Metro City was believed to be in the clear, well behind the line drawn just east of the Appalachians where the zombies first appeared. The combined forces of the US Army, several states’s national guards, and a number of superheroes, including Metro Man, had driven the zombies back even further. The news that New York City and Philadelphia were now zombie-free gave new hope to the nation that the threat was finally being eliminated. Fewer new contaminations were being reported.
Then an outbreak happened right in the middle of Louisville, Kentucky, within the safe zone. Four hundred people were killed and infected. Metro Man and a platoon of national guardsmen rushed to the disaster, burning out the nests.
There was another outbreak in Bloomington, Indiana, as if, Roxanne thought, the infection was making its way north. Or someone was heading north, seeding disease as they went.
Without warning, zombies appeared in the middle of downtown Metro City. The police came out in riot gear and flamethrowers to deal with them. There were fewer than a dozen zombies, and all of them were destroyed. A thorough search of the building they’d been using as a nest was cordoned off.
Three days later two police officers died. Believing them to be infected with the zombie virus, the bodies were burned, but it was too late. More zombie nests appeared, scattered throughout the city. Pleas for help were sent out over the airwaves. Citizens were implored to stay in their homes, but thousands fled.
Roxanne reported diligently on the situation, and she was there when the first refugees came straggling back.
“They wouldn’t let us through,” a shaken man told her, holding his daughter close.
Roxanne felt her breath catch in her throat. “Who?”
“The soldiers. They ordered us back. We’ve been cut off.”
Metro City had been quarantined. A lot of people had gotten out before the barricades went up, and Roxanne wondered what happened to them. Were they rounded up and forced into camps, like in Louisville?
Airplanes that attempted to take off from the airport were threatened to be shot down. Helicoptors from the hospital and the news stations were forced back by gunfire when they got too near the quarantine line. People who attempted to flee cross country were shot on sight. Canadian armed forces closed the border.
Then came the final insult: all communications to the outside were cut off. No phone calls could be made to anywhere outside the city limits, either by cell or landline, nor news broadcasts either.
Roxanne was made aware of it by the station manager. “We’ve been completely cut off,” he said, anger making his voice shake. “None of our signals are getting through. Even the internet’s out.”
It was only too clear that the government was determined to wipe out the zombie threat by whatever means possible. And so the refusal even to listen to cries for help, or let the doomed contact their loved ones. This was to ensure that no unnecessarily compassionate acts of heroism could occur.
They were condemning Metro City to death. An amputation of sorts, to protect the rest of the nation.
- - - - - - - - - - - - -
Roxanne attempted to get to her parents’s place on the east side, but couldn’t even get close. Traffic jams and pedestrians clogged the streets.
She tried to back up her car to go back to the station, but a breakdown blocked her. Suddenly there were screams and people all fleeing in one direction.
A slow-moving wave of zombies lurched down the street, winding their way between and over cars. Roxanne ran for it.
She took cover in another apartment building, along with sixty-three others. Most of them lived there, the rest were like her, random strangers taking refuge.
For a while, they busied themselves with fortifying the windows and doors, but when the work was done, Roxanne was overcome with grief. What had happened at KMCP? To her parents?
She tried calling them on her cell, but the phone rang and rang with no answer. She kept trying anyway, until the battery went dead.
- - - - - - - - - - -
The days dragged by and turned into weeks. The electricity went out early on, but they still had running water for some reason. The loss of electricity was a serious blow. The building became stifling in the summer heat. Nightfall brought new terrors. They conserved their flashlights and batteries for random attacks, and not just from zombies. One night they shot a man who tried to break in.
Several people, men mostly, had guns, and the rest were armed with whatever weapons they’d been able to find. Hank had several handguns, and he gave them to anyone who felt they could handle one, though he kept close track of the ammunition until he was satisfied that they’d learned how to handle them safely.
Aware that any of them could be killed or infected, the gun owners were teaching everyone twelve and up basic gun safety and instruction, so that almost anyone would be able to handle the weapons if worst came to worst. The opportunities for actual target practice were slim, though. Their ammunition dwindled by the day.
They took food and water from the abandoned apartments. She felt guilty about breaking into people’s homes, but not for long. It was depressing how quickly they deteriorated to unthinking vandalism.
