Liberty's Run
By: Walter G. Esselman

Even through her leather gloves, Liberty felt the friction from the rope as she slid down.

Once, she had been afraid of heights, but that was a year ago. A year ago, she had been afraid of her own shadow.

Her heavy work boots slammed into the bed of the pickup. Startled, a bearded man whipped around with his shotgun, but Liberty caught the barrel.

"I'm here to help!" she said and pointed up. The bearded man smiled in relief and spoke swiftly.

But Liberty had no idea what he was saying. She gave an exaggerated shrug. "Sorry. I don't understand."

The bearded man reached behind him and brought out a little girl. Clutched to her chest was a stuffed tiger.

"I'm not supposed to speak with strangers," mumbled the little girl. Liberty almost did not hear her over the mob of guttural voices, which surrounded the truck.

Liberty squatted down.

"My name is Liberty Schonhauer," she said. "I'm here to take you to safety."

"There is no safe," murmured the little girl.

"Up there is safe," insisted Liberty.

"Too high," squeaked the little girl.

"I know," said Liberty. "I used to be afraid of heights too!"

"Why aren't afraid anymore?" asked the little girl curiously.

And a cavalcade of horrific memories from the past year clambered for her attention. These days, hitting the ground at terminal velocity did not even register in her top 10 fears.

But she could not tell a child that.

The bearded man saved Liberty. He said something urgently to the little girl. Liberty noted that he was really sweating, despite the cool breeze from the Pacific Ocean. But it also could have been the mob of zombies surrounding the truck.

"Uncle Danny tells me to go with you," said the little girl, and she reluctantly came closer.

"It'll be fun," promised Liberty as she stood. She took a leather belt, which was attached to her harness, and wrapped it around the little girl's waist. This put the little girl right next to her. The child gestured at Liberty's arms, which were covered in full sleeve tattoos.

"My Uncle Danny's got a girl with a sombrero on his chest," commented the little girl.

Liberty offered the other belt to the bearded man, Uncle Danny. But he just shook his head and pulled up his sleeve.

There was a nasty bite on his forearm. Liberty just nodded. It had not been the legion of zombies, which had been causing him to sweat.

Looking up, Liberty motioned, and she and little girl began to rise.

"What's Uncle Danny doing?" asked the little girl suddenly.

"Uncle Danny has to stay down there," said Liberty.

"But he promised he'd stay with me," said the girl, and panic crept into her tiny voice.

"And he did," said Liberty gently. "For as long as he could."

***

Liberty's head snapped up as the roof door opened.

Sergeant Wu stepped out into the cool night air.

"The girl?" asked Liberty urgently.

"She's fine, she's fine," said Wu placatingly, and he held up two beers. He strode to the edge of the roof with economical movements. "She's with Grandma Rollins; sleeping soundly."

"Thank God," said Liberty with relief.

Wu sat on the edge of the roof and let his legs dangle over the zombies below. He put a cold beer beside Liberty.

"Thought you could use a refill," said Wu, but then he noticed the bottle in her hands. "But I might just drink it, since you haven't even touched yours."

Surprised, Liberty looked at her hand. She saw that the bottle was open, but still full.

"I guess I…," began Liberty, but then her voice trailed off.

"Have you seen the uncle?" asked Wu.

Liberty shook her head. "He disappeared. Maybe he saved the last shell for himself."

"That's crazy," said Wu with a grin. "I'd go to a gas station, and get as many of those things to follow. Then I'd throw a flare into the gas tank of a big vehicle, and turn it into a bomb. Boom!"

"But would that work?" asked Liberty.

"Why not?" asked Wu.

"It's stoichiometry. There has be enough air in the gas tank to set off the explosion," wondered Liberty. "And if you don't close the lid fast enough, the flame could just vent out through the open gas tank. Pretty, but not lethal unless you stick your face over it."

"OR, I'd start pumping gas, and then I'd shoot a bullet through the stream and set it alight, like a flamethrower," said Wu, but then he saw the look on Liberty's face. "What?"

"I'm just wondering if the gun has enough…oomph to set off a…," began Liberty when she stopped. She fixed Wu with an annoyed look. "You're just trying to distract me."

"No…I am doing a great job of distracting you," said Wu with a smug tone. "Now give me your beer."

"Why?"

"Because I don't mind warm beer. It's a super power," said Wu, and they switched beers. Wu peered through the brown bottle. "Any backwash?"

