The original zombies were not the shambling undead monsters of film and fiction, but hapless victims of a bioengineered virus. Just where the first outbreak occurred is still hotly debated amongst those who care, not that there's a lot of those left anymore. Most of us are just worried about staying alive, inside, with all the windows sealed tightly. Why aren't we worried about running away from zombies?
Well, the answer to that question lies in the well-intentioned mistake of a genetic engineer who was trying to cure or kill the zombies. Fly larvae have been used to clean wounds since medieval times, as maggots will eat the decayed flesh, but not the living. His plan was to create fly larvae that would eat the zombies, essentially biological warfare against the former humans who had once lived amongst us, and now, did their level best to feed off us all.
Bad enough that our erstwhile friends, neighbors and family had become ravening beasts, the existence of zombie maggots was enough to spend the entire world into a tailspin. See, the zombie virus only infected perhaps one out of 10. Antivirals could even catch it if it were early enough in the onset. The flies, though…
But I'm ahead of myself. Even during the a zombie apocalypse. It's nice to get to get out and have a little fun sometimes. Although, had I known the apocalypse was coming. I probably would have stayed home instead of flying through Atlanta, and grabbing a shuttle up to Chattanooga. You see, I'm usually a devoted husband and father, and when the news of the zombie outbreak broke, I was attending a science fiction convention, a thousand miles away from home.
We were all sitting in the con suite, I was listening to the guys tell stories and wondering exactly how high they would pile the shit before they gave it up and admitted they were telling tall tales. Really, half the fans are writers themselves and the amateurs can rival the pros when it comes to fiction, especially when they are talking about their daily lives. I was laughing my head off, I always have such a good time at this convention. It's nice to get away from home and not be a mundane for a while. But when the Hobbit came through the doors hollering “The zombie apocalypse is coming!” We all laughed at him. Zombies are pretty popular fiction these days, and they all figured he just had a little too much at the bar. I knew he didn't drink, but I also know his penchant for odd humor.
"No, really.” He babbled excitedly. "Remember last year, when John Ringo wrote about bioengineered viruses? Well, there's reports coming out of China that someone made real zombies."
He waved his phone in the air. Seconds later, every 'Fly in the room was on their own phone, laptop, tablet, or leaning over someone's shoulder as articles and even video of the zombies were pulled up. A Presidential press release with no questions answered broke the news moments later that all air traffic, and indeed all means of transportation, were being embargoed. The room was quiet, almost unheard of with this crowd. But this massive level of quarantine and the speed of the reaction shocked us all into the reality that the apocalypse had indeed arrived.
The first thing I felt the need to do was call home to my wife and kids… Well, I tried to dial. All I could get was “all circuits are busy, please try again later."
I must have shown my feelings on my face, because Jones, ever the quick one to see how any of us were feeling, came by to squeeze my shoulder. “It'll be ok, man.”
I knew better, oh sure, I couldn't know it for a certainty, but not letting anyone travel at all meant that the virus was already here on the continental US. My hometown is a little place out in the sticks. But it's only two hours travel from a big international airport. Not that we were any safer here.
It took less than an hour for the first meeting of the newly dubbed zombie patrol to happen. You see, the group I hang out with isn't your typical mix of gamers and geeks that attend a con. There's a heavy influence of military and hard science people. It's probably the only group of people I've been a part of that made me feel like I was not the smartest person in the room. There's a few bright intellects amongst us that make me feel downright stupid. Not that they ever mean to, and they're the nicest folks you could ever chat with. Our first concern was to try and get more facts. The consensus was that the the news had been suppressed for some time, and had only been released when it could no longer be suppressed and the quarantine had to be put into effect.
None of us like operating in a vacuum, fortunately there were people like Piotr who had government contacts. It took a few hours to get answers, and even then they would be incomplete. In the meantime, the party restarted. Human nature being what it was, we could smile and even laugh while the world lay in ruins around us. The booze helped too. I wasn't drinking, I rarely do, and I have a need for situational awareness, and tonight it was heightened to the point of complete paranoia. I was downright twitchy.
It wasn't just the news, though. I'd had a gut feeling all day that something was going to go wrong. I had attributed it to not liking crowds, but now I knew it was related to this. Something was happening, and it was coming fast. I did notice that not all of us were partying. Several, who had been pulled aside earlier by the two guys who were rapidly taking charge, seem to be standing sentry. Others came and went quietly, stopping to talk with the organizers of the zombie patrol. I had grabbed a notebook, a regular paper one, and now I slid into the chair next to the guy in charge. Tall and slender, his blonde hair was rumpled, despite its short length, from the wig he'd been wearing earlier.
