was forced to barrel through clusters of moaners, but once he got away from the palace the streets were mostly deserted.

The skull-faced girl stared out the window. One time she spoke faintly, “I said I wanted children. I was just… I didn’t think… He wanted to—when they got older—make them like us. He—”

“It’s okay,” Park said. “It’s over.”

The girl fell silent.

“What’s your name?” Mei asked her.

“Ashley,” she said.

The convoy passed through the north gate without encountering any of the invaders. Park was faintly hopeful about slipping away unnoticed, but as he followed a two-lane road toward a cluster of wooded hills, a small fleet of pickups came racing out of the west, throwing up great clouds of dust.

“Shit,” Park said. He hoped he could at least make it to the treeline before being overtaken.

He did. Barely.

“Get out,” he told Mei and Ashley then. “Move to another vehicle.” He passed the duffel to Ashley and said, “Take this. It’s Jack. Look after him.”

“I will,” she promised.

Mei lingered. “How will we meet up after—?”

“Go, Mei,” he said.

She insisted, “I don’t want—”

“I said go!” he screamed.

She gave him one last worried look, then fled.

Park backed up his car so that it blocked the road, then he got out, fetched his scoped rifle, put on his mask and goggles, and crouched in the shadow of his car. Behind him, the rest of the convoy sped away.

The pursuers drew near, seven trucks. Park lay his rifle across the hood of his car, then put a round through the windshield of the lead vehicle. The truck slid to a halt, and the others pulled up alongside it. Men with rifles poured out, taking cover behind the doors of their vehicles. Thirty guns, maybe more.

The driver of the lead vehicle, a giant man with a blond beard who was dressed all in black leather, shouted, “You shot my truck.”

Park didn’t respond.

The man yelled, “You have any idea who you’re fucking with?”

Again, Park said nothing.

“Listen,” the man called. “This is real simple. We saw you all coming out. We know you’ve got women. We need them, your guns, and your vehicles. And you’re all drafted.”

They didn’t seem to realize that Park was one of the dead. Good. He shouted back, “We don’t want anything to do with your army.”

“Drafted means you got no choice,” said the man.

Park crept into the underbrush and took up a position behind a tree.

“Hey,” the man called. “What’s your plan, huh? Just how do you think this is going to end?”

For you? Park thought. Like this.

He fired. The man’s body toppled against the truck, then slumped to the pavement.

Park crawled away as the other men started shooting, their bullets shredding the foliage all around him.

***

By dusk Park was down to his last bullet. It didn’t matter. He’d won. Thirty men had come charging up the hill after him, and he’d kept ahead of them, taking them out one by one. He’d dropped nine already, and there were moaners in these woods too who’d surprised and overwhelmed maybe two or three more. Mei and Ashley and the others were well away.

Park had been hit twice in the chest, and many more times in the arms and legs, but those scarcely troubled him. By now his pursuers must know that he was one of the dead, and they would be going only for headshots.

One of the men emerged from behind a boulder and crept closer, scanning the bushes. Make the last shot count, Park thought, as he eased his rifle into place and peered through the scope.

He was shocked. My face, he thought. My old face.

No, he decided then, studying the man. But close. We could be brothers.

Park’s finger twitched, tapping the trigger. He could easily put a bullet through that face, but he hesitated. It had been such a long time since he’d looked in a mirror. Since he’d recognized himself.

Any moment now he’d be spotted. Take the shot, his mind urged. Do it. But what difference did it make? Mei was safe. Park continued to stare. He didn’t want to see that face destroyed.

No. Not that face.

He imagined the eyes of all the people he’d delivered into the horrors of the necropolis. He imagined the old woman screaming as his teeth tore into her. He heard Mei’s voice crying, “What’s happened to you?” and his own replying, “I’m what I have to be. To save you.”

Slowly he reached up and grasped a handful of fabric.

There. The man had seen him, was taking aim. For an instant the two of them stared at each other through their scopes.

Park removed his mask.

***

Dustin watched from the wall of his palace as an army of the living battled through the city toward him, but he was powerless to do anything.

In the yard below, one of his followers came into view.

“Hey!” Dustin shouted. “You! Up here!”

The man stopped and looked at him.

“Listen to me very carefully,” Dustin said. “This is your Commander speaking. You are to walk around this palace to the main entrance. Once inside, turn right and keep going until you reach the stairs. Take them to the top floor and continue on the way you were. You’ll come to a door leading out onto this balcony. Then remove me from this fucking spike! Do you understand?”

The man stared back with vacant eyes. “Walk around the palace…” it moaned.

“Yes,” Dustin said. “And the rest of it. Turn right—”

“Walk around the palace… ” The creature took a step toward him, then away. “Walk around the palace… ” it repeated, as it wandered, back and forth.

© 2010 David Barr Kirtley