I was born in a scientifically minded family. We used to have discussions based on logic and decisions based on fact. “Look at the facts!” my Mom used to tell me whenever I was being a wayward teenager. So, when we first heard the news, I sought out the facts. When I didn’t find any, I dismissed the news as noise. “Must be another version of the swine flu,” I remember thinking. Humans had taken the animal kingdom for granted for too long, and Nature had repaid in kind. First, things like the plague attacked humanity. Then, virii like HIV had their day in the Sun. When we got those under control, swine flu and other such infections invaded our food supply. Not that it mattered to me and my family. We were all vegetarians by choice. The only way this mad march of science and industry affected us was by GM foods. Of course, we had the choice to ignore those, since we were well-off and could afford to buy organic.
The first time I noticed this news in seriousness, it was when England went offline. The entire country had locked its doors and stopped talking to outsiders. No mail, no tweets, no radio signals of any kind. It bewildered people outside. The news talked about the ‘virus’ that had been ravaging animal and human populations in varying areas of the world. Speculation was rife that either the UK had decided that the threat outside was too much and they needed to protect themselves, or their own population was too far gone and they had sacrificed the remaining Brits to save the rest of the world from this calamity.
It still didn’t seem real, till the attacks started. Massive populations of infected people started attacking the uninfected. Violence erupted around the world almost simultaneously. It was as though the virus was building up an army before mobilizing it altogether. Gory images of cannibalistic crowds, attacking, murdering, killing, and most shocking of all, eating their victims filled the news. Gun sales shot through the roof. Doomsday preppers became mainstream. News broadcasts suddenly became the most watched shows around the world.
We saw the population dwindle. We saw chaos erupt. We saw our family die, our friends get devoured, our governments fall. The Internet was the only refuge, and it too sometimes flickered, because the virus was smart enough to understand how to rip through our communications lines. I say all this casually, but there’s no reason to not gloss over all that. It happened. We lived through it. That’s all there is to say about it.
We built up resources and went into hiding. We used natural and human-made defenses to ward off the zombies. We saw the worst of humanity play games with the survivors and do ghastly experiments on the undead. They saw them as nothing more than animals of the most violent nature, and they treated them as such. I didn’t care either way. I survived because I saw them as nothing more than carriers of death. When I saw a fast-moving one, I killed it. When I saw a slow-moving one, I used to kill it if it got too close. Then I stopped killing the slow ones if I was going away from it, or if it was too slow to catch up to me. I had to preserve ammo after all. The last few years, we’d been making our own ammo and metal was difficult to come by. There was no one mining, smelting, refining or even recycling. Metal workers were well-protected, as much as farmers, and their ‘lords’ charged heavily for access. They all eyed a free-agent like me with suspicion and many often didn’t let me into their holds.
So I traveled from place to place and found work, refuge, metal, and food how ever I could. Between holds was the most dangerous areas, especially when I traveled alone. This was one such day. The Sun was bright overhead and made any open movement impossible, as it would attract too much attention from the zombies. I was passing through a city that was almost all dead. It had two zones of humans at its ends, and passing goods between them was risky work that gave good pay. I had a backpack full of wares which people had paid me in food and metal to transport, but there was never any assurance of delivery. I moved from building to building till I hit a cross-street that was too wide to cross in the light. I decided to settle in till nightfall. I checked the perimeter, secured doors and marked escape routes. I noticed two zombies in the vicinity. One was immobile and the other was inching around. The rigid one was redead, a gaping hole in its head marking the place where someone had shot it up to destroy its brain. Dark puss was oozing out of the wound. It was a recent kill. The other one was its mate. It lingered close to the body. Why someone would spare it, I didn’t know. I looked at it for a while from the shadows and it didn’t register my presence. It just kept trying to move its buddy, like a bunch of wounded soldiers. Its movements were too slow to reach me in the next few hours, I decided. Going back in, I settled into a dark corner in a room with two exits, gun in hand. A single bullet in the chamber was both my defense and my insurance. I didn’t want to be empty-handed if attacked, and I didn’t want to kill someone in a fit of anger or fear.
I must have dozed off for longer than I wanted to. There was no sunlight outside. I flicked on a solar-powered flashlight and yawned. I had perhaps lost an hour or two, but it didn’t matter. There were only a few dangerous areas in the city according to my maps, and I knew I could cross them all in a matter of hours. As I lay there, lazily stretching, I felt a presence. I swung the light around at the first entrance. There was nothing there. Dreading what I’d see there, I swung it to the other side. The slowbie I’d seen outside was almost at my feet. I scrambled up and aimed my gun at it in frustration. I was about to shoot it when it looked right in my eyes. We knew they couldn’t see very well in the night. Their bodies, having degenerated to an extent, had night blindness of varying degrees. I didn’t know what this one could see. I moved my flashlight from left to right. It’s eyes didn’t follow. Perhaps it was completely blind and was here only by instinct or following noise. Snorers died quickly in the open lands. I didn’t want to waste the bullet, or make too much noise killing this thing. I had so far avoided ever killing one of these things at close quarters, using a knife or such tools. I’m no sadist and I was not interested in risking my life over some hand-work.
It stared at me oddly without moving an inch for the five minutes I stood there. Finally, I had to move on. I could have just walked out the other door, but an instinct told me to rekill this thing. I approached it, gun trained on the head. My flashlight beamed on the grey skull. As I settled on a good place to shoot it, it looked up. Was it smiling? It seemed to be looking at something beyond and smiling. I knew I had been had. I swung around the entire half arc it took me to turn back and face upwards. But before I knew what I would find, a creature jumped down from the ceiling and landed on my torso. It pushed me down and scattered the gun to the corner. Blinded by its rapid movements and struggle to overpower me, I tried hard to push it away. The torch was still in my hands, but it wasn’t much of a weapon. I couldn’t use it anyways, because the creature had me pinned down. I could feel its rapid cold breath close to me. It didn’t need the extra oxygen it was breathing, but some anatomical features were difficult for the zombies to let go of. So it struggled to bite me and I struggled to get free. The moment I found its hand moving away from my arm, to press my head down, I swung the torch at its head. The blow was soft, but startled it enough for me to throw it to the other side of the room and get up.