"Want me to keep inventory?" I asked Zane quietly. He looked at me, obviously thinking for a moment. Then he shook his head. He looked around a minute. “Sam...” He called across the room to a nondescript guy with silver hair I hadn't really noticed before. The older man looked alert and concerned and now that I saw him, I could see he was standing guard over a young woman who had her head down on the table next to him. “Send Thuja over here, will you?”
Sam gave him a crooked smile and a nod, then bent over her to talk to her. Shane continued to me in a low voice. “She's got four kids at home in New England, and I know her, she'll be better off if she's busy.”
I understood. I felt the same way. Something to do to keep my mind off the uncertainty, and the nagging feeling that my place was at home defending my family against the great unknown. She showed up at the table with calm face, a little damp around the eyes, but eager enough to take my notebook and start writing down lists.
I'd known that the guys coming in and telling him exactly what weapons were available, and how much ammo everybody had for them. We had been to the range, early that morning, but there was still a lot left. If it got really bad, we need it. I also knew even before it had been stated in the meeting earlier, that the primary danger would be from rioting and looting, not from zombies. People behave badly in crises, and I knew I was lucky to be with this group.
Our ad-hoc secretary kept more than inventory, making notes of ideas as people drifted to and from the table. Some of the zombie killing ideas were pretty far-fetched, where on earth would we find an airport snowblower in southern Tennessee? We weren't entirely sure we would even ever see zombies, but it was better to plan and prepare for the worst case, and I am always planning.
Also, keeping busy kept me from thinking too much about my family. I had taken the time during the evening to get my laptop and e-mail home. The Internet seem to be at least partially functional, and the parts that were down were probably from overload as the whole world tried to figure out what was going on. Rumors abounded, but our unspoken consensus was that we would take none of our information from the Internet.
After a while, all of the ideas were far-fetched. Setting zombies on fire, using them as fuel, or (God forbid) eating them, all seemed to be flights of fantasy. No one seemed to want to leave, although it was getting late. Around 2 AM, her boyfriend came and got Thuja. To be more accurate, he gently lifted her up from where she was resting her head on the table. "I'm not asleep." she mumbled at him. "Just resting my eyes."
I stood and stretched. I'd stayed put when she crashed to keep an eye on her, while Sam had been in on the planning session taking place at a lower table. I'd heard the gentle rumble of the Behemoth's voice, along with several others I knew well. The core group was coming together in crisis as I'd expected. Too many of us have training not to make this happen.
I nodded at him and asked “Sentry duty?”
"It's not really sentry duty, too many open spaces around here, more just keeping an eye on things, sounding out the feeling of the hotel. Speaking of which, per government order were staying here for free. We're refugees."
I stopped suddenly. "My laptop. I need to check my e-mails."
He nodded and called across the room, "Hey, Ted, you still have Thuja's things? And this guy wants his laptop."
The skinny balding man who rarely spoke nodded at him. He was sitting next to a table full of laptops, purses and sundry items, including my laptop, which I picked up now. "Thanks, Ted."
He surprised me by taking my hand and gave it a little squeeze. "We'll get you home somehow." Suddenly choked up, I nodded at him and headed out the door towards my room.
"There's more to this than some virus," Don caught up to me, and as we walked together to the other building he went on gravely. The big man had family out there, too. "There's no way they could get the authorization to shut down the US like this. There's something else, something worse."
I remembered the next words I uttered for very long time. "What could possibly be worse than zombies?”
The next morning the women cooked pancakes and I helped with the breakfast crew. As I carried things around the BFC I heard snippets of conversation. Others were concerned about their families as well, and there was a lot of hugging as we all reassured one another. The general mood of the mundanes seemed to be confusion and a sense that it was somehow all a drill and life would go back to normal any moment now. Piotr just shook his head when he heard that one. We knew he had more information, but we didn't press yet. He'd tell when he could, and if he knew we had to know, we'd know.
Feeding people felt good. When I sat still and had time to think… well, I kept myself pretty busy all day. Thuja made me eat once, and Jones brought me a bottle of water late in the afternoon and made me sit down and drink it with him.
