Mark Miller pushed his large frame up the punctured metal steps. His weary men stood guard on the perimeter wall under buzzing floodlights. He looked out on the distance at a vast land, laid with land mines and camouflaged holes filled with two foot spikes. Mark turned to a half-asleep guard on the column to his right, ‘Soldier.’
‘Sir!’ The soldier holstered his rifle and saluted.
‘How long have you been at station?’
‘Twelve hours, sir.’ The soldier followed this with a controlled yawn, his jaw sliding from right to left.
‘Where is your relief?’
A low shout interrupted the reply, ‘Captain!’ Mark turned to find two men approaching, Jake, a sturdy man wearing a reversed baseball cap, followed by a scrawny guy Mark didn’t know.
‘Yes, Jake?’ Mark looked passed him, scrutinizing the other. He wore a tattered button down shirt with a corporate logo, Cystems.
‘Relief is here Captain.’ Jake spat over the perimeter wall.
‘What happened to our regulars?’
Jake’s voice was devoid of life or emotion, ‘Of those who went on the rescue mission, twelve died. The mission managed to rescue seven captives, but only three of them are combat ready.’ He pulled out a stick of gum from his rear pocket and used it to motion to the man behind him, ‘This one is assigned to perimeter guard duty.’ The wrapper was tossed to the ground and he began chewing.
Mark sighed, ‘Twelve of our regulars are dead?’
‘Six confirmed, six assumed. They were taken alive by the enemy, but have probably already been eaten.’
Mark ran the numbers in his head. He was short forty soldiers for a 24-hour fully guarded perimeter. He had hoped the rescue mission would be successful, no casualties, returning with rescued reinforcements. Instead they had lost twelve to save seven. No, they lost twelve fighters to save three fighters and four convalescents. Mark turned to the scrawny man, ‘What was your profession before?’
‘Ne-net-network sp-specialist,’ The scrawny man pushed his glasses close to the bridge of his nose and seemed to tremble.
‘You know how to hold a gun?’
‘Ye-yes. We-well, I think I do.’
‘You think you do?’ Mark turned to the sleepy guard, ‘Gun.’
The sleepy guard slipped his rifle off his shoulder and presented it.
The scrawny man picked up the rifle and inspected it for a full minute. ‘Um?’
‘Dammit, can you shoot!’ Mark yelled, startling the other soldiers to alertness. He could feel their eyes boring into the back of his neck.
The scrawny man rested the butt of the rifle on his shoulder and raised the weapon unwittingly pointing the barrel at Mark’s chest. He pulled on the cocking lever and the rifle slipped out of his hands, he scrambled to the ground to pick it up. ‘Sorry!’
Mark used his foot to push the gun out of the reach of the clumsy hands, ‘When those bastards come running at you sorry won’t cut it,’ he growled. ‘What is your name boy?’
‘James you only have a second to think before those things tears your flesh apart. Can you honestly tell me that you can fire this gun in time to protect yourself and your comrades?’
‘Really? Then why are you wetting yourself?’
James looked down at his soiled khaki pants and didn’t look back up.
‘Get out!’ Mark pushed James toward the steps. ‘Find the doc, maybe he can find some use for you.’ He turned to Jake who was now intently focused on blowing bubbles. ‘Seriously, Jake?’
‘What choice do we have? We’re dangerously low on people here.’
‘Don’t remind me,’ Mark groaned in despair.
‘If it wasn’t for that rescue mission we would still be ahead,’ Jake spoke quietly.
‘We were never ahead, now we’re just more desperate.’
‘Yeah well, tell it to the doc. It was all his idea.’
* * *
‘Doctor Stevens.’ Samantha pushed against a chipped wooden table and rolled her chair across the room. ‘The first batch have matured.’