But this was no ordinary zombie. Instead of needing a moment to recover, it was rushing at me again. I tried to move to the side, but all I was able to do is get my face in the way of its flailing arm, which knocked hard against my head and threw me off-balance. It found this new tool rather effective, and pushed me down, then pressed my mouth hard with its arm. I was gasping for breath and this told it that I was losing the battle.
Now, I’m a logical person. I know what is and isn’t and what can be and can’t be done. I had never faced a zombie this fast. I had never seen them coordinate. I had never seen one scale the smooth walls of a room and somehow attach itself to the roof to lie in wait for a distracted human. I had also never felt, through my teeth, the dirty cloth worn by a zombie and the sinewy arm it covered. I felt the bone pressing down on my teeth, perhaps trying to shatter them. I did the most illogical thing I could think of, the only way that seemed out of this absurd situation I had gotten myself into. I opened my mouth ever so slightly and let the arm lodge itself into it. Then I bit. I didn’t know what would happen. Zombies don’t exactly feel pain at the limb level. Their brains do not receive signals from their nervous systems. I had seen countless zombies trudging along without an arm or a leg, or sometimes pretty much any limb, just crawling like vile slugs.
Yet, I bit in. I had hoped for an element of surprise, and then freeing myself and running away. Perhaps I had not hoped for that either. Perhaps it was my last stand. Perhaps I did not open my mouth consciously, but the arm forced it open with sheer pressure. But I found its arm in my mouth, sticking to my tongue and soaking my saliva, and I bit hard.
It yelped in pain and fell backwards. As it did, it yanked its arm away, but my bite was too strong and I ripped off part of its dead skin as it pulled away. The cloth and skin still in my mouth, I got up to see the thing writhing in pain on the floor. Even fire did not produce this effect on zombies. It was in excruciating pain. My flashlight naturally fell on it and I saw what could only be the most absurd thing I’ve seen in my entire life. The zombie turned back. It slowly went from blue, dead, and decaying, to reddish, alive, though barely, and very much in pain. It was shrieking, till he was not. He was a boy, of barely 16, badly nourished, holding his arm, the one I’d bitten away at. He looked around, dazed. He sat up, and I jumped back. In response, he jumped back in his seat. He was as afraid of me, as I was of him. But he was human. I knew this, because suddenly, the zombie on the other side of the room was not looking at me with a greedy hunger, but at the boy. It smelled the younger flesh, it recognized the wound filling the room with the scent of sweet blood. It slowly turned away from me and started its slow ambling towards its new goal. I shot it. One ringing bullet reverberated through the room and one clean hole appeared in its skull. It fell, redead.
The boy jumped up when I shot the zombie and rushed to the corner of the room. I beamed a light at his face. It had genuine fear on it. He was on the verge of crying, but he recovered, only to look at me and my gun, now trained at him. “What is going on?” he asked. I almost laughed. The last thing I expected to see in this desolate inner city was a re-alive human. When I didn’t answer, he looked around and noticed his arm. He winced when he saw the bite mark. At some point, I had spit his skin away. I pulled my backpack and took out a bandage. I wavered about what to do with the gun, then pushed it back into its holster and shone a light on the bandage and then tossed it towards him. He caught it mid-air, but fumbled it a little. When he’d caught it and applied it, I took some food out of pack and threw it at him. He tore at it hungrily. Zombies never eat human food, no matter how artificial and how processed. The only thing they eat is flesh. For a long time, scientists tried to explain it as some extreme form of cannibalism. But the closer they came to explaining it, the more violent their test subjects became, eventually killing off every scientist who was willing to study zombies. It was as if the zombies knew their secrets were being unraveled and wanted to prevent it. When he had eaten, I asked him where he was from, what he remembered last, and what he thought was going on. But all he drew was a blank. There was very little the boy understood. His slate had been wiped almost clean.
I didn’t know where to go from here. Had I discovered some amazing secret of how to destroy zombies? Or was this the worst fluke in the history of the earth? Before I could ask myself these questions, a light flickered in front of my eyes. It was as if it was a part of my eyesight itself. Words started appearing in front of me, hung in the air somehow. They shone brightly in the darkness of the room.
“You have discovered the secret.”
“This is the only way to destroy the zombies.”
As soon as the last words disappeared, I heard a rumbling sound from outside. I ran to the door of the building and peeked. I saw what seemed like a horde of zombies marching down the street. They were pouring out from every building, every gutter, and every hole. They shone like dull ants in the pale light of the moon. But they were not the regular undead. They had a purpose. They marched in lockstep. They seemed to be looking for something. They seemed to be looking straight at me. I rushed back inside, half expecting the boy to have turned back into a zombie. I was relieved that he had not. I took out a spare gun and shoved it into his hand.
“You know how to use this?”
I didn’t wait for an answer. I pulled him by his good arm and rushed out the back. I knew the city’s layout. I had memorized every block before this expedition. We had to rush to the nearer hold. It was a good half mile away. That was the longest half mile of my life.
This story was inspired by the following Writing Prompt as well as some of my favorite recent writing –
At some point in my life, I told myself that zombie stories are silly and not worth reading/watching/writing. But this prompt was just sublime. It spurred me towards creativity like none other has. So I wrote it up. I hope you enjoyed it.