"No," chuckled Liberty. "I hadn't even started."

Wu took a long pull of his warm beer, and Liberty eyeballed him.

"How can you drink that?" wondered Liberty.

"What? The warm beer, or the fact that it's Casper beer?" asked Wu. "You do know why it's called Casper, don't you?"

"Because someone named Casper brewed it?" asked Liberty drily.

"Well, yes…but the real reason is because it has as much body as a ghost," replied Wu.

Liberty chuckled. "It's not that bad."

"I saw someone throw themselves off this very roof, because we only had Casper beer," said Wu. "He gave up all hope at that point."

"Now you're just making stuff up," said Liberty.

"It is a very true lie," sniffed Wu.

"A wha…," started Liberty, but then she saw a bright light over the sergeant's shoulder.

The light was moving through the sky, and Wu saw her look of shock.

"What?" asked the sergeant.

Turning, he saw the light drifting placidly over what had been the City of Angels.

"The heck?" exclaimed Wu.

Setting down her beer, Liberty hopped up and snagged her sniper rifle. She ran to the other side of the roof and lifted her rifle.

Through the scope, the light resolved itself into a shape.

"What're you seeing?" asked Wu from behind her. His voice totally professional once more.

"It…it looks almost like a diamond, but that's the wrong word for it," said Liberty. And if she had known the word for octahedron, then she would have been able to describe it exactly.

The octahedron passed over an apartment complex until it reached an office building close to them. Since the office building was taller than theirs, the octahedron was partly obscured when it landed on the roof.

Liberty lowered her rifle in shock.

"No," growled Wu.

Not following, Liberty turned back to the sergeant. "What do you mean ‘no'?"

"I mean ‘No! That is not a flying saucer'," said Wu.

"Could be a ship from Wakanda," suggested Liberty.

The sergeant turned to glare at her.

"I'm serious," he said. "I'm not going to put up with this nonsense. I mean, zombies are one thing, but this…". Wu rubbed his face in frustration. "This is all too weird."

"No one's going to argue that," said Liberty. "But we need to talk to them, whoever they are."

"You're kidding," said Wu. "And how're you going to do that? Smoke signals?"

Liberty looked from the office building to their current building.

"I'm going to have to run over there," she said.

"What?" said Wu in alarm. "The hell you are."

"How much food do we have?" asked Liberty.

"We're fine," grumbled Wu.

"Okay, but we just added another mouth to feed," said Liberty.

"A small one," retorted Wu.

"We've saved three people this week alone," said Liberty. "If that keeps up…well, soon we won't be fine."

"We can't turn people away," said Wu, a little icily.

"I'm not suggesting that," said Liberty quickly. "But it wouldn't matter even if we did. Eventually, we'll be in the same place. Not enough food."

"Well? What do you suggest?" asked Wu carefully.

"We need to find out what that thing is," said Liberty pointing towards the other building.

"There's no guarantee that anyone will make it back," said Wu.

"That's why I'm going to go alone," said Liberty.

"It's suicide," said Wu.

Liberty shook her head. "I can run fast. And my library was close to that building, so I know the area."

"But, more guns…," said Wu.

"I don't want to risk anyone else on this trip," said Liberty.

"What if you don't come back?" asked Wu in a tight voice.

"Then the food will last that much longer," said Liberty gently.

Wu's face scrunched up with distaste. "I need to think on it before I authorize this."

"Technically, I'm not a policewoman, I'm a librarian," said Liberty. "So, I don't need your authorization."

"Oh! So, you're going to play that card?" asked Wu in surprise.

"I'm gonna to play the hell out of it," replied Liberty, but then her voice softened. "I don't want to be a zombie food, but I also don't see any big changes to our situation. At least, not changes for the better."

Wu nodded reluctantly. "And you really think you can make it there."

"Piece of cake," she smiled.

***

A cinder block on a rope smashed through an office window. From the roof next door, Liberty Schonhauer's jaw dropped. The cinder block swung back to the flagpole—which it had been tied to—and it clattered against the side of the building that she was on.

"I can't believe that actually worked," she muttered. But the cinder block had followed the arc perfectly. It had built up just enough speed to smash right through.

Behind her, the door to the roof was shaking violently.

"No time to test this last bit," she muttered nervously.

She set down a thick board between the two buildings.

