The clock on the radio of your rusting 1992 Toyota Tercel reads 9:06 AM, undeniable proof that you’re late to school. The situation would normally elicit nothing more than a pfft, but not today; your dreams were full of dark premonitory images—of serpents coiling around bundles of ethernet cable, carpets of bugs swarming in unison and devouring everything in their path, and ending with an old-fashioned rave of all things. The halls of your school burst with students swaying to a deep, feel-it-in-your-chest beat. At the far end of the hall, a little blonde girl spun the turntables while she cried. Her face was so familiar, but you cannot place it, even this morning after waking.
You’ve had dreams like them since puberty, but you only started trusting them after becoming a net-mage. Your mentor in the Socialistas cabal had explained how ambient magic energies sometimes travel backward in time, and blah blah blah. All you took away from it was that net-mage dreams predicted the future sometimes. These were really bad, and the bad ones almost always came true.
You’re full of the anxiety of bad premonitions and adding to that anxiety, your phone has been going off with socialnet alerts since you pulled out of your parents’ driveway. You don’t dare open it and take a look with the new laws about texting and driving. The last thing you need is another ticket.
You wouldn’t dare burn mojo or try a Jedi handwave on the cops, in case one of them is an agent of Big Mother, the Magical Association of Atlantis. They are your worst enemies, the old enforcers of the barrier between mundane and magic, as well being responsible for enforcing the thousand year-old copyrights that are totally bullshit. The RIAA is a pain in the ass, but at least all they can do is sue you blind. MAA can banish you to the Gray Fields for a thousand years. That would totally ruin your plans for college.
You pull into the parking lot of Hurston High, scanning in vain hope for an empty spot. It’s packed with dinged up teen-driver cars and the occasional rich kid’s Saab. Normally arriving this late would mean parking a few blocks down the street, but you can’t be bothered to walk. You burn three megs of mojo into a generic obfuscation sprog running on your phone, and an empty staff parking space becomes just another student spot to the mundane eye.
Safely parked, you stop to check the socialnet alerts. They’re identical. The subject line is a typical viral game invite, “You Have Been Turned Into a Zombie by a Friend!” and the message is formatted in red, bolded letters, accompanied by a helpfully ghoulish illustration of a half-rotted zombie tearing the top off of a skull and taking a bite out of the pink brain inside. Next, the sender attribution: “Jacob Ten has infected you with the Zombie Virus. Add this application to your page?” Below, a standard blue “Yes” button waits patiently for clicks. Oddly, the usual “Ignore” and “No” buttons are missing, which should be impossible, against the network’s terms of service. You know all about bending and breaking their terms of service; it would take some serious hacking, magical or mundane, to pull this off. But you suspect magic.
Outside, someone groans, low and deep like a beached whale. You look up from your phone and over the cracked vinyl dash. The lot is empty of people. You quickly tab through the other messages. Nearly everyone at Hurston High has sent you an invite, except the one guy you would have expected (mostly because he knows how much you hate them). Ping0, real name Albert; he probably knows what’s going on.
You call him, planning to let it vibrate three times, then hang up—the code to ask a teacher for permission to use the bathroom—so he can call you back. But Ping0 answers on the first ring.
“Dakota, where the fuck are you?” He’s serious—he never talks to you this way. He usually pours his teen angst into playing violent and age-inappropriate video games, but sometimes there’s enough left to get him into trouble with anyone else who wasn’t threatened by the posturing of a six foot, one hundred and thirty pound nerd. Everyone in the school basically. But you had homeroom together in junior high, and you’ve stayed in touch online. The Gamer cabal recruited Ping0 at the same time you joined the Socialistas. His tone confirms your suspicions.
“Chill. I’m in the parking lot. My phone started going nuts after I left the house. It’s all app requests for some new zombie crap. Hey, why are all the shades drawn on the windows in the classrooms?”
“Bad shit going down. You running Morden’s Defensive Orb in your sanctum’s network?”
“I am not going to tell you what kind of defenses I run,” you say. “I don’t trust you that much.”
He sighs. “It detects the threat and blocks the requests. That’s probably why you didn’t get the infection attempts until you left home. You didn’t say ‘Yes’ to any of them, did you?”
Your turn to get huffy. “What would have happened if I was as stupid as you think I am?”