The able-bodied adults took turns going out to inspect the neighborhood, to try to get an idea for how bad the zombies were getting, and to raid stores. And to keep an eye on the other human refugees in the area, some of whom were predatory. Paranoia and suspicion ruled them, and Roxanne hated herself for it, but they couldn’t allow just anyone into their group.
She’d prided herself on never judging anyone by their appearance, but now everyone looked suspicious. Those three men watching her and her friends making their way through the deserted streets, were they the ones who’d murdered those two women down the block? What about the men armed with rifles who had taken over the closest supermarket? Those guys had fired at them when they tried to talk to them.
Roxanne and her friends weren’t about to waste their bullets on pointless fights with other humans. They had to save it up for the zombies.
“Don’t waste time feeling sorry for everyone,” Hank had advised her.
“Better to be safe than sorry,” Pilar said, nodding.
Over time they accepted a few more people into their group, but only if everyone else felt comfortable with them, and if they didn’t seem likely to commit violence against their fellow refugees. Roxanne, who had become sort an official spokeswoman, made it clear to newcomers that theft and other crimes would result in immediate expulsion.
In addition, the newcomers had to stay in a cordoned area for three days to see if they showed signs of infection.
Roxanne didn’t like this mini-quarantine, but the risk of infection was too great for them not to take this simple safety measure. It pained her that kindness and compassion had to be put in second place.
The stench of rot was always present. The zombies were sloppy eaters. Sometimes they devoured their victims down to the bone, and sometimes they didn’t. Partially eaten bodies decomposed in the streets. Swarms of buzzing flies filled the air. Dogs and rats fed on the corpses, and sometimes became victims of the zombies as well. The terrible squealing of animals caught by zombies was almost as bad as the screaming of human victims.
She got insomnia, and had nightmares whenever she did manage to close her eyes.
The new people made it three full days without showing signs of the zombie virus, and the group increased to eighty-one.
It often seemed to take a long time for zombies to figure out where the fresh food was. Days would go by without an attack, zombies shambling along the streets as if completely unaware of them, and then suddenly a group of them would get it into their rotting brains that living people were in the apartment building, and attack.
Again and again, they fought them off.
Roxanne and her companions had been lucky so far, having sustained only small raids. They’d seen a few massive zombie attacks on other refugees. There was no pattern to it, no way to predict how big a zombie mob would get.
They watched each other carefully for signs of the zombie virus. No one like to think about what it would mean if one of their number should get infected. They would have no choice but to kill the infected one.
Who would it be? The single mom? The widower from apartment 410? Or one of the kids?
- - - - - - - - - - -
It was the wounded brainbot that gave Roxanne the idea of finding the Evil Lair.
It was alone, and must have had a malfunction because it was flying low and seemed unable to gain altitude. Zombies surrounded it, grabbing and swatting, and it fired on them a couple of times with its laser, which didn’t seem very strong either. Then a swarm of brainbots descended and ripped the zombies to shreds.
It was hideous to watch. Roxanne and her companions watched anyway, through cracks in the boards. It wasn’t really much worse than anything else they’d witnessed, and the brainbots’s efficiency was fascinating. The brainbots finished frying the brain of the last twitching zombie, picked up the injured brainbot, and flew away.
The Lair. Megamind had weapons up the wazoo. He must be safe, inside his fortress. And they’d be safe there, too.
That’s what she was betting on, anyway. Unless he’d left the city. She bit her lip. They’d really be screwed if he had. If anyone could sneak past the soldiers’ blockade, then it was Megamind. But would brainbots still be flying around if he had gone? The ones who’d come to the rescue of the damaged one had looked pretty healthy, so far as she could tell, if ‘healthy’ was the right word to apply to brainbots. They didn’t look neglected, and she didn’t think he’d abandon his pets.
So here they were, tromping across the city, avoiding the zombies when they could, fighting them off when they had no choice. She actually had a fairly decent idea of what direction to head. He had to be somewhere in the industrial district, not too far from Lake Michigan. That still left a lot of miles to cover, but she felt they had to try.
