Pretty much everything St. George could see was on fire at this point, including most of the zombies.
The fire had started a block south of the Big Wall about four hours earlier, just before sundown. Nobody was sure how. The flames crawled north across a dozen overgrown lawns that hadn’t been watered in five years or rained on in five months. Then they climbed a few trees, and a light wind had pushed embers into the houses.
Now three city blocks of inferno lit up the night. The blaze reached for the Big Wall as it looked for more to consume, and the people of the Mount fought back as best they could. Half of them ferried buckets of water out to the flames or beat down the lawns with damp blankets. The other half—and St. George—pulled guard duty, keeping the firefighters safe from the exes.
The zombies—the ex-humans—had first appeared years ago. The undead had overrun cities, then countries, then whole continents. In the space of a year, the population of Earth dropped by more than ninety percent.
The living population, anyway.
Now millions of exes walked the streets of Los Angeles, and hundreds of them stumbled through the flames around the Mount. The click-click-click of their teeth meshed with the pop and crackle of burning wood. Sound and movement attracted them. Sound and movement and food.
The one St. George held by the throat pawed at him and clicked its teeth. It flailed at his face and scraped against the black leather of his jacket. The dead thing had a better chance of getting through the leather than through St. George’s stone-like skin. Two of the ex’s gaunt fingers hooked in his long hair but slid free as fast as they’d gotten tangled.
Yellow-orange flames raced across its body, burning away clothes and hair. It could’ve been a woman once, or a slim man with long hair. Too much of its body had burned for him to be sure. Ex-flesh didn’t catch fire easily, dried out from years in the sun, but their hair and clothes could burn. Sometimes, when it did, what little fat they had left became fuel, just like a candle.
St. George flicked his wrist and the ex sailed across the street, its spine wrapping around a parking sign’s squared-off steel pole.
Off to his left, two teams of people slapped at the fire with quilted blankets. Others kept the fabric soaked with water from buckets. They smothered the flames a few inches at a time. It was a slow, steady process, perfected after four or five similar fires over the years.
Two more exes lurched toward one of the firefighting teams and a figure loomed out of the smoke to meet them. Captain John Carter Freedom, leader of the 456th Unbreakables super-solider platoon, stood just shy of seven feet tall and almost half that wide. The flickering firelight gleamed across his dark scalp. He reached out and grabbed one of them with a gloved hand that covered the zombie’s shoulder. A flex of his tree-trunk arm sent the dead woman sprawling. His massive fist came around and shattered the other ex’s skull.
St. George grabbed a zombie and flung it back the way it came. He tossed another one after it. The second one ended up draped in the branches of a burning tree, biting at the air.
A sound brushed against his ears. He’d almost missed it under the crackle of the burning lawns and bushes. He focused on a spot between his shoulder blades, felt an itch, and pushed himself up into the air. His boots went up a foot, then a yard, and then he was twenty feet over the pavement, looking out at the burning buildings and trees.
A mob of ex-humans stumbled and staggered up the street. At least another two hundred of them. Men and women and children, all reduced to dead things with endless appetites.
St. George had been expecting the sounds of the fire and shouting humans to attract the dead. There were probably similar groups closing in from the east and west. He’d expected them much sooner, truth to be told.
He went higher. A few hundred feet up the smoke thinned out and he could see for a few miles in every direction.
The city of Los Angeles had been dark for almost five years now, even more so on moonless nights like this one. Downtown was a shadowy hand stretching up toward the starry sky. To the west he could see the black expanse of the Pacific.
The only real light came from below him. The Mount, formerly just a re-fortified film studio, had expanded out from the studio’s original boundries. Now it was a huge square that stretched over a good chunk of Hollywood. Surrounding it was the Big Wall, shining lights out into the surrounding streets.
The undead filled those streets. Hordes like concert crowds shuffled through the shadows. There were always a few hundred around the wall, but now four or five times that were closing in, drawn by the flickering firelight and the noises that came with it.
St. George tapped his radio. “Captain? Company’s coming. Time to go.”
“Freedom to St. George. Copy that, sir. What direction?”