“Exactly what it said—” the connection crackles with weird interference. “Halls dangerous—kk—brainless—meet me inside.” The call goes dead.
There’s only one place you could expect to find Ping0 if he thinks bad magic is going down; the telecom utility room is a back-up sanctum created by some of the school’s first net-mages to use in case the MAA raided the school or something equally dangerous happened. He’d hole up there for sure.
You exit the car, not bothering to bring your books, and ease the doors shut with a soft clunk. There’s that groaning sound again, but this time you can tell where it’s coming from—just inside the east door, probably from the security station by the metal detectors.
You cross the distance to the door in a jog and crouch, staying out of sight the door’s windows. You stand up cautiously to glance through the glass—and, ohholyshit! Something meaty slams against the door, blocking the dim light inside. You jump back and bite on your hand to keep yourself from shouting in surprise.
The campus security guard shuffles back from the door. His eyes are rolled back, nothing but the whites like dumb goth contacts. And even more gross, his lips are bleeding because he’s working his jaws like those cows chewing cud in that video you watched in biology class last week, and he keeps biting them. The guard moans again, and his breath fogs the glass. You’re thankful you can’t smell it.
What’s the guard’s name? You’re good with names, but it takes a moment to come to you. Juan. He has a kid, Paul, in your social studies class. So it’s not just the students getting the invites, unless Juan read Paul’s message, which could be true. Maybe spending some time as a mindless drone would teach him to stay off Paul’s account. Otherwise, if he got the invite to his own account, someone may be targeting students and staff, maybe the whole world. Which sucks, because your “Save the World” shirt was in the laundry this morning.
You draw your phone. Campus rules against cell phones are repealed during a zombie infection. You cast a sniffer spell program. It’s useful for spotting other net-mages out in public who aren’t being very careful by detecting the use of unobfuscated mojo. Raw magic should light up the detector like a uranium rod setting off a Geiger counter.
The meter is pegging to the max. Juan is generating mojo out into the ethersphere. It’s rapidly being siphoned off by something—you try tapping it and storing it in your phone, but it’s earmarked, so no touchy. Why the hell is a zombie security guard generating mojo?
People generate mojo (or mana, as Ping0 would call it) constantly through ritualistic or repetitive tasks. Playing games, pirating music and movies, or in the case of your cabal, filling out quizzes to learn which Jonas Brother would be a better match for you—that all makes mojo. Net-mages build all kinds of neat ways of collecting and storing it to power your spell programs. Energy otherwise lost to the psychic wastes is harvested by low-level sprogs. They move that energy to your private stores, and you use that to power other sprogs.
Your sniffer isn’t sophisticated enough to say what the guard’s mojo is marked for. This isn’t your kind of magic. If you want to make Juan fall in love with Mrs. Julien, the French teacher, you can do it with a literal press of a button. People magic is your bag, and that probably doesn’t do much for zombies. Time for plan B.
A friend from last year’s senior class taught you that the loading dock for the cafeteria opens early in the mornings. The cafeteria workers aren’t paid enough to care about kids sneaking in to avoid security. Ping0 could walk in with an assault rifle in each hand and the cafeteria ladies would give him the same soulless stare you get when they spoon out the gruel.
Today, the loading bay is wide open, but none of the usual slop-slingers are lingering around outside, smoking illicit cigarettes. It’s so quiet out here it gives you a chill. There should be a radio playing classic rock like Nirvana or Pearl Jam in the kitchen, an argument in Spanish, something. You tamp down a rising panic by reminding yourself that magic beats zombie. At least you hope it does, with the right sprogs.
You sprint through the empty cafeteria and down eerily empty and quiet hallways to the telecommunications utility room. The prickle of heavy mojo slows you down near the computer labs. The halls are dark, but a dim blue glow spills from the doors of all four lab classrooms in the east hall.
You risk a peek inside the first room, wishing you had some stakes or garlic or something. (Does that work on zombies? you wonder.) Dozens of kids with blank eyes sit at the workstations clicking and typing randomly. In the light of the old-fashioned big-box monitors that the school board is too cheap to replace, their skin is pallid and gray like corpses on the forensic cop dramas on TV that your dad loves so much. A soft sigh now and then from the students fills you with relief because it means they’re still breathing, not exactly dead. You don’t like everyone at your school—in fact, there are a few classmates that you’d like to see get run over by a bus—but undeath is a nasty thing to wish on anyone.