Her bet seemed to be paying off. Zombies grew fewer. The air and streets were cleaner. They saw squadrons of brainbots flying around more often. The brainbots ignored them, for the most part. Sometimes a few would come close, making their little bowg-bowg noises, before flying away again.
It took a few days, because they had to avoid the worst of the zombie nests, and they took the opportunity to loot a few stores. They got some more diapers and maxi pads from one place, and Jamal found a sawed-off shotgun behind the counter, with half a box of bullets.
- - - - - - -
No one really believed Megamind would let them in just because she asked nicely. They thought there’d be a price. And she was it.
They didn’t have the bad taste to comment on it or criticize her. Or tell her not to do it, for that matter. The last zombie mob they’d witnessed had overrun the supermarket fortress, which had been the strongest human camp in the area. The guys with rifles hadn’t stood a chance. It had focused everyone’s mind pretty sharply on the fragility of their own situation.
One evening (which turned out to be the last one of their cross-city trek) she and Agnes were coming back from finding a safe place to pee, when they overheard the others in the middle of a muted debate around the campfire.
“...not even human. Makes me sick,” one of the men muttered. She thought it was Hank, but wasn’t sure.
Roxanne stopped short. Agnes gave Roxanne an uneasy glance, but she stopped walking too.
“Who cares what he looks like, it’s degrading no matter what,” said Pilar.
“Not like we got much choice,” another man muttered. Roy, probably.
“Yeah, since you’re not the one who has to do it,” snapped Pilar.
“Hey, I don’t wanna die out here,” he said defensively.
Kailey murmured, “I don’t see how she can lower herself to...”
“You should talk. Sneaking off with Roy every chance you get,” Noelle said.
“So what! Everybody’s doing it! Roy, are you going to let her talk to me like that?”
Pilar snorted. “Define ‘everybody’.”
“I think we all need to calm down and...”
“Even Hank!” Kailey cried. “Him and Jessica were...”
“That’s not true,” Hank sputtered, and Roxanne was close enough to see him shoot a panicked look at his wife, Noelle. “You must not have seen right.”
“We’re all gonna die anyway.”
“Who cares who’s screwing who?”
“Shh! The kids’ll hear.”
“That’s just great!” Pilar shouted. “We gonna throw it all away and act like animals?”
They all began talking at once.
Roxanne walked toward them, stomping a little louder than necessary. She sat down next to Pilar. Everybody shut up. For a while there was only the sound of the crackling fire.
Pilar hugged her knees. “I think we should go back.”
Several groans went up.
Pilar bristled. “I mean it,” she said, and put her hand on Roxanne’s shoulder. “We’ve done all right. Roxanne doesn’t have to...”
Roxanne said, “Summer’s not going to last forever.” She looked around the fire, at the strain on people’s faces. “And neither will our ammunition. Metro Man’s nowhere in sight.” She tightened her jaw as bitterness welled up inside her. She’d caught glimpses of him on the national news before the satellite and electricity cut out, but he gave no interviews, and he didn’t seem interested in offering an opinion about the fact that the authorities had condemned Metro City, his city, to death.
At the mention of Metro Man, an angry muttering started up. The failure of the city’s Defender to appear had rankled everyone.
She swallowed and looked around at the others. Not many would meet her gaze. She said, “The Lair is our best hope of survival. I’ll do what it takes to get us in.”
Eventually there was a conversation about the food rations, and the three on first shift for guard duty went to their posts.
But, she thought, her heart sinking, if Megamind accepted her offer, making such a sordid deal in exhange for their survival, then she would have no respect left for him, and it meant he really was as wicked as everyone said he was.
She didn’t like that thought at all.
- - - - - - - - - -
The next day, four days after they began their trek, they rounded a corner and saw the brainbots.
These were definitely paying attention to them. They formed a line across the street, emitting a low-level hum that sounded like growls. Hank, Jamal, and some of the others hefted their guns.
“Don’t!” Roxanne snapped. “We want his help. We’re not going to get it if we shoot at them.”
Besides, the brainbots could rip them to shreds as easily as they’d torn apart the zombies.
Roxanne walked closer to them, slowly, hands raised. She looked around at the brainbots, trying to see if there were any cameras. Their menacing red eyes glared at her and a couple of them edged closer. The growling went up another notch.