“All of them. Pull everyone back inside the Wall. We’ve got maybe five minutes.”
“St. George,” shouted a voice behind him. “Drop’s ready.”
He flew back to the triple-stacked cars of the Big Wall. People dashed back and forth across the series of platforms that topped the structure. A dozen of them prepped water drops for him. Trashcans and tall recycling bins, all doubled up so they wouldn’t burst when he lifted them. Usually rainwater filled them, but that went fast in a big fire like this one. The crew had hoses and filled the containers as fast as they could from the weak streams.
The rest of the wall-walkers, armed with rifles and pistols, watched for exes. Many of them also carried baseball bats, golf clubs, and other blunt instruments. If an ex slipped past the firefighters, the guards made sure the dead didn’t get any closer.
St. George dropped down next to a plastic trash barrel. A man with scruffy blond hair yanked his hose away and stuck it into the next container. “Should have another one ready in about two minutes,” he told the superhero, gesturing at one of the other barrels.
St. George nodded and worked his fingers underneath the trash barrel. He grabbed the rim with his other hand and heaved. His feet lifted up off the Big Wall and he soared back to the flames, water sloshing out as he went.
A nearby lawn with a medium-sized apple tree burned. He swooped down through the air and shook water out of the barrel. It splattered through the leaves of the tree and smothered most of the fire. He made another pass and dumped the rest of his water across the tall grass. The lawn wasn’t out, but it was enough for one of the firefighting teams to leap in with their blankets and pound out the last licks of flame.
A blackened, steaming ex lumbered toward the team. St. George dropped down and slammed it with the barrel. The impact knocked the dead thing back into a gaunt zombie in a charred, bloody business suit. Both of them tumbled to the ground.
He flew back to the wall and swapped his water barrel for a full one. He could empty all twelve faster than the teams could fill them back up, so he’d drop a few hundred gallons, then keep the exes away from the firefighters until the water team got three or four more refilled. Then the whole cycle would begin again.
He dumped the water across the fire line’s right flank. Fifteen gallons crashed down onto an ex, a scrawny teenaged girl with a mangled shoulder, and slammed it to the ground. He emptied the next two barrels over the roof of one of the burning houses and heard the flames hiss as they fell back. Another fifty gallons of water spread across the house’s yard. The last one he sloshed across the left flank, soaking a pair of burning grapefruit trees and the lawn behind them. The fire retreated for a moment, then lunged forward again.
Below him, he saw a pair of firefighters swing a wet blanket down on a patch of flames with a thump. Air and dirt blasted out from either side as the fabric struck the ground. They dragged the fabric back into the air and brought it down again. Their feet stomped out the last few licks of fire.
A gust of wind cleared the smoke and St. George saw a trio of exes heading toward the firefighters. The weathered thing in front wore denim shorts and a T-shirt blackened with old blood. He was pretty sure it had been a woman at some point.
When he could, he still tried to identify them. It was important to remember them as victims, not just as a threat. He knew it wasn’t a popular view.
He dropped down to smash the exes with the water barrel. As he did, a slim form raced out from behind the fire line and tackled the dead woman, driving it back into the smoke and knocking down the pair of zombies behind it. The ex clawed at the air, unable to comprehend what was happening. The two figures stumbled back a dozen feet before plowing into a shrub. The attacker stepped back and left the ex tangled in the branches.
“Hey,” yelled St. George. “You’re not supposed to be out here.”
The pale-skinned girl looked at him with chalk eyes. “You’re not my dad,” she called back with mock anger.
“I’m serious. There’s a ton of smoke out here.”
Madelyn Sorensen, the Corpse Girl, shrugged and looked around at the black and gray clouds. “It’s not like I need to breathe or anything.”
He landed next to her, stomping on a small tongue of flame as he did. “I’m not talking about breathing,” he said. “I’m talking about you getting shot because someone thinks they saw an ex moving in the smoke.”
Her lips pressed together. She glared at him.
The undead woman dragged itself out of the shrub. Its sightless gaze swiveled past Madelyn to lock onto St. George. Teeth clacked together four times before he slammed the heel of his palm against its forehead. Its skull caved in and the woman’s body toppled back into the shrub.