You dart past the open doors, one after the other, growing braver with each room you pass. For the fourth, you try walking past casually. You tense, waiting for someone to groan and come stumbling after you, but nothing happens. You take one last vaguely horrified glance before ducking around the corner to safety at the sanctum door.
You rap out the secret knock and wait, shifting your weight from foot to foot. The door creaks open a cell phone’s width and Ping0 stands behind it, looking 200% nerdier than usual; he’s wearing a headdress made of wires and what look like the screens from a cell phone on swivels that flip down in front of each of his eyes like welder’s goggles. He aims a light gun at you, like the kind you used with those antique Nintendo consoles where you shoot the ducks and that dumb dog laughs at you, but you can never shoot the dog no matter how hard you pull the trigger.
Ping0 scans you with some sort of sprog. Nods.
“Okay, you’re clean. Get inside, quick,” he says, and waves you forward. You hurry in, and he quickly closes the door behind you, throwing several dead bolts back. The locks glow dimly to your net-mage vision. Those are new, recently magicked into existence, probably emergency sprogs running on some school server in silent mode until activated by a net-mage in trouble.
The light in the cramped space comes from cell phone screens held by other kids among the racks of routers and servers. Some of the light comes from laptops. You count six heads, but the faces are hard to place in the dark.
“I didn’t know there were this many initiates at Hurston,” you whisper to Ping0.
“More.” When he speaks, the gear on his head bobs up and down making him look like a cyborg turkey. “A couple were pwned by the infection early on,” Ping0 said.
“Poned?” you ask. Ping0 has always talked in some weird gamer slang that you can never follow.
“No. Pwned. You know, Ownzored. Rooted—”
“Taken over,” says a short kid who, by the look of his button-up shirt and slacks, is still being dressed by his parents. His voice cracks when he speaks, marking him as a freshman, maybe one who skipped a grade. He’s wearing those big glasses with the plastic frames that nobody who cares about their popularity would be caught dead in. You can’t remember his name, which is odd. You thought you knew everyone here, even if you didn’t know they were initiates. Maybe he’s related to someone in your class, but you can’t think of who at the moment.
You realize everyone is staring at you, even Ping0. Their faces are showing a disgusting amount of hope.
This is the curse of being with the Socialistas. Everybody thinks you’re good with people. You’d never admit it, but you think Socialistas are the opposite of “good with people.” Otherwise, why would they resort to magic for social manipulation?
But now is not the time to admit you’re nothing like the leader-type they want you to be. You’re probably better at making decisions right now than the always-amped Ping0 in his crazy helmet. And you’re the oldest in the room by a couple of weeks, and that matters as much as being a Socialista.
“Tell me how this started,” you say slowly. “The security guard has mojo pouring out of him like he’s a leaky battery, and everybody’s eyes are goth-y. Is this a stupid prank?”
Ping0 speaks up. “No, we don’t think so. The boys and I have been going through the source code. It’s a root kit for the human mind.” He waves his hand at two sophomores from the Hacker cabal named Damien and Thad. Having a couple of big-brained nerds on your team is always good. A leader should probably figure out everybody’s strengths and resources.
Damien’s anxious, over-caffeinated voice cuts through your thoughts. “The code is quite simple and elegant—the work of a skilled sprogrammer. The self-replication mechanisms are very devious indeed, if limited. It only targets students and staff of this learning institution.”
“Otherwise,” Thad adds, “it appears to function much like a zombie virus does on the internet, giving control of the brain over to a central processor.” Thad avoids eye contact as he speaks. You must be projecting “alpha mage” well.
“So it’s a sprog virus transmitted through the social net? And it’s making them do stuff?”
The three nod.
“Any idea who made it?”
Ping0 shrugs. “No clue, and it’s not signed work. It’s been hell to tease the executed bits out of an infectee. We’ve got one chained up in the back of the room and—”
“Don’t worry, it’s only Mr. Himmler.” You relax, a little. Mr. Himmler, the gym and phys ed teacher, is called Mr. Nazi by most of the students. He demands discipline in his classroom, and by God if he doesn’t get it, he hands out detention slips like non-denominational holiday presents. He once gave you detention for not tying your shoes right.
