Chapter One

Charles had spent some time working with the Russian organization that had engineered and sold the bio weapon now known simply as The Disease to a group of fanatics. It was a mutated version of this very disease that his colleague, Maria, had been working to vaccinate before hell arrived at the doorstep of their Fort Knox compound six months ago. And it was the ensuing escape from that hell that eventually led Charles to his current predicament.

He stood in front of a window that had long since served its purpose. Glass lay scattered on the sidewalk below his perch on the fifth floor of a high-rise building on the southern edge of Atlanta’s downtown. An office chair and desk lay in pieces on the sidewalk.

Before him, the combined interstates of seventy-five and eighty-five formed a massive twelve lane gulch through the heart of downtown Atlanta. Strategically, Charles knew that it was both the interstate system and international airport based in Atlanta that assisted in the propagation of the Disease across the entire world. But the utter lack of Diseased betrayed this fact. Charles knew the Diseased moved with a purpose, but he had thought there would be more to contend with in a larger population center.

In the moonlight, he could just make out the shadows of the Georgia State Capitol building to the right just beyond a maze of overpasses. Above him, the absence of the once present light pollution and smog allowed him to make out some of the larger constellations. Except when he turned his attention towards the matter at hand. Although, all of the skyscrapers and street lights were dark, the lights above and around the former Turner Stadium were filling the sky with a small halo of light in what would have been an otherwise beautiful, if not eerie, night sky.

Charles’ friend Sam had spent month after month listening to radio communications and mapping a safe route that would take Charles and his group towards the relative safety of the Georgia coast. Their intent was to get to a pocket of humanity that would enable Maria to finish her research on a vaccine for the Disease. The group had intended to bypass the problem they now faced, but their supplies had dwindled after a long stretch of searching, to no avail, for a replacement transistor that had burned out on Sam’s radio. As a result, they had been forced into making a stupid decision earlier this morning.

That decision led three of his group to be captured and taken prisoner. Imprisoned in what Sam had described as ground zero for some heinous shit.

And because of that stupid decision, Colby, Sid, and Marshall were now arguing with Charles in the darkness that overlooked the southside of downtown Atlanta. 

“Listen, fuckstick,” Colby said. “We’re going in after them. If you don’t have the balls to help, that’s on you. They’re our brothers and we’re not leaving them behind.”

“Charles, he is right,” Maria interjected. “Even if he is not articulating his argument properly, it is not like we do not have time to wait on them. We still need to resupply before we move past Macon.”

“I do not buy that, Maria. We can resupply anywhere along the way to the coast,” replied Charles.

“No,” said Sid. “You can’t. You’re not from here. We know these back roads. There ain’t shit between Macon and Savannah and if we jump off interstate seventy-five before we get to Macon like you think we can do, there’s going to be less than shit. We need supplies to make the final push. That’s why Colin had insisted on coming this way in the first place.”

“What can it hurt,” Sam said calmly. “We are six. Colin, Jackson, and Allen add fifty-percent to our numbers. That means fifty percent less watch duty and fifty percent more rest.”

“It also means fifty percent more mouths to feed,” Charles said. “And it has been almost an entire day. Who is to say they are even alive?”

“Look, man,” said Marshall. “We know where you guys are heading. It’ll probably be easier for us to get in and out with less people. Just let us try it. We can meet you here or somewhere along the way if you don’t want to wait.”

Charles looked around at his travel companions. Over the last six months, all of them had been useful in one way or another. He could think of at least one time each of them had saved his life or the life of Maria or went out of his way to protect Sam. 

Charles looked around to study his surroundings. After a moment he relented, “Okay. Fine. We will be waiting here in four days. While we do, we will scavenge the surrounding buildings for supplies and rest up. We will move out on sunrise of the fifth day with or without you.”

“That’s all we ask,” said Sid. “We’ll set out before dawn.”

***

Colin could hear the announcer’s heavy southern accent over the loudspeakers before they got to the end of the tunnel that led to a baseball field that had been serving as a combat arena for the last two years. The announcer’s voice reminded him of a caricature of a southern lawyer wearing suspenders sweating in a hot courthouse while he told the judge that he’s no big city lawyer.

“Ladies and gentlemen of Olympia, for our final bout this evening, we have a special celebration to kickoff our second annual Triad of the Martyr festival that will commence this very midnight,” the announcer paused as an applause began to climax before tapering into silence.  He kept the crowd in suspense a moment longer before switching to a more dire tone.

“Three non-believers were caught ransacking and rummaging ‘round our domicile.  ‘Round our home! In blatant disregard and disrespect of our domain. And so, they will be put to the test.” He paused again for dramatic effect as the crowd yet again began to express their distaste. “Now, I don’t believe I have to remind y’all that under the code of conduct written on page three, paragraph four, sub paragraph two of your citizenship contract, that each and every one of you agreed wholeheartedly and without hesitation that you would no longer scavenge for food around our little oasis.”