With a crack, the roof door gave. Zombies poured out onto the roof.

"Damn, damn, damn," muttered Liberty. "I hate rushing."

Stepping onto the board, she walked out over a twelve story drop.

As she closed in on the office building, she tossed her sniper rifle the short distance into the office. The previous owner of it—and her mentor—would have had had a conniption at the sight. But, unfortunately, Mr. Hyneman wasn't here anymore, thought Liberty sadly.

The wind picked up, and it buffeted against her. She had to reach out for the broken window. The glass only slightly pierced her leather glove. Liberty used only the barest amount of pressure, but—as she was righting herself—the glass broke under her hand.

Dangerously unbalanced, Liberty threw herself forward and fell into the office. She hit the ground in a roll, and the back of her leather coat picked up bits of glass.

Past the debris, she came to a stop on a hideous green carpet. When Liberty shifted, something poked her in the back. Pulling off her leather coat, she saw that the glass had turned it into a pin cushion.

"I liked this coat too," moaned Liberty sadly. She dropped it for now, but then she noticed the zombies on the other roof. They were pawing at the board, which lay between the buildings.

"I'm wondering, are you smart enough to get across?" she asked, and then she carefully picked up her sniper rifle. Just as she straightened, one of the zombies pulled at his edge of the board and sent it tumbling down into the alley below.

"You are your own worst enemy," said Liberty sympathetically.

Slinging the rifle over her back, she pulled out her handgun. She really wished that it had had a silencer, but then—while she was at it—she wished she had a lightsaber too. With a near frictionless energy blade, she could clear a whole town with a lightsaber, eventually.

Carefully, she moved out into the corridor. She looked up and down, but the coast was clear. She took a left and found the door to the stairwell. Peeking through the small window in the door, she saw a zombie standing there. She nearly cried out, but—luckily—it was looking away from her.

With careful movements, she put away the handgun and started to draw her knife. The zombie swiveled around and saw her. It began making angry noises in its throat. Liberty kicked open the door, which slammed into it. The blow caused it to stumble backwards.

Liberty sprang through the door.

The zombie reached for her. Liberty shot forward to grab its hair with one hand. With the other, she shoved the long, thin knife through its eye socket, and into its brain. She then twisted it, just like Mr. Hyneman had taught her. It pawed at her shoulders for a moment, but then it went limp.

Below, she heard footsteps. She guided the body gently to the ground. Tugging out the knife, she held it ready.

The first floor had been thoroughly barricaded, which is why she had had to come in through a window. But this meant that she did not know how many zombies were trapped in here with her.

Liberty did not even dare breathe as she watched the stairs going down. But the shuffling soon stopped.

Breathing again, she climbed over the dead zombie.

Up the stairs, she went straight to the roof.

Doubt suddenly flooded her mind. What if there had been no ship? What if it was all a hallucination? Or the ship had left already? She sheathed the knife. Unslinging the sniper rifle, she stopped. This building was still drawing power, which meant that the lights over the stair were still on. With the butt of her rifle she smashed through the light fixture over the stairs.

For a moment, she held her breath, but it did not sound like anything below was curious about the noise—Thank God.

Liberty went to the roof door, and cautiously opened it.

On the roof, the octahedron floated. The bottom point hovered just a foot off the ground. Liberty listened, but she did not hear any noise, outside of a dull, rhythmic sound from the ship.

But then she heard a boy cry out.

Swinging open the door, she scanned the rest of the rooftop. A small orb—the size of an orange—also hovered above the rooftop. And above that, like an insect stuck in amber, was a small boy. Liberty wondered what would happen if she shot the orb. Would it free the kid, or kill him?

"There is no need for the crying," said a strange, mechanical voice. Across the rooftop came…something.

Liberty's mind desperately tried to process it. It looked organic. The creature moved on hundreds of tentacles, which covered its body; if there was a body under there. To her, it moved like a tumbleweed in an old Western.

"Let me go!" cried the boy.

"Too dangerous," replied the creature in its strange, mechanical voice.

"I don't want to get eaten," said the boy.

"I understand," said the creature. "On my world, there were the Go–Zah, which treated my people as if we were some kind of delicacy for them to eat. It was a long time before we were safe."

"What are you going to do to me?" asked the boy.

Before the creature could answer, Liberty spoke up.

"Have they hurt you?" she asked of the boy.