“We’ve been using him to run some tests,” Damien says. “The sprog is extraordinarily slippery, but we were able to bind it into a laptop and begin a reverse engineering process. It’s composed of several recognizable spell codebases. You know, old spells from the Long Lost Friend for hiding and something nasty that Thad thinks is from Le Grand Grimoire, but I say that’s bullshit.”
Thad rolls his eyes. “It’s also known as Le Veritable Dragon Rouge and is very popular in—guess which country?”
You think a moment. “Haiti?”
“Is there real zombie magick in this thing?”
Ping0 cuts off the theoretical bickering of the eggheads. “We don’t know yet.”
“Okay. So give me a replay of the morning,” you say.
“Everyone’s normal until halfway through first period. Then a wave of magic washes through the school like a freaking tsunami out of nowhere, and everyone goes flat. I was expecting some kind of boss spawn, but then everyone all started doing random mojo-generating crap. They ignored me so long as I didn’t try to stop them. Kids in the computer labs surfing the web for kitteh pics, that kind of thing. On my way here, I saw one classroom where they were all playing Sudoku.” Ping0 shudders. “That’s just wrong.”
You suppress an urge to roll your eyes at the gamer snobbery. “Why are the lights out?”
Ping0 flushes with embarrassment. “We cut the power. I thought maybe we could break the infected in the labs out of the spell.”
“But the computers are still on in the labs,” you point out.
“Yeah, epic fail.” Ping0 frowns. “All that mojo they’re making is powering some kind of major high-level mob, if it can generate electricity out of thin air.”
Thad jumps in, eager to make nerd bonus points. “The manifestation of electrical energy as a write to the Word Object Model is a very resource-intensive task, and—”
“I get it: Something big and nasty is happening. What do we do next?” you ask.
Talk about epic fail. Ping0 blinks. “We kind of hoped you would tell us. I’ve been replaying a mod level and it all comes back to here.”
“We should tell everyone to go home and ride it out there,” the short, familiar-looking kid says. He’s been oddly quiet this whole time.
“Okay, good, thanks, uh—” you pause. “What’s your name? I’m sorry, I can’t remember. I know you, right?”
“Call me Mac,” he says.
“Okay, I’ll remember that,” you say. You think for a moment, considering the suggestion. It’d be a lot easier to just bail. You shake your head. “If this is magic, then we’re the only hope the school has. I say we stay. Have we tried cutting off the internet? Maybe the virus uses the net to—”
The net-mages gasp in unison. Someone in the back mumbles about preferring that you let the zombie rip off her arms.
“What if whoever is behind this is running it remotely?” you persist. “We need to know. Let’s try it. If it doesn’t work, we can turn it right back on.”
The others bitch and moan a little more, but seem willing to try it. “Okay, Ping0, go throw the switch or whatever.”
Ping0 nods and hurried into the tangle of boxes and cables. He traces one cord with a pocket flashlight back to a socket on the wall and unplugs it with an audible click.
You wait in the near-darkness, holding your breath. Then you nearly pee yourself when the third period bell rings.
When your heartbeat slows down enough for you to tell that the halls aren’t filling with kids rushing off to their next class, you let out a sigh of relief. Someone in the dark laughs nervously. Another whispers “server not found, server not found,” over and over again while her silhouette rocks from side to side.
The school echoes with tortured screams and roars. It hasn’t been this loud here since the football team took State last year.
You panic. You’re not ready for a fight, not yet. “Plug it back in!” you shout.
Ping0 shoves the cord into the socket. The school goes quiet again, and the hammering stops. The room comes back to life. Good job, you’ve found your own team’s weakness!
A short, athletic girl with blonde dreadlocks is shaking with half-contained sobs. You stare at her a moment before recognizing her. Aiden Sparks, your best friend in the fifth grade? Since when is she an initiate? You spend too much time running tasks for the cabal and not enough in real space with others your own age. The last time you saw Aiden, she had braces and bad acne.
You drifted apart in Junior High when she turned really goth and was so angsty about how her older brother had killed himself. It was hard to hang out with someone who spent so much time thinking about death. It looked like she’d grown up a lot since then. At least she’d dropped the goth look.