As Colin approached the final gate before the arena, he turned back to Jackson who was helping Allen to the gate.  None of the men spoke. They all wore the same terrified look on their face.

Colin reached behind Allen to tighten the loose fitting catcher’s chest protector.

Most of the unclaimed gear that they had been able to find in the cages was either in bad shape or practically useless.  Jackson had found a wooden broom handle and managed to crack one end at just the right angle. Other than his pointy stick and his shirt that he had tied around his face as a makeshift mask, Jackson was unarmed.

Colin and Jackson had both agreed that Allen needed the most gear since he was in the worst shape of the three. Allen had suffered some bruised and cracked ribs while they were being detained. His eyes were still out of focus. Colin assumed he had sustained a decent concussion. So they had wrapped Allen in borrowed catcher’s gear: a chest protector, a face mask, and four knee and shin guards – two on his legs and two on his arms. And even though they did not think he would be able to swing it effectively, Colin and Jackson had insisted Allen take a bat with him.

Colin was the most armed. He was able to convince Miller, the man that had given them a windshield tour of the cages after their imprisonment, to borrow some equipment. Even though Colin had a lean, muscular frame, he still found the shell of a car door that Miller had been wielding effortlessly to be more than a little cumbersome. Nonetheless, Colin saw the benefits and ingenuity of the weapon. 

The aluminium sheet metal had been fashioned in such a way that it covered his entire right arm with a slight bend at the elbow and a handle towards the end of the apparatus for gripping with plenty of padding around the edges to avoid stray cuts to its wielder. The end of the weapon had been molded and sharpened into a slicing tool and was still wet with the blackened, viscous blood of the Diseased that Miller had killed earlier in the evening.

“How do you want to handle this?” Jackson asked Colin.

“I’ll do the dirty work,” replied Colin. “Just keep this asshole safe.”

Colin nodded towards Allen who was still unsteady on his feet. Allen raised his middle finger towards Jackson.

“I’m over here,” Colin said.

The three men laughed for a moment until the gravity of their situation crept back to the forefront of their minds.

“And now,” the arena’s announcer continued. “Without further ado, it is with great pleasure that I present to you tonight’s feature event. Ladies and gentlemen, please put your hands together for the Ret-ri-bu-tion!”

As the announcer strung out each syllable of his last word, the stadium lights switched off with a loud click and the audience went wild. 

The gate in front of the three men swung open and guards forced them out into a dugout. The three men were fitted with a collar of lights around their neck pointing towards the ground. These lights allowed them to see about fifteen feet in any direction; but with the stadium lights of the arena off, a spattering of lights throughout the stadium seating threw wild shadows across the ground in front of them.

They were forced out of the dugout and onto a baseball field whose turf had been long neglected. Large divots pock marked the field and made it hard to walk without tripping..

As Colin began to circle in search of attackers, Jackson followed suit and guided Allen around with him. The three men slowly made their way towards an outfield wall in an attempt to keep a solid barrier on one side of them. As they did, spot lights around the arena began to slowly click on and off in a circular pattern around the arena until they built to a crescendo and focused on the left field wall that was now only about ten feet from Colin.

As the spotlights remained focused on the wall, a door swung open to reveal three freshly turned, snarling Diseased with chains around their necks. Bloodthirsty cheers and applause roared from the crowd who managed to double their decibel output.

“Look out,” cried Jackson as he began to pull Allen away from the wall.

In his surprise, Colin stumbled over a divot in an attempt to retreat. The illuminated field around him quickly shrank to just five feet as the band of lights around his neck fell with him.  

The spotlights on the wall flashed out and Colin managed to hear the chains of the Diseased being unlatched and the monsters let loose. As he rose to his feet and his light field grew, Colin could see the faces of Diseased on a mad dash towards him. He quickly turned and ran towards Jackson who had managed to retreat fifteen yards infield.

“On three,” Colin screamed at the top of his lungs. As he did, he saw Jackson and Allen’s light rings stop and move apart leaving a gap for Colin.

Colin managed a one-eighty pivot in what had to have been his best shuttle-run exercise since middle school track practice.

The cheers of the audience rose to a deafening level in anticipation.

All three Diseased came into the light rings at the same time.

Jackson lunged at the head of his assailant and pierced its eye socket. Colin swung his armored arm upwards as fast as he could in an uppercut motion timing the swing almost perfect. The sharpened edge of his weapon sliced into the Diseased’s chest and caught the bottom of its chin. As it did, the forward motion of the Diseased carried the weapon further into its skull and Colin felt the body go limp on the edge of his blade.

Allen had gotten into his best slugger’s stance and lined up a swing of his bat. The bat missed its intended target – the temple of the skull – and struck the Diseased in the neck with a wet thud. Allen’s attacker staggered, but continued its pursuit.

Jackson was quick to dispatch the last Diseased as he whirled around Colin and swung his stick into the base of the thing’s skull.