“I’m not an ex,” the Corpse Girl muttered.
He stepped past her to stomp on one of the fallen zombies. Its skull collapsed under his heel. “Everyone knows that. But right now there’s a lot of noise and a lot of yelling and someone might take a shot before they realize it’s you. Since you’re not supposed to be out here.”
“St. George,” yelled a voice behind him. “One minute to barrels.”
He glanced over his shoulder at the Big Wall, then back at the pale teenager. “Come on.”
“I can help!”
He held out his hand. “Now, Madelyn. Or you can go explain to Captain Freedom why you’re outside the Wall.”
She sighed and wrapped her cold fingers around his wrist. He returned the grip and launched himself back into the air. She threw her other arm up and held his wrist with both hands.
They flew up to the wall of cars and he let her drop onto the platform before he landed. Two of the crew members saw chalk skin and flinched back. Water from one of the hoses splashed over the plywood.
“Hey,” St. George said. “We can’t waste that.”
“Right,” said the man with another glance at the Corpse Girl. He shoved the hose back in the barrel. “Sorry. Didn’t realize it was her. You.”
“Whatever,” said Madelyn. She looked at St. George as he hefted the next barrel. “Can I at least help up here?”
St. George turned his head to the man with the hose.
“Yeah, sure,” said the man. “We can use another body. Person. Sorry.”
St. George nodded and pushed himself back into the air. He soared over the houses and soaked another rooftop on the far side of the fire. They still had a chance of containing it. Last year one had scorched its way through a large chunk of the Sunset Strip, almost sixty buildings, before burning itself out.
He circled back to the Big Wall and saw Freedom punch his way through a quartet of exes that threatened the retreating firefighters. The giant officer turned, grabbed a pair of outstretched hands, and hurled another dead man back. A fifth stepped forward and Freedom brought one of his huge fists down on its skull like a hammer. He crushed its skull and turned to a sixth.
St. George dropped the barrel off at the wall and soared back to the center of the fire line. “Time to go,” he said to Sally T. “How are we doing?”
The woman wore a yellow helmet with a red rag tied over her mouth and nose. She’d been a firefighter before the Zombocalypse and ended up in charge of the volunteer fire department for the southern half of the Mount. Nobody knew what the T stood for, only that she insisted on it.
“It sucks,” she said, raising her voice over the crackle of fire and teeth, “but I think we beat the worst of it.” She pointed at a few houses. “We’re going to lose those four, and all the trees around them. Don’t waste any more water there. But other than that we’re looking good.”
Her eyes flitted past his shoulder and went wide. He turned and backhanded an ex, shattering its jaw and hurling it back. “What about the grove?”
She shook her head. “Not a chance.”
“Dammit.” He bit his lip. “What else I can do?”
Sally T shook her head. “Just keep doing what you’re doing.”
St. George nodded. “Get back to the wall,” he told her and leaped back into the air.
A handful of exes stumbled toward what was left of the fire line’s left flank. One of them, a woman, had a burnt scalp and wore a smoldering tweed jacket. Another one, he noted with a grim half-smile, had a fireman’s coat and helmet. Its face was hidden behind a mask of grime-smeared glass.
He arced down and lashed out with his foot. The kick caught the dead fireman just under the edge of its helmet, lifted it off its feet, and slammed it into a phone pole. The others stopped their advance and turned to him. The click of their teeth was almost a hiss against the noise of the fire.
St. George landed between them and drove his fist into a bearded face coated with dried blood. The face collapsed, then the ex. Another punch put down the dead woman in the tweed coat. A dead man grabbed his arm and he drove his elbow into the ex’s chest, feeling the ribs splinter apart. The zombie wobbled for a moment and folded over on itself.
The last one got its mouth on his wrist. It bit down again and again. Each time knocked a few more teeth free of its withered gums when they failed to go through his stone-like skin. Or even scratch it.
He raised his arm and the ex rose up with it, still gnawing on his wrist. He brought his other hand around like an axe and smashed through the spine and the cords of muscle around it. The body dropped. The head managed one more bite before it slipped off his wrist and fell. It looked up at him from the ground, its jaws still gnashing away.