“It’s going to be okay,” you say to her, before turning back to the others. “Now we know how to get their attention,” you say, trying to laugh. The others that you can make out in the dim light look at you like you just suggested they go to prom with their brothers and sisters. You move on quickly.
“What about sprogs? Does anybody have anything that could dispel or disrupt this?”
They go through their phones and laptops. You get the big nada from everyone. Being a leader is teh suck.
“Maybe it will just stop on its own,” Tommy Marco says. He’s a Buccaneer initiate, but more importantly, he’s the kid brother of one of the first net-mage you ever met, who has now gone off to college. Andrew Marco might be able to help you, but Tommy’s not known in net-mage circles as the sharpest athame on the ritual table.
“Tommy, have you tried calling your brother?”
“It keeps saying my call can’t be completed,” Tommy says. “But maybe—I mean, I know that Big Mother is the bad guy and everything—” Tommy is immediately booed into silence.
“I can’t ring out,” Ping0 says. “Tried earlier. Whatever this is, it’s blocking reception.”
You sit in a creaky office chair and spin around in circles, trying to think. If the phones don’t work, then you can’t get advice from Susan, either. Your mentor is a real leader, a business woman with her own dating service in the city. She looks like she’s in her early forties but someone on the message boards once claimed that she’s over two thousand years old and a former oracle at Delphi.
The Socialistas trace their roots all the way back to those soothsayers and oracles of legend. Most of the time the advice they gave wasn’t actually prophetic, but it was them manipulating events to avoid stuff like war, famine, and those other guys on pale horses. Now they use their magic to better the lives of people everywhere, and while you and other neophytes play matchmaker and half-assed leaders of the anti-zombie resistance movement at Hurston High, the old elites play matchmaker for entire nations. Not that matchmaking was a power that was likely to come in handy right about now.
A bang at the door startles everyone. Trouble’s come back, but why? The network’s still up. The sound is followed by a second, then a third clunk. Ping0 flips down one of the cell phone screens in front of an eye and pushes some buttons on a hackware PC fastened to his belt.
“We’ve got company again. The janitor is out there with a couple of junior linebackers. The locks should be able to handle them though,” Ping0 says. The hammering stops suddenly. “They’re going away. What the hell?”
A dozen cell phones go off in a dozen different ringtones. You nearly reach for yours, but a flash of premonition hits you like an unexpected dodge ball.
“Don’t answer!” You shout over the din.
“It’s my brother!” Tommy yells over the noise, and you can make out the green light of the “answer” button on his phone as he presses it and lifts the phone to his ear.
Tommy’s a zombie before the speaker touches his ear. He drops the phone and walks calmly towards the door and begins unbolting the locks.
Without thinking, you rush up and grab him by the arm to pull him away. He turns and swings wildly, and before you can duck, you take a fist to the left eye. You see stars and weird geometric patterns for a second. When your head clears, you’re sprawled on the floor. Mac and two other kids are restraining Tommy while Ping0 casts a sprog to chain the newly infected to the back wall of the room next to the gym teacher.
“Are you okay?” Aiden asks. She crouches next to you on the floor.
“Yeah, I think so.” It’s an awkward moment, and you fumble for something to say. “Hey, you look good, by the way.”
She winces. Maybe not the best thing to say right now, you realize. “Thanks. Can you get us through this?” Her face mirrors the skepticism you feel.
Ping0 and the others gather around you after chaining up Tommy. “What now, Dakota?”
You’ve lost one of your team to the enemy. A good leader would have stopped Tommy in time. “I have no goddamned idea,” you say, rubbing your eye.
The wheels start to turn in Ping0’s violent, gamer brain. “Then we should fight. The best way to counter a zombie attack is to strike hard and fast. You have to kill the zombies before they can infect the entire world.”
“Maybe he’s right,” Thad says reluctantly.
“You guys are not seriously suggesting that we kill our classmates, are you?” Aiden asks.
“It’s us or them,” Ping0 says. He looks over at one of his phone screens on his headgear. “I don’t even have enough mojo in here to create a save point in case they take me down either. I’ll die for real!”
“But they’re not violent,” Mac says, speaking up again and surprising you with his angry tone. “They’re not trying to hurt anyone.”
“The security guard wasn’t real friendly,” you point out.
“But you were outside the building,” Aiden says. “We know they don’t want anyone in or out, but I don’t think they want to hurt anyone.”
