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Mainak Dhar

Alice in Deadland

As always, for Puja & Aadi

ONE

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the hill, and of having no Biters to shoot. Once or twice she peeped through her sniper rifle's scope, but could see no targets. 'What is the use of an ambush', thought Alice, 'without any Biters to shoot in the head?'

Alice was fifteen, and had been born just three months after The Rising. Her older sister and parents sometimes talked of how the world had been before. They talked of going to the movies, of watching TV, of taking long drives in the countryside, of school. Alice could relate to none of that. The only life she had known was one of hiding from the Biters. The only education that she knew to be useful consisted of three simple lessons-if a Biter bites you, you will become one of them; if a Biter bites someone you know, it doesn't matter whether that person was your best friend, they were now a Biter and would rip your throat out in a heartbeat; and if you could take only one shot, aim for the head. Only the head. Nothing else would put a Biter down for good.

So here she was, lying on a small hillock, her rifle at her shoulder, waiting to pick off any stragglers who escaped the main force. The first few years of her life had been one of hiding, and of surviving from one day to another. But then the humans had begun to regroup and fight back, and the world had been engulfed in a never- ending war between the living and the undead. Alice's parents were part of the main assault force that was now sweeping through a group of Biters that had been spotted near their settlement. She could hear the occasional pop of guns firing, but so far no Biters had come their way. Her sister was lying quietly, as always obedient and somber. Alice could not imagine just lying here, getting bored when the action was elsewhere, so she crawled away to the edge of the small hill they were on and peered through her scope, trying to get a glimpse of the action.

That's when she saw him. The Biter was wearing pink bunny ears of all things. That in itself did not strike Alice as strange. When someone was bitten and joined the undead, they just continued to wear what they had been wearing when they were turned. Perhaps this one had been at a party when he had been bitten. The first Biter she had shot had been wearing a tattered Santa Claus suit. Unlike kids before The Rising, she had not needed her parents to gently break the news that Santa Claus was not real. What was truly peculiar about this Biter was that he was not meandering about mindlessly but seemed to be looking for something. The Biters were supposed to be mindless creatures, possessed of no intelligence other than an overpowering hunger to bite the living. She braced herself, centering the crosshairs of her scope on the Biter's head. He was a good two hundred meters away and moving fast, so it was hardly going to be an easy shot.

That's when the Biter with the bunny ears dropped straight into the ground.

Alice looked on, transfixed, and then without thinking of what she was getting into, ran towards the point where the Biter had seemingly been swallowed up by the ground. Her heart was pounding as she came closer. For months there had been rumors that the Biters had created huge, underground bases where they hid and from which they emerged to wreak havoc. There were stories of entire human armies being destroyed by Biters who suddenly materialized out from the ground and then disappeared. However, nobody had yet found such a base and these stories were largely dismissed as being little more than fanciful fairy tales. Had Alice managed to find such a base?

Her excitement got the better of her caution, and she ran on alone. She should have alerted her sister, she should have called for reinforcements, she should have done a lot of things. But at that moment, all she remembered was where the Biter had dropped into the ground and of what would happen if she had truly found an underground Biter base. She was an excellent shot, far better than most of the adults in the settlement, and she was fast. If there was one thing she had been told by all her teachers since she started training, it was that she was a born fighter. She could put a man twice her size on the mat in the wink of an eye, and she had shown her mettle in numerous skirmishes against the Biters. Yet, she was not allowed to lead raids far from the settlement. That had always grated, but with her father being one of the leaders of the settlement, she was unable to do anything to change that. He claimed that her excellent shooting and scouting skills were better used in defensive roles close to their settlement, and had promised her that when she was older he would reconsider, but she knew that was a nervous father speaking, not the leader of their settlement.

This could change all that.

Suddenly she felt the ground give way under her and she felt herself falling. She managed to hold onto her rifle, but found herself sliding down a smooth, steep and curving slope. There seemed to be no handholds or footholds for her to slow her descent or to try and climb back up. She looked up to see the hole through which light was streaming in disappear as the tunnel she was falling down curved and twisted.

Alice screamed as she continued falling in utter darkness.

***

It took Alice a few minutes to get her bearings, as she was totally disoriented in the dark and also winded by her fall. She saw that her fall had been broken by a thick cushioning of branches and leaves. She had heard whispers that the Biters were not the mindless drones that many adults dismissed them to be, but those accounts had been dismissed by most people as fanciful tales. She wondered if there was some truth to those rumors after all. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness she saw a sliver of light to her right and crawled towards it. As she went deeper into the tunnel, while she still could not see much, the smell was unmistakable. The rotten stench that she knew came from only one possible source-the decayed bodies of the undead. Even though she had seen the aftermath of many a skirmish with the Biters, and was no stranger to the stench, she found herself gagging. As she came closer to the light, she saw that the tunnel opened into a small room that was lit by crudely fashioned torches hung on the walls.

She could hear some voices and as she peeped around the corner, she saw that the rabbit-eared Biter she had followed down was in animated conversation with two others. One of them was, or rather had been in life, perhaps a striking young woman. Now her skin was yellowing and decayed and hung in loose patches on her face. Her clothes were tattered and bloodied. The other Biter with her was a plump, short man who seemed to have the better part of his left side torn off, perhaps by a mine or a grenade. Alice had been around weapons for as long as she could remember, and while all humans now needed to be able to defend themselves, Alice had shown a special talent for fighting, perhaps one her mother did not always approve of. Her mother had wanted Alice to do as the other young people did and stand on guard duty close to the settlements, but Alice had always wanted to be in the forefront, to feel the thrill that came with it. Now, Alice thought, she had perhaps got more thrills than she had ever bargained for. She was trapped in an underground Biter base, with no apparent way out.

The Biters were talking in a mixture of growls and moans, but they seemed to be communicating with each other. Now that she got a closer look at the rabbit-eared Biter she had followed in, she realized that he had been in life not much older than her. Perhaps he had been on his way to a costume party when he had been bitten. As he turned his head, Alice saw what may have once been a smile now replaced by a feral grin that revealed bloodied teeth.

Alice's heart stopped as Bunny Ears looked straight at her. For a second she hoped that he had not seen her, but he bared his teeth and emitted a screeching howl that sent a shiver up her spine. As all three Biters turned to look at her, she exploded into action.

Alice's grasp of the alphabet may have been tenuous despite her mother's many failed attempts to teach her the languages of yore. But after The Rising, Alice saw no use for them-there were no books to read, and no time to read them even if they had remained. But what Alice excelled in school at, and could do almost without conscious thought, was how to thumb the safety off her handgun and bring it up to a two handed hold within three seconds. The first shot took the fat Biter squarely in the forehead and he went down with an unceremonious flop. As the two others bore down on her in the slight loping, lumbering gait the Biters were known for, she fired again and again,

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