Doctor Stevens dropped the piece of paper he was reading and jumped up from his desk. He walked across the room and looked at Samantha’s table, crowded with microscopes, vials and various charts. In the center of the table was a plant encased in glass and fully lit by two ultraviolet lamps. He turned off the lamps and opened the enclosure. The stem of the plant was crimson red, graduating to a mint green at the leaves. Below the leaves were three pieces of orangey-yellow fruit. ‘Very nice.’ He examined the fruit with his fingertips. ‘The skin feels nearly human.’ Samantha smiled and leaned her chair back on Doctor Steven’s desk, dangling her feet in the air. She looked at the paper he had been reading. It was a newspaper article dated July 13, 2011, the headline read: Bobo Plague Spreads. Samantha read on. The Bobo fly, imported from the Amazon jungle by NuCure Pharmaceuticals is believed to be the source of the toxin killing the vast majority of the population. A representative from NuCure claims that the Bobo fly’s secretions were thought to have the skin penetrating transference capabilities necessary to deliver an anti-aging serum being developed for the youth-hungry consumer market. A senior official from the FDA stated that “…the natural secretion of the Bobo fly contained an unfamiliar toxin, which intensified the effects of the NuCure serum. The intense levels of fluid-borne transferability led to the pandemic outbreak.”
‘Yes Doctor?’ Samantha wheeled her way back to her desk. ‘Is there something wrong?’
‘We have to test the juice of this fruit against the blood of those…’
‘Whatever they are, if we’re correct then this should speed up their decomposition, and they might finally die off.’ Doctor Stevens took a deep breath and broke into a relived smile. ‘Call in the Captain.’
* * *
‘Mark! I have great news!’ Doctor Stevens stood up from his desk and wobbled to the door. He shook Mark’s hand. ‘I think we have a way to kill those things.’
‘Zombies!’ Samantha shouted as she inserted a needle in the fruit.
Mark looked around the room. It was a mess. There were stacks of paper and scientific equipment everywhere, and newspaper clippings lining the walls. He always looked at one clipping whenever he entered the lab. It was the actable that first broke the news and its edges had browned with time, Resurrection Of The Dead! Mark turned to Doctor Stevens and rubbed his unkempt beard. ‘What do you got, Doc?’
Doctor Stevens plucked the now deflated fruit from Samantha’s hands and gave it to Mark.
‘What is this?’
‘It’s a genetically modified fruit!’ Doctor Stevens said.
‘And what do I with this? Feed the bloody things?’
‘Precisely,’ Stevens grinned.
‘The – zombies – eat human flesh because they cannot produce their own new cells. Instead they eat our living cells, which then integrate into their bodies.’ Doctor Stevens pulled on his sleeve, ‘If their arm falls off all they have to do is tear off the arm of a fresh living being and attach it back and soon they will have a usable working arm.’
‘Are you serious?’ Mark choked.
Doctor Stevens pointed to the fruit in Mark’s hand. ‘These fruits are genetically modified to intensify decomposition, disabling the zombies’ ability to integrate cells, and forcing their own cells back to a human rate of decay.’
Mark paused a moment over the revelation and frowned, ‘They aren’t just going to sit down and die, they’ll come for us.’ Doctor Stevens leaned forward on the desk,’As long as you recruit more guys and keep this place safe…’
‘Hold on!’ Mark waved his hands violently. ‘That’s why you called for the rescue mission. This was your plan the whole time?’
‘Look, they will be very aggressive, but at the same time they will be weaker and that means that they would need to come in huge numbers. The only way we can survive such an attack is if we have numbers to match.’
‘But we don’t.’ Mark rubbed his temples and breathed slowly, ‘And your rescue mission cost us even more.’
Samantha stood up from her chair and furrowed her eyebrows. ‘You think you’re some sort of big military general, don’t you.’
‘Enough!’ Doctor Stevens silenced his assistant, ‘The issue at hand is finding a way for those things to eat the fruit.’
‘Why not serve it to them on a big platter?’
Samantha folded her arms and hissed through her teeth.
Mark held the fruit to nose and sniffed, ‘The zombies eyesight isn’t as sharp as ours, but they can smell things a mile away.’
‘What should it smell like?’ Stevens asked.
Mark raised an eyebrow at the scientist’s lack of common sense, ‘Blood.’
* * *
‘Are you sure about this Mark?’
Mark cocked his rifle and scanned the grassy area by the moat. ‘The doc thinks it is a good idea.’
‘What do you think?’ Jake chewed on his gum and walked beside Mark, they were just one of the five pairs of soldiers guarding the civilians working the soil, planting their hope for survival, the matured plants.
‘I think it is stupid.’ Mark recognized James as one of the gardeners, his job was to drip blood on the plants. ‘Finally we have some use for you, eh?’
‘This won’t stop them Mark,’ James muttered, ‘Even if it works, there just aren’t enough plants.’