“They’re freaking zombies!” Ping0 shouts. When he gets this way, you’ve learned to just step back. “Of course they want to hurt someone. They’re totally going to start snacking on our brains the minute they get in here.” Tommy moans from the back of the room as if in agreement.
A suspicion has been building in the back of your mind. It’s not there yet, so you try to calm down Ping0 as one last attempt to stop bloodshed.
“Just chill out. You and the Hackers said you reverse-engineered the sprog. Can you create a sprog that will disinfect everyone?”
He shrugs. “I’m not really a coder.”
Damien speaks up. “Thad and I might be able to, but we’ll need several gigabytes of mana. I assume nobody has enough accessible from here to power a mass dispelling.”
“Didn’t you say something about a central controller earlier?” you ask. “Can we just take that out?”
He nods thoughtfully. “Zombie nets are usually controlled from a central point, at least in mundane terms. You take over a bunch of computers and put them to work on a task, like sending spam, or DDoSing some jerk’s website. So we can create a disinfect sprog, but we’re going to have to conserve power and target each one individually until we can find the source of the infection.”
“The code of the sprog indicates that the controller can’t be very far away from here, and the zombies would probably act to defend it,” Thad says.
“So maybe our best bet is to find the control point and disable it, taking out anyone who gets in our way,” you say. “No violence unless absolutely necessary.”
“I’m sure this thing doesn’t want to hurt anyone,” Mac pleads. “Maybe it’ll just take its mojo and go.”
There’s that suspicion again. You give Mac another once-over. He’s dressed really unfashionably. Nobody wears glasses like that anymore. And now you realize who he reminds you of. Aiden. But she doesn’t have a younger—oh shit.
“It’s funny,” you say, “how every time we try something, the zombie net seemed to know what we were doing. Maybe it’s just the zombies in the room, but…
“What’s your real name, Mac?” you ask, springing the question before he can think about it.
“Hey, what cabal do you belong to?” Ping0 says, finally catching up. “I don’t think I ever met you before today.”
“I have,” you say grimly. “But he shouldn’t be here. He’s dead.”
Mac’s face fills with panic, swears, and vanishes in a cloud of thin, vaporous smoke. The room warms up by a couple of degrees—you hadn’t realized until then how cold it had been in here.
“What the hell just happened?” Thad asks.
Ping0 surveys the area with his weird headgear. “Not teleportation. That leaves little signs. He just… stopped being real.”
You spin around, looking for Aiden, who had slipped behind the piles of computer junk when you made the connection. She’s part of this. She has to be.
Aiden sighs long and dramatically from just over your left shoulder. Shit. Ping0s eyes go wide with fright. You slowly turn around to see the small and very real black pistol in her hand.
“Why couldn’t you all just accept my invitation? This would be over by now,” she says, her voice running shrill. Tears run down her face. “None of you would have been hurt, I swear.”
What had been a dark suspicion becomes a flood of memory. Aiden’s older brother Macintyre was a freshman at Hurston when you were friends. You and Aiden made fun of him after school for dressing like he did. He would swear and stomp off all red-faced and silly, and it would make the two of you laugh and laugh.
Neither of you knew what he was going through in high school. Nerdy kid, not a lot of social grace? Picked on a lot. Nothing’s changed since then. And of course he never fought back.
He hung himself before the end of his freshman year. You feel a horrible swirling in your stomach, and for a moment, you hate yourself more than anything.
“Aiden, I had no idea you felt like this—”
She fumbles with the gun angrily, cocking it, and hisses at you. “You were too absorbed with your own fucking stupid social drama to listen to me after he died. And now, you didn’t even recognize him. I was so afraid when you came in that you would, but I should have known you’re too self-absorbed to remember.” She swiveled to aim the gun at Ping0, who freezes. “Nobody is leaving until the ritual sprog finishes.”
“Necromancer!” Ping0 whispers in horror. “Black-hat!”
“How’s this work, Ping0? Short version,” you add quickly and speaking from the corner of your mouth, unable to take your eyes from the gun.
“Uh, she’s evil and stuff. We should stop her?” He gives you an apologetic shrug.