"You need to start taking care of yourself.” He told me gently. “We need you, your kids need you to make it home. And we don't have the time to worry about you. There's rumors that there is some infected landed at the Atlanta airport."
I nodded at him. "I know I need to do better, I'll try to eat and drink. I heard the rumors too, and honestly I'm not sure what to do about... Against an epidemic under the circumstances. Quarantine…" I sighed deeply and put my hands over my eyes. “I'm sure there's people here somewhere that have studied epidemiology."
He nodded. "Yes, but the more brains we have on it, the better our solutions can be." He squeezed my arm as he stood up and I looked up at him. He was a gentle giant who spent most of his time behind a desk, and the rest of it at the shooting range. He was also lucky, his kid was with him on this trip.
"Thanks, Jones." He nodded and walked away and I looked around the room. There was still a lot of aimless people, but it was easy to see that the core group of sheepdogs had shaken out. We still weren't entirely sure what we were up against, but we were ready for something. There was a tension in the air. I still had that feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach.
The roads had been quiet all day. We'd sent out a couple of scouting parties in local vehicles with people who knew the back ways. They brought back people and supplies as it had been decided we'd hole up at the hotel rather than run to another location. The mundanes hadn't asked for protection... didn't seem to even know they needed it yet... but we'd decided to provide it. Our group grew slightly as a few outside our group were invited into the meetings, but even some of our group faded out of active planning for various reasons.
Now, though, I could hear a siren come screaming up the road. I started to run for the door, and could hear Zane behind me barking out orders to the sentries. He could have outrun me easily, but chose to lope easily at my side as I headed toward the main road. There was a small group of mundanes in front of the lobby when we arrived and he shoved through them easily, the force of his presence making itself known.
He thrust out a hand to the policeman standing there. I hung back a step, watching the crowd and looking at the officer with his nervous eyes. I saw another of our group show up, but he stayed on the periphery. I nodded to him and relaxed a little. It wasn't just me watching for trouble. The police officer looked pale and sweaty, his hands shaking as he spoke loudly.
“Infected people... Um,” He gulped once. “Zombies, are approaching the city. We recommend everyone go inside and avoid any contact with them. They are considered very violent, and will attack without warning. Also, any contact may be considered dangerous.” He shivered and my gaze on him sharpened.
“Zane, he's in shock.” I muttered.
As if on cue, the officer's eyes rolled into his head and he started to collapse. Zane and I caught him and got him safely to the ground. “Call Schimmer.” Zane clipped out, unbuttoning the man's shirt and taking his pulse.
We'd been given some of the radios the security staff used, so I lifted it to my lips and started to talk... then stopped as I saw my first zombie. Later, they tell me I said “Send in the Zombie Patrol, now!” But honestly I don't remember speaking, just reacting to that... thing.
It wasn't human anymore. Oh, sure, it still had two arms, legs, and a head, but the person was gone and only the shell was left, running towards us awkwardly. It was bent nearly double, one leg wasn't working right so it wasn't exactly fast, and I could see dark drool and bubbles of froth coming from its mouth as it appeared around the Brewhouse almost on top of us. Only one, but a whole group of people around us who were now panicking and doing their best to run away.
Zane was still on the ground with the cop. I stood over them and Mazzie, who'd been the perimeter guard, bellowed for the innocent bystanders to follow him. He led them toward the big double doors of the grand lobby. I'd been given a sword out of his collection of sharp pointy things, and now I drew it from the improvised belt and held it one handed, a hammer I'd swiped from maintenance in the other. I didn't know what it would take to kill this thing, and we'd decided to save ammo, so I left the gun holstered on the other hip.
Zane was up next to me now, scanning the area for more of them while I watched the zombie approach. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the Patrol arriving, and Mazzie giving them directions before taking up a position in front of the door, steel bared and ready. By the time the foul thing was less than 50 feet from me I'd decided to try something, so I took a step toward it, spreading my arms, and bellowing a shout as I did so. It flinched, whatever was left of the brain seeing me as a threat, but then the hunger took over and with a shrill whine it scurried toward me, almost knuckle-walking in the urgency to reach me.
Turns out killing them isn't hard. Lopping at their necks like taking a tree down works. So does smashing their brain pan once they're down. I'm not a trained swordsman, but I've chopped a few trees in my time. It lay on the ground twitching and bleeding black blood with me panting over it.