Roxanne stopped walking. “We need to talk to your master,” she said loudly. “It’s me, Roxanne. The kidnappee? I need to talk to...” She hesitated. “I need to talk to your Daddy.”
She flushed a little, imagining the looks passing around her fellow refugees, but she kept her attention on the brainbots. Did they understand her? “Megamind, can you hear me? We could really use your help. If you...” She licked her lips. “If you care anything about me at all, you’ll help me, and my friends.”
There was no change in the brainbots. None of them flew off, or gave any sign that they understood her.
“Now what?” asked Pilar.
Roxanne looked around at the silent buildings. “Now, I guess we wait. Let’s set up camp.”
- - - - - - - - - - - -
They didn’t have to wait too long, after all. People were arranging their sleeping places and spreading out their blankets and sleeping bags, when the sound of the hoverbike, a distant roar but getting closer, made them look up. Roxanne hurried outside, the others trailing after her.
There were two hoverbikes circling overhead. Minion had one too. Megamind circled once more, and Roxanne thought his gaze was fixed on her. She stared back, looking him in the eye. Help us, she thought at him, clenching her fists. Do the right thing.
Megamind touched down. He swung off the hoverbike and came toward them, his steps slow and deliberate. Minion landed too, and when the engine cut off there was silence, except for the sound of the gravel crunching under Megamind’s boots.
There were bags under his bloodshot eyes, and dust on his clothes. A corner of his cape had been torn off. A few dirt streaks on the side of his head and a faint smear of ink on his nose suggested a hasty attempt at a wash. He never took his eyes off her.
“You’re alive,” he murmured. No evil smirk or attempt at wit, just a bewildered look.
She shrugged. “Yeah. How ‘bout that.”
The corner of his mouth twitched. “You need help,” he said, then closed his eyes and shook his head as if irritated with himself. “Obviously,” he muttered.
Roxanne felt a little of the tension in her shoulders loosen. She’d been bracing herself to see him gloat and strut, pleased to have her in his evil clutches at last, and of her own free will, too. He ran his bewildered gaze over her companions.
“The city’s been quarantined,” she said.
Roxanne’s hands felt sweaty. She was delaying. Of course he knew. The lack of banter was actually beginning to be a little unnerving. She wasn’t used to this quiet, dishevelled Megamind. “Will you help us? Let us stay in the Lair until the zombies are gone.”
“Stay in the Lair,” he repeated. “All of you?”
“Yeah. It’s a big place. Probably the safest in the city.”
He crossed his arms, and paced back and forth, head lowered in thought. Roxanne looked at Minion. He hadn’t spoken or moved since getting off the hoverbike, and his face was as grim as she’d ever seen it, but when he noticed her attention he managed a little smile before his eyes flickered back to his pacing boss.
Megamind rubbed the back of his head, a deep frown furrowing his brows. “Is there....is...” he said, then lapsed into silence again.
Roxanne struggled not to let her impatience show. She wondered for a moment if he’d gotten a head injury, but Minion didn’t seem overly concerned about him. It was weird, but she felt like she knew him well enough to see what the problem was. He probably never had anyone other than Minion in his Lair before. She didn’t want to badger him, but she thought about what she might say to help him make the right decision.
“I know this is hard, Megamind,” she said softly. “But our lives are on the line.”
Hank said, “Yeah, man, even you can’t be that selfish.”
Roxanne gritted her teeth and shot a glare at him. She’d told them to keep quiet and let her do the talking.
Megamind stopped pacing. “And what will you do, officer, if I let you into my sanctuary? Hm?” And there it was, the evil smile was back on his blue face, an edge to his voice.
Roxanne drew a shuddering breath. Damn it. She’d forgotten Hank was a police officer. Megamind probably knew every cop in Metro City.
“Not like your hideout’s so secret anymore, anyway,” said Hank. “All we gotta do is keep walking here until...”
Megamind’s eyes widened. “Oh no, say it ain’t so. Did you hear that, Minion? We’d better hurry and move. We only have twelve years until the Metrocity PD finds the Lair again.”
Hank clenched his fists and stepped forward.
Megamind stalked toward him, four brainbots swooping low on either side. Roxanne grabbed Megamind’s arm. “Stop it right now!” she shouted. She glared at each of them in turn. “Zombies have taken over! We don’t have time for a pissing contest!”