“Genius,” Damien whispers. He explains: “She’s using the students to distribute the calculations to bring her brother back. They’re acting both as wetware processors for the sprog, and mojo batteries to power it. But there’s a reason nobody else does that—”
“And the staff, too. The sprog burns out some of the processors,” Aiden says coolly. “Most of the kids should make it through, but Mr. Nazi and the rest, I don’t give a shit if they live. They didn’t do a-anything to help my brother.” She begins to cry, her arm trembling, but she doesn’t lower the gun.
“Aiden, listen to me,” you say, trying to stay calm. It’s just an upset teenager. Finally a problem you have some experience solving.
“Dead things are supposed to stay dead, and not even magic can change that in the long run. What will come back won’t be your brother.”
“He’ll just need a brain now and then,” she whispers. “One at the solstices to recharge. That’s not so bad … ”
“Listen to yourself!” you snap. “How many lives is his worth? Ten? Twenty? A million? You’re making a, a what do you call it, Ping0? Super-zombie?”
“Right, a lick! An undead thing, a real undead thing.”
“I knew you wouldn’t understand,” Aiden says bitterly. “You never supported me after, so why should you be with me now that I have a way to bring him back?”
Her accusation is a dagger in your heart.
Ping0 slowly moves to get behind Aiden. You can’t think of a way to signal him away, and the terror of being shot rises in your chest like vines constricting around your heart. Distracting her is your best bet.
“Please, Aiden.” It’s all you can think to say.
“My parents split, did you even know that? Everything broke when Mac died. We were happy before.”
“Mac wasn’t happy,” you whisper.
“If I bring him back, it’ll all be fixed.”
You don’t know what to say to that. Maybe it’s true. A little sprog work and her parents wouldn’t know that Macintyre was ever gone. It might work, until the brainless bodies start piling up.
“I’m sorry for not being there, Aiden,” you say, and you mean it as best you can to someone who is holding a gun. “I didn’t understand what had happened. I didn’t know what he meant to you.”
“You still don’t!” she shrieks. You can see the world slow down as her finger begins to put pressure on the trigger. You stare at the end of the short black barrel, waiting to see the flare of the gunpowder and then the cold black bullet zooming into your chest.
You’re not ready to die. Prom is still a month away.
Ping0 lurches forward and touches Aiden on the back. She freezes in place, and the bullet stays at the other end of the barrel.
“Move! I hit pause, but it doesn’t last very long.”
You duck and weave as Aiden unfreezes and the shot booms, echoing off the walls of the small room. You lurch forward, unbalanced, and hit Aiden in the legs. Ping0, in a most uncharacteristic display of testosterone, tackles her from behind. Then the rest are piling on too until you’re at the bottom of a pile of smelly nerds. The weight forces the gun from Aiden’s hand and across the floor, but she squirms with unnatural strength.
“She’s going for a phone,” Ping0 shouts.
It’s like holding down a sack of potatoes. You look into Aiden’s eyes. Blank. Her skin is pale and lifeless. She lies on the floor, no longer struggling, barely breathing.
The lights flicker on overhead. A surge of magical energy is rushing through everything. Outside, loud moans begin to gather near the door.
“Have you guys got that sprog put together yet?” you ask hopefully as everyone gets to their feet, some hiding embarrassing bodily reactions to the dog pile. You pretend not to notice.
“Just finished compiling,” Damien says, panting. “I’m transferring it to everyone over the sanctuary WAN now.”
Your phone chimes, asking you to accept the sprog. It downloads quickly.
“We’ve hooked the program into the camera on your phones,” Thad says. “Just point and shoot. You’ll disinfect anyone whose picture you take up close. Go for head shots.”
“Cool,” Ping0 says. “This is going to be the best first person shooter ever.”
You turn on your camera app. A targeting reticule appears in the center of the screen that wasn’t there before the sprog. A readout in the corner shows you have 34 shots worth of mojo. The nerds do nice work.
“Good,” you say. “Let’s kick some zombie ass.”
The first wave of zombies goes down as you all rush the hallway. Without Aiden or Mac’s ghost to direct the zombie-net, they aren’t ready when you swing open the door and your team of net-mages begin firing off camphone shots as fast as their thumbs can click. Bodies drop to the floor unconscious with each fake “chhhk-chiiik.”
“They’re clustering at the first floor teacher’s lounge,” Ping0 shouts over the din of groans. “Gotta be where the main control processor is. Hidden laptop or something.”