St. George looked around and spotted a trio of exes closing in on a pair of firefighters as they fell back toward the Big Wall. He grabbed the headless body at his feet, pulled back, and hurled it at the three dead people. It spun twice in the air and knocked them to the ground. One fell headfirst into a patch of fire, and the stench of burning hair washed across the street before being overwhelmed by the smoke.
He marched over to the fallen trio and twisted their skulls around until their necks snapped. The teeth kept clicking, but the bodies went limp. He wiped his hands on his jeans, heard a scream, and moved toward it.
Before St. George got there another figure leaped forward. Specialist Kurt Taylor, one of Freedom’s men. The one with the shaved head and the mouth. He was another super-soldier from Project Krypton, but an earlier version, not even half as powerful as the captain.
A retreating firefighter had tripped over his equipment, and his two companions were trying to untangle him before a pair of exes closed in on them. Taylor shoved both of the exes hard, and as he did something across the back of his hands gleamed in the flickering orange light. A vicious roundhouse punch exploded one zombie’s skull. Taylor’s other arm swung around, spraying teeth and bone from the other ex across the road.
He glanced back at St. George and grinned. Like most things Taylor did, it didn’t seem very nice. He held up his hand and revealed the thick bands of metal across his fingers. “Fucking awesome or what?” he said. “Grade-A zombie dusters, that’s what these are.”
St. George bit back a frown at the man’s glee. “Can’t you hit them hard enough already?”
Taylor’s face shifted, flitting between three or four emotions before St. George could identify them, and then settling back into a sneer. “You can never hit those fuckers too hard.”
To emphasize the point, he turned, batted aside the grasping hands of a dead Latina, and drove a punch into its exposed shoulder. The bones sagged and the arm flopped to its side. He crippled the other arm and threw an uppercut that sent a swarm of teeth into the air. His last punch slammed into the ex’s forehead and caved in the skull.
Taylor lifted his brass-knuckled fists to the sky and howled. St. George sighed and watched the firefighters stumble away. “Make sure everyone’s falling back,” he told Taylor, then pushed himself back into the air.
He spotted a small pack of exes shambling toward a last group of firefighters and landed in front of them. He spread his arms wide and walked. A teenaged girl with a trio of arrows in her torso bumped into his shoulder, snapped her teeth at his face, and then staggered back as he kept walking forward. A man in a scorched Yummy Donuts uniform was next, then a brown and black figure that had been burned beyond any kind of identification. St. George kept walking and gathered an elderly woman with an empty eye socket, a half-charred little boy in a baseball shirt, and another blackened corpse. They all stumbled and tripped as he pushed them back, then collapsed in a heap on top of each other. He bent down and twisted their skulls around one by one, listening to the click of teeth and the crack of spinal bones.
Another call for a drop. He flew back to the Big Wall and grabbed a tall blue recycling bin swollen with over fifty gallons of water. He caught a glimpse of Madelyn switching her hose to a new barrel before soaring back into the smoke.
He remembered Sally T’s instructions and poured his water over a burning grapefruit tree. The branches spat and hissed and sputtered, but the flames vanished. So did some on the ground around the tree.
His next drop went onto the roof of one of the salvageable houses, and the third went down its chimney to soak the first floor. The next barrel traced a thick line across the fire’s west flank and knocked down two exes, extinguishing one of them. He carried each of the last two barrels back over to the south side of the fire, soaking trees and rooftops and lawns.
A yell echoed behind him, the all clear. Everyone was back inside the Wall with what sounded like zero casualties. St. George landed and stamped out a few small embers before they could grow on a dry patch of grass. He backhanded an ex as it reached for him. Its jaw crumbled against his knuckles, the skull collapsed, and the dead thing crumbled to the ground.
The flames didn’t light up as much of the night as they had half an hour ago. The air didn’t smell quite as smoky. He didn’t know much about fighting fires, but it seemed like they might have this one under control. “Contained,” that’s how Sally T would put it.
He hoped contained was going to be enough, but he was pretty sure it was too late.
St. George launched himself back into the air.