She faced Megamind. “We need your help. Please, Megamind.”
He was still scowling at Hank.
She rubbed her free hand on her pants. What now? Tell him she’d make it worth his while? Her cheeks felt hot. She couldn’t talk to him here, not with everyone listening. “Can we talk privately?”
He finally looked at her, and his gaze softened a little. “That won’t be necessary, Miss Ritchi.” He made a gesture as if he was about to pat her hand, but he lowered his arm and walked away from her instead. “You can stay.” He nodded at them all.
A murmuring started up among the refugees.
“But not the cop,” he said, giving Hank a cool look. The excited murmuring stopped.
Roxanne cleared her throat. “Megamind...”
His face was hard. “No, Miss Ritchi, I won’t have troublemakers in my Lair. Not even for you.”
Noelle protested, “You have to let him in. He’ll die out here.”
“He’ll be safe enough. I’ll let him inside the wall just outside the Lair,” said Megamind. “My brainbots will protect him. I’ll even provide a tent. He should be fine if he stays within my realm.” He waved an arm at the neighborhood. “This entire peninsula is under my control. Probably the only zombie-free zone in the city.”
Roxanne looked around. She could tell they were by the lake, but hadn’t realized they were on a peninsula. She wondered how big it was.
“I’m staying with him,” said Noelle, setting her jaw. Their son and daughter looked alarmed.
Megamind shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
“Noelle, you got to go in,” Hank said. “Stay with the kids.” They began to have a whispered argument.
“Megamind,” Roxanne said, unwilling to let it drop. She came close to him. He crossed his arms and lifted his chin, frowning. She said, “Hank is a big reason why we survived. I’ll talk to him. Will you at least... oh I don’t know, put him on probation?”
He stared at her, and then a slow smile spread over his face. He pinched the bridge of his nose, his shoulders shaking with laughter. After several seconds he sighed and looked up. “What do you think, Minion?” he asked, grinning. “Should I put this cop on probation?”
Minion also seemed amused. “Sounds good to me.”
“Okay, Hank. Be a good boy for two weeks, don’t piss me off again, and I’ll let you into the Lair.” Megamind rubbed his chin. “Now I have to figure out where to put everyone. Getting a little crowded.”
“I’m sure there’ll be room, Sir,” Minion said. “It’s not that crowded.”
“It is to me,” Megamind grumbled. He eyed the toddlers. “Do you think we’ve babyproofed the place enough?”
Roxanne blinked. “Wait. What? Crowded? There are others?”
A faint blush crept over Megamind’s cheeks. “Um. Yes. The others. I-I... rescued a few others. Um. Fifty-seven, all together.” He looked sheepish, as if embarrassed to have been caught doing a good deed. “I went out. I saw,” he said simply. “There were people, the zombies were trying to kill them. I saved them.” His hands fidgeted as if he didn’t know where to put them.
Tears came to her eyes and she covered her mouth. The other refugees looked as startled as she felt. All this time she thought he’d been holed up safe in his Lair, and who could blame him, plenty of people would have locked themselves away to escape the chaos and death. But he’d risked his life and opened up his home to rescue strangers. “Fifty-seven?” she whispered.
His eyes widened slightly and his eyebrows came together in an anxious grimace. He looked worried that she was going to scold him for not doing better. Then he straightened his shoulders and waved a hand around at the city. “There are so many,” he said, his voice sharp and defensive. “I’m trying. And the Lair almost got overrun by zombies. I had to build a wall, and reprogram the brainbots to kill zombies and protect humans, and let me tell you, that was a tricky algorithm, I haven’t had enough...”
Roxanne flung herself at him and wrapped her arms around his neck. He grunted and stumbled back a step.
“I can’t believe you did that,” she said, fighting back a sob. “I’m so proud of you.”
He stood still, apparently in shock, then his hands touched her back and gave her a tentative pat. She let him go and wiped her eyes. “Well, let us know when you’re ready,” she said.
A little half smile made his mouth crooked. “I guess I need to go back and...and...er...let the others know there are more coming.” He cleared his throat and addressed the rest of the group. “Does everyone have their own bedding?”