“I know you’re hurting, man, but we’re gonna need a little more out of you than that,” Jackson said.

“I know, man. I know,” Allen replied.

“I guess they are disappointed,” Colin broke in as the cheering of the crowd began to switch to jeers of disapproval.

“Was that it,” asked Allen.

Just then, the spotlights of the arena began their circular motion again and landed on the center field wall where five more Diseased stood chained. As the Diseased were unlatched, the lights went out and the crowd went wild once again.

“Get to second base!” yelled Colin. “If these things are coming from the walls we need to be in the center of them all!”

The three men broke into a sprint in what they assumed was the direction of second base. As they did, spotlights began to flick on and off from all angles tracking the motion of the five Diseased. Colin could see the Diseased match their angle of pursuit with the three men. Just before they reached the edge of the infield, Colin called for them to stop and brace for attack.

As they came to a stop, the lights tracking the Diseased winked out. The three men stood panting and waiting with anticipation. They could hear the snarling Diseased approaching.

“I’ll go wide right and try to take out two or three,” Colin said as he swapped places with Jackson. “Allen, stay in the middle. Go defense if you have to. Jackson—”

“I’ll do what I can,” interrupted Jackson.

As he trailed off, Jackson saw four Diseased materialize into their light rings. He made for the leftmost one and planted a spinning heel kick to its head knocking it into the next one before it tumbled to the ground. Allen brought his bat over his head and managed a direct hit to the top of the skull of the Diseased that was knocked off balance from Jackson’s target. There was a loud crack and the Diseased in front of Allen went soft. Finishing his attack, Jackson jabbed his broomstick into the soft tissue beneath the chin of the Diseased that he knocked to the ground.

As Jackson and Allen were taking care of their two, Colin had taken a wide step to the right in order to line up a clean slice with his weapon. He managed to completely decapitate the rightmost Diseased and guide the weapon into the neck of the next. The blade portion of the weapon caught on the spine of the second Diseased, but did not complete the kill. Colin struggled to keep his balance and the Diseased kept trying to press forward.

Just then, the face of the Diseased exploded into red gore as Allen’s bat finished what Colin had started.

“You’re welcome,” stated Allen with a smirk.

“Thanks, but what happened to the other one?” asked Colin.

“Shit,” Allen exclaimed as he noticed for the first time that only four of the five Diseased that came out of the wall had actually attacked them.

“Back to back,” Colin exclaimed.

The three men moved to a triangular formation and faced outwards while they constantly circled searching for the remaining attacker. The noise from the crowd was blocking any sign of where lone creature might be.

The circular motion of the spotlights started once again, this time stopping on right field. Three more Diseased materialized and began their charge once the stadium lights blinked out.

“Four,” Colin reminded his friends. “We still have to take out four.”

The three men stopped circling when Jackson and Colin were facing right field leaving Allen to protect their backs.

As soon as an attacker appeared in his light ring, Colin lounged forward with his bladed arm and managed to disembowel the right-most attacker. He swung his boot high and aimed his heel at the skull of the attacker. Colin felt it connect and was tackled to the ground by the stray attacker left from the previous wave.

Spit and blood and pus covered the clear mask over Colin’s face as he struggled to keep his unprotected arm underneath the chin of the thing on top of him. Just when his arm was ready to give out, Jackson’s broomstick went in and out of the temple of its skull. 

Jackson helped Colin to his feet and he and saw that the two men had both managed to dispatch the other Diseased. 

“Thanks,” Colin said exasperated. He tried to catch his breath. As he did, the announcer came over the loudspeakers and all of the spotlights flared on at once.

“Boy-howdy, ladies and gentlemen,” he began. “These sure are some stubborn sons of gun aren’t they.” 

The crowd’s cheers had turned to boos once the safety of the three men was assured and now the crowd once again expressed their hatred for the three men with a deafening noise.

“Well, now, don’t be too upset,” the announcer continued “I have just heard from our glorious leader Constance herself. She has informed me that these three boys will join our beloved Miller to be central in the upcoming celebrations. We get to punish these sorry sons of bitches for three more days!”

Boos switched to cheers.

“If they last that long…”

The cheers switched to laughter and the noise began to dwindle to a relative murmur.

“We are gonna let these boys take it easy the rest of the night. If any of you pats would like to meet these fellas, Constance will have them on display this evening at the patrician’s kickoff celebration. But you plebs won’t have to wait too much longer. These men will be the centerpiece at tomorrow’s kickoff event of the Triad!”

Guards armed with firearms and body armor came from both dugouts to secure the prisoners. They led Colin, Jackson, and Allen back to the dugout on the third base line. The three men could see tens of thousands of people filling the stadium. Only in the playoffs had the Georgia natives ever seen this many people in these stands.

Colin was the last of the men to enter the dugout. Before he did, he glanced up to the box seats and saw a single shadowy figure staring at him. He paused for a moment as the figure turned away from him and retreated into the darkness of the box. The guards shoved him down the steps.