Zane swatted me on the back. “Only the one, so far. Good work.”
I gulped a deep breath and then regretted that. “Ugh.” I backed up rapidly. “Dayum, that's a stink.”
Schimmer looked up from kneeling beside the policeman. “I'll take a look at it in a minute. Our first casualty.” He finished mournfully, laying the man's shirt over his face.
“Heart attack, would be my guess.”
“Ok, we have two bodies on our hands, what next?”
Behemoth lumbered up, with Don in tow. The two of them could hire out as an ablative meat wall, the biggest guys I know. I always feel like a shrimp next to them. Don was carrying sheets. “One of the security guys is coming with a golf cart and trailer. We'll get them off the street at least and see if we can reach the authorities.”
Don gently laid a sheet over the cop. Schimmer crossed himself and stood up, shaking his head. “I want to take a look at the zombie. Where's Thuja? I know she's got some medical training. Who else?”
Mazzie walked up, still scanning the area, and heard the question. “One of Taz's boys is in pre-med. See if you can find him, too.”
I nodded and used the radio to put out the call. Shortly it was just Schimmer and I standing near the body of the creature, trying not to breathe to deeply. Schim's reaction to the stench was unprintable. Neither of us really wanted to get closer to it, but when the trailer showed up we'd wrapped it in sheets and lifted it in. I was shocked at how light the body was.
The three of them did a sort of autopsy. I heard the Taz kid saying it was more of a hack job, and the only one who didn't lose her breakfast was Thuja. Without a lab, they couldn't tell much about it besides the blood was thicker than it ought to have been, the brains were basically black jello (don't ask me how they got at the brains, some things are better left unimagined) and the body was decaying from the inside out. They also said that an ear and two fingers were found in the stomach. Then I felt like losing my last meal.
The lovely ladies of BFC somehow managed a good spread for dinner. We'd been there longer than we'd planned, now, and food supplies from our own stores were running low. We'd need to do something about that, but tonight even the sentries were rotated in to eat well. I asked Laura how the women felt about playing house while the men were out on patrol and she shrugged. “Someone has to make sure your bellies are full and brains sharp. We'll fight if they get this far, all of us are armed, but we'd distract you if we were on patrol with you.”
I nodded. The discussion about women in combat had been going on for a long time on the Bar, and she was right, men are wired to think first about the female, then themselves. We couldn't afford to lose anyone to stupidity. The Dwarf, a complete misnomer as he was taller than I, came to sit down heavily next to me. “Whew, it's hot out there.”
“I haven't seen you all day. How's it going?”
“Well, we had a batch come up the railroad tracks. Musta been fourteen or so, they bunch up and it's hard to count when you're trying to kill them fast.”
Ginger handed him a beer. “Bless you my lady.” He intoned and drained it. “Ah... Yeah, they aren't real coordinated but some of them are fast.”
“We can't stay here.” Piotr sat down on my other side.
“I think we'd better have a meeting.”
He shook his head. “I need to make an announcement, then we'll have that.”
I turned and saw the Behemoth. “Joe, we need to get everybody quiet a minute.” He nodded, then stood.
“Listen up!” He bellowed. Instant silence fell, and Piotr stood up. Every eye in the place was on him.
“The zombies aren't the worst thing out there. A scientist working on either a cure or a bioweapon against them fu...” he looked at Linnet, who was giving him the evil eye. “Er, goofed up. He genetically manipulated the blow fly, trying to create larvae that would target the zombies. Instead, we've got an airborne vector that spreads the virus. Eggs are laid on the skin, they are cemented on so there's no way to remove them except cutting them off. When they hatch, they burrow in, and spread the virus through their saliva if the parent was exposed to zombies. Which they will have been by the time we see them.”
He stopped to take a breath and rubbed his hand over his head. “They are spreading as fast as the zombies at this point. We are going to need to find someplace where we can get inside and stay in as much as possible.”
He sat down, and the leaders of the Patrol showed up as if by magic. I stood and nodded to Zane as I walked outside to take the section he'd been watching. I looked up into the sky and wondered how we were going to fight against flies. Swords and guns weren't going to hack it.
The zombies were becoming more numerous that day, and I was out in the thick of it for most of the day while the planning was happening. While not too difficult to evade, it was still hot and tiring work. We had one casualty, he slipped in zombie blood and fell, breaking his arm.