The creature let out a cry of alarm. For a moment, Liberty could see a blue body under all those tentacles.

But then the creature brought up several tentacles, which were covered in metal tips. For a brief moment, there was a flash of green between it and her.

"Who…who are you?" asked the boy of her.

Liberty gave her name, but then she asked again. "Have they hurt you?"

"Um, no," said the boy.

"Good," said Liberty. "What's your name?"

"Colin," said the boy. "Can you get me out of here? I can't move."

Liberty turned towards the creature, barely able to control her anger. "Why is he in there?"

"He is a danger," said the creature.

"No I'm not," retorted Colin.

"I have to admit, he doesn't look that dangerous to me," said Liberty.

"Who are you?" asked the creature.

"I saw your ship," said Liberty. "I wondered what you are doing here?"

"We are here to save the planet," replied the creature. "I am Tofh. The King Doctor."

"King Doctor?" asked Liberty.

"My translator is doing the best it can with your language," said the creature, Tofh, a bit defensively.

"Hey, I'm not complaining," said Liberty quickly. "We could use all the help we can get." She looked over the boy. "Whoa! What happened to your arm?"

Liberty stepped closer to the boy. There was a terrible bite on the boy's arm.

"You're bit," said Liberty with a sinking heart. "Oh no. How long ago?"

"Oh, that," said the boy unconcerned. "Last week."

Liberty looked at up in surprise. "Did…did one of those things bite you?"

"My father," said Colin with a sad voice.

"Oh, I'm sorry sweetie," said Liberty sincerely. But then she looked at the arm again. "But can that be."

"The child is immune to the virus," explained Tofh. "In his blood, there may be a way to create a vaccine."

Liberty grinned in relief. "Oh my God. That's great. That would be a miracle."

"No miracle," said Tofh. "In a disease, there is always a chance that someone will have a resistance, or even immunity to the virus. It happens to be him."

Something tugged at Liberty's mind. "Wait. But you said he was dangerous."

"He is," insisted Tofh.

Liberty stilled. "You said you were here to save the planet."

"Oh, we are," said Tofh. "We are making significant headway too."

"How?" asked Liberty. "By removing planet's biggest problem," said Tofh. "You."

"When you say ‘You'…," started Liberty with a cold pit in her stomach.

"The virus should decimate 93.6% of the human population within the next year," said Tofh, and his lower tentacles vibrated. "It is my crowning achievement."

"So, he's gonna kill us all?" asked Colin in a hollow voice.

"Oh no. Not complete extinction. There are laws that prohibit total genocide," said Tofh

"Lucky us," said Liberty drily.

"Yes, you should count yourselves lucky," droned on Tofh.

Liberty ducked to one side as another tentacled creature came up behind her. It grabbed at her, but snagged her rifle. She twisted the barrel towards the creature and fired. Two tentacles were severed, but the bullet missed the main body. Over a dozen other tentacles grabbed the rifle, while another dozen ensnared her arm. However, the creature was not very strong.

Letting go of the rifle, Liberty pulled her knife and cut through the tentacles holding her. The creature let out a piercing scream and dropped the rifle. She dove at the orb holding Colin. But the first creature, Tofh, snatched it up. It pulled the orb close, and boy drifted above, almost as if he were weightless.

Hitting the ground in a roll, Liberty drew her sidearm.

Tofh started to raise the tentacles with the metal tips.

Liberty fired. The bullet pierced right through tentacles, and the orb, which set off a small explosion. Colin—thankfully unharmed by the explosion—suddenly fell towards the edge of the roof. He hit the lip of the roof and almost slid off. But Liberty grabbed his shirt and hauled him back to safety.

"You…you horrible creature," screeched Tofh as it waved its severed tentacles.

"Kill it!" cried the second creature.

Liberty did not wait. She grabbed Colin around the middle. Lifting the boy, she carried him towards the stairs.

"Get her!" cried Tofh.

Twisting, Liberty was just able to grab the strap of her fallen sniper rifle while she ran.

Before the second creature could mount an attack, Liberty reached the roof door. She swung it open and jumped inside. As she started down the stairs, a bright beam pierced through the door where she had just been, and the stairs lit up for a moment.

"We're going to die, aren't we?" asked Colin despondently.

"Hell No! I got you!" replied Liberty with a defiant grin.

***

Thanks to Dave Russell for giving me the impetus to get this story done.

-

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