“Can you take it out?” A zombie moans behind you, and you spin and snap a blurry, grainy shot of Juan the security guard. He falls to the floor like he took a punch right on the jaw.
“Hell yeah I can,” Ping0 says. “Just lay down some cover fire, and keep strafing, people.”
“You heard him, clear the way,” you order. It feels good to watch the others respond in unison. Kind of weird, but good.
Your team pushes into the growing crowd, shutters firing as fast as they can. Disinfected bodies collapse in sprawling piles along the halls, but their bulk slows you down. Everyone is careful not to step on the unconscious forms.
“Almost there,” you yell.
An ethereal Mac manifests in the crowd of zombie students blocking your way. He’s whispering something into their ears, vanishing and appearing among them lighting-quick. When he whispers, the listening zombie goes apeshit, swinging wildly and storming straight for your team.
That’s when you run out of mojo. You feel someone’s sharp teeth puncture the skin on your upper arm.
Ping0 makes it to the lounge door, flipping off the “Staff Only” sign. He kicks the door in, firing shots with two camphones now, one in each hand—you have no idea where he got the other phone. He’s actually having fun. All you can think about now are Aiden’s tears, and the teeth and fingernails tearing away your skin.
“I am nearly risen,” shrieks Mac. “Stop them!”
Leadership is sacrifice, right? Another social studies class lesson. Screw it. You leap ahead of the others and take the blows. Zombie kids pile into you, pulling and pushing. Blood runs into your eyes from a gash on your forehead.
It feels strangely okay. You’d always known deep down that high school was going to kill you.
“Fuckin’ w00t!” Ping0 shouts from inside. You hear a pop and sizzle of electronics dying. The infected let out a simultaneous roar and the remaining zombies fall.
Nobody speaks, all breathing too hard to make words. You try to look them over from under a pile of bodies. They’re a little bruised and battered, but they’ll live—you seem to have taken most of the damage. The blood loss makes you just a little woozy.
Ping0 strolls out of the lounge grinning ear to ear, and solemnly holds up his phone high above his head. A ringtone of Queen’s “We Are the Champions” plays tinnily from the phone’s tiny speaker.
You’re there waiting when Aiden wakes up at the hospital. The nurses patched you up hours ago, and thankfully didn’t ask too many questions. The TV on the wall overhead has been blaring about the “gas leak” that knocked an entire school unconscious, except for a few kids who had been somehow stayed conscious and valiantly helped their friends to safety. You swear that one of the reporters from outside the school looks you directly in the eye and winks. The MAA’s agents are everywhere. No doubt that Aiden will be getting a visit from them soon if they’re already covering up the incident.
“Oh. It’s you,” she says sullenly. You wonder how long she’s been awake, watching you fidget in the uncomfortable waiting chair. “I guess I should thank you for ruining everything, huh?”
“No,” you say. “I wanted to say that I’m sorry. I should have been a better friend.”
She says nothing. It stings.
“When Big Mother is through with you, call me,” you say reluctantly. “I want to be friends again. If you want. I know I ruined your evil scheme and all that, but I want to be here for you when it’s over. This time I will listen better.”
“They’ll probably brainwash me with ‘therapy,’” she says. You nod inwardly. More likely with magic. You’ve heard stories. The only thing that saving her from banishment is her age. It’s probably the reason the graybeards recruit so young, you realize.
“Get out of here before their goons show up,” she says with a sigh. “If I’m not a drooling vegetable afterwards, I would like it if we talked.”
“Yeah. Me too. Let’s do, uh, brunch.”
You pull out your phone and burn a hundred megs into the most powerful obfuscation spell you have and slip out the door.
Later, at home, you field dozens of messages from your cabal mates, including a concerned note from Susan herself. She praises your conduct and offers to take you out for a Sunday brunch. You’re floating after that.
You write a thank you note, accepting her offer, with the caveat that you may have to cancel to meet with another friend. She replies with a winking smiley face.
You log back onto the social net. Your app and friend request queues are completely empty for the first time in forever. The few people who have posted status updates say things like “In hospital. WTF?”
But there’s no rest for a net-mage initiate. After taking a deep breath, you begin typing.
“Your friends have all been turned into zombies. Will you survive the zombie apocalypse? Click here to take the quiz.”