Sunday, August 20, 2017

Chapter 16: Bug, not a feature

"Adam? You okay in there, buddy?" I yelled from behind the shield.

A series of curses uttered in the familiar wet, pained voice that comes with a well and truly broken nose issued from the other room. I glanced up to see the New Breed pause, its eyes narrowed in concentration. It could hear Adam even if its nervous system and brain were being tricked into not seeing or smelling him.

"Might want to keep it down," I said loudly. "Looks like this guy here is smart enough to know you're there, and he hears you."

Adam went as silent as a record with the needle suddenly pulled away. Oh, wow. I just realized I'm so old that I actually have had a record player. I mean, sure, almost all technology in the world is relegated to the trash heap of history at this point, but still.

A few seconds later he was up, and I risked shifting position to get a look. No question about it, that nose was fucked. It was crooked in a way usually reserved for venerable British wizards and pouring blood. I still wasn't quite used to seeing freely flowing blood that didn't send zombies into a frenzy like they were coked-out 1980's stock brokers who just scored an eight ball. He backed away a couple feet and the angle made it so all I could see was the top of his head.

"What should I do?" he asked, clearly thrown off his usual game. I sympathized. Having your basic abilities compromised, especially in a way that shows a glaring weakness you didn't even know you had, was never an easy hit to take. I've never been a soldier in the traditional sense, but over the years we've fought a lot of battles and one war. I knew the damage that single shot to the face had done on Adam's confidence and mental equilibrium. Just like I knew the best, and only real, option was to get back on the horse.

"Keep with the plan," I said, not unkindly. "Just be more careful. Take them out one by one, and listen for Jess. She'll yell if she needs help."

"Okay," Adam said, sounding a little more level. "Okay, I can do that."

Of course he could. That's why I told him to. People are weird creatures. Screw up their ability to rationalize with any sort of surprise, and it could ruin the entire universe of spinning plates running inside their heads. Human consciousness is hugely complex and incredibly fragile, composed of everything from thought to ego to subconscious desires. The slightest tremor in any one of them can send the entire system spiraling wildly out of control.

Yet give that person a task they can accomplish, even just remind them of what they're supposed to be doing in the first place, and you can set it mostly right in a single breath. In that way we're resilient in ways that few people really appreciate. Our ability to lock down our inner chaos and narrow our focus to a job at the exclusion of all else is one of our greatest strengths. It's also probably the leading cause of failed relationships, alcoholism, and offbeat sexual fetishes. Extreme focus often impacts everyday life and requires...specific stress relief mechanisms. Hey, everything has its counterbalance.

The strain of holding the shield in place only grew over the next few minutes. Adam was doing his job, and presumably Jess was doing hers elsewhere in the house, but mine was to hold this line. Be the bait. Jess would be taking her own share of attention, but with me drawing the majority with my blood on the air, I was sure she'd mow through hers like the killing machine I knew her to be.

Every thump of a body hitting the floor was music to my ears. I kept hoping each one would be the last. Eventually I got really tired, arms burning with effort, and lost my temper.

"What the fuck is taking so long?" I barked at Adam.

He paused. "Uh, sorry. I think Jess opened the door to let some of the ones from outside in. Maybe we're supposed to kill them a few at a time? I don't know, man. I can go ask her."

Instead, I yelled the question across the house. The response cut across the din of zombie noises with ease.

"Calm your tits! I'm trying something out here!"

Whether my arms could hold out long enough for whatever she had planned, I didn't know. But I was smart enough to buckle down and try my best. After all, the worst I could do was die.

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