All around us for two days the evacuation had been going on. Our second supply run had been stopped and we'd been warned that unauthorized vehicles would be targeted and destroyed. We'd begun to feel like an island, forgotten, when the cavalry showed up. National Guard APC's with three buses in tow. The soldiers looked tense, and I tipped my hat to them as they pulled up. One young man looked startled at that. Guess he's never seen a guy covered in zombie blood and wearing a cowboy hat with torn t-shirt shirt, utilikilt, and sandals. I'd needed the hat from my costume, though, the sun had been getting to me.
There wasn't room for everyone. I'd known that when I saw the buses. We helped get the mundanes loaded, which was mostly arguing with them about having to leave their stuff behind. As they were trickling in, I wandered close to where Zane was talking to the lieutenant in charge.
“We have new intel,” He was saying. “There's an insect vector. You need to have your men checking for eggs on their skin and clothing, and if you find any, get them off. It spreads the virus.”
The lieutenant shook his head. “I haven't heard about this, sir. Are you sure?”
Zane sighed. “We have a reliable source. I understand there are a lot of rumors flying. This isn't one of them. Understood?”
That last came out in a command bark, and the young officer paled slightly and nodded. Zane turned away and gestured at me. “Let's gather in BFC again. Time to make a bug out plan.”
It was a much reduced group that met at the long bar. The families had sent wives with children on the buses and any of ours who weren't in something resembling fighting shape had been sent too. After the normal people were loaded we'd added those. So there wasn't room for all, but even those who couldn't fight could think, and now we needed to get out of town before the flies found us. We'd been given permission to caravan out in personal vehicles, but warned that most gas stations were closed as the civilian population had been largely evacuated.
There were probably thirty or forty of us, people kept moving so it was difficult to count. Four to a vehicle for comfort and room for stuff, and that mean at least ten vehicles. As most of us had flown in, we had a few personal vehicles still, and some rentals. Evacuees had left keys for a couple more. It was doable, barely. The next question was where to go. Most of us had family, and those who didn't had critters that needed taking care of. However, splitting up seemed like a bad idea.
We might still be sitting there debating if we hadn't heard the shouts from the sentries. We all spilled out into the dusk and could see them coming in a wave, down the train tracks to the heart of the hotel. I could hear the heavy cracks of someone's gun, hard to tell which one as several others opened up. We wanted to stop them before they got too close. We were all tired, but I felt my body shift into overdrive as I drew and fired.
It was dark by the time we'd finished them. I drooped against a post, my empty pistol hanging in my hand. Don came by and casually swung the sword he was carrying to smash the head of the zombie at my feet. We didn't know if they needed to be brainless, it just felt right. “C'mon.” He grunted and I followed him into the parking lot. There was a small group standing around a heap of zombies, shining lights onto it.
I got close enough to see what they were looking at. What had been the man's chest was seething with fat white worms. If they were the maggots they were huge, fully the size of my pinky finger. Mindlessly consuming their prey, they posed no immediate threat to us, but I shuddered at the thought of one of those things under my skin. I could hear the slurping noise of them eating, and I turned away to dry heave. I wasn't the only one.
“Load it up.” Zane called. “We're going right now. There don't seem to be flies in the dark, but they'll be here in the morning.”
I wound up in a van with Sam, Thuja, and the Dwarf. I hadn't seen Thuja since the day before. The Dwarf and I had fought shoulder-to-shoulder at some point earlier in the evening. It seemed like a week. I could see the car in front of us, and twisting around, the line of headlights behind us.
“Where are we going?” I asked Sam, who was driving. Thuja answered. “Short run, John's place. Long run... well, we don't know. We can't split up, and I'd never make it home on my own.” She sounded sad and tired. Sam reached over and took her hand without speaking. She went on, “my kids and family are on their way to Canada. I got an email.”
“Mine are going to my wife's parents in Colorado.” I told her. “Piotr said the flies react badly to cold, they're too big to keep flying in the cold. So I told my wife to get everyone as high as they can.”
She nodded without looking back and I guessed she'd said something like that to her Dad as well. I leaned back and closed my eyes, letting the exhaustion pour over me. I stank, I was tired and hungry, and I didn't know where we were going or when I'd see my family again. All I could do was trust that this band of gun geeks had what it took to get us all home and maybe we could figure out how to solve the apocalypse on the way.
It was going to be a long road. I slept.