‘You have any better ideas?’
Jake shook his head and stopped in his tracks. He looked at a group of trees in the horizon.
‘What is it?’
Jake pulled out his binoculars and scanned the trees. ‘We’re being attacked!’
Mark took the binoculars from Jake. ‘They must have smelled the blood already. Shit!’ He fired a shot in the air and yelled, ‘Everyone get back!’
The zombies slipped out of hiding and ran at them at full speed. Some of them had replaced their human limbs with animal parts, and ran on all fours, others sprinted like track athletes.
‘There are maybe twenty of them!’ Jake cocked his rifle and took aim. He fired a shot at the head of a rampaging zombie. ‘Nineteen.’
Mark took aim and took out another one, ‘Aim for the head!’
‘More are coming!’ Jake felled a zombie in a clearing on his left. ‘Shit! There is too many of them.’
‘Fall back!’ Mark took aim again. ‘Get the fuck out of here!’
The first of the zombies had caught up with them, a soldier’s neck was sliced open and blood spewed all over his attacker.
‘More coming from the right.’ Mark kept shooting as the blood-soaked zombie growled at one of its brethren.
‘Jake!’ James shouted, “This isn’t an attack!’
‘What are you talking about?’
James pointed to the fallen soldier, ‘They’re not eating him. They’re collecting!’ Mark stood up from his kneeling position and tracked back. He kept on firing shots with every back step.
Jake ran at full speed behind Mark and yelled. ‘The civilians are near the outpost.’
Mark nodded and ran back following the other soldiers until they reached the traps and landmines, yellow paint demarcating the safe way through. He passed the first set of traps and looked up at the outpost. The guard facing them must have been sleeping, he had taken no notice of their situation. ‘Shoot, damn it! Shoot the fuckers!’ Mark yelled to no response. ‘Fuck it!’ Mark turned and aimed his rifle at the chasing zombie horde.
‘You are mine!’ Growled a zombie as he pounced on Mark, his bluish tongue flicked across his upper lip.
Mark’s rifle flew from his hand and fell to the ground ahead of him. He sprawled forward trying to reach it. The zombie gripped on Mark’s ankles and pulled him back.
‘Captain! Help!’ James screamed.
Mark watched as James was dragged along the ground, his legs punctured by the zombie’s clawed fingers.
‘Be quiet!’ the zombie growled.
‘What are you going to do to me?’
The zombie turned to Mark. ‘Give you life.’
* * *
Together with eight of the people from the field, Mark marched along a dark tunnel. The smell of decomposition was so foul that one of the men vomited during the march. Mark looked at the man, ‘Hey, you didn’t wet yourself, Jame.’
James coughed and spat the remaining stomach acid from his mouth. ‘Wha…What are they going to do to us, Captain?’
‘Quiet!’ The blue-tongued zombie growled. ‘You will find out soon enough.’
‘Why not just kill us!’ Mark screamed.
‘We have special plans for you, Captain.’
A light appeared at the end of the tunnel and Mark squinted his eyes before he was able to refocus on what he saw. It seemed a sort of prison camp, with each section labeled by color. There was also a fenced in crop field and diverse groups of humans huddled within. Two zombies stood guard at an entryway. One of them looked like he had bear claws on both of his hands while the other looked like he had horse legs as arms.
‘Open up!’ The blue-tongued zombie growled. He pushed Mark inside the fenced field. ‘Welcome to your new home.’
* * *
Mark sat around a fire beside an older woman and slurped the soup from his bowl. It had been a week since he and his comrades were caught and he wondered what had happened to the outpost.
‘Don’t worry about them.’ The old woman warmed her hands and smiled at Mark. ‘If they were caught you would see them here on the farm.’
Mark had come to understood the farm structure: those with green armbands were designated as food, those with red were breeders. Women of child-bearing age would not become food until their fertile years had passed. Children would age into breeders and eventually age into food. In the meantime, they lived in makeshift tents and cultivated the land to sustain themselves. The blue-tongued zombie had taken a great interest in Mark from the start. ‘Captain!’ he growled.
Mark turned to the gate and watched the tongue of the zombie flick across his upper lip. The sight sickened him and he placed his bowl down. ‘What do you want?’
The zombie walked into the compound and pulled a girl to her feet. She was very young, with long black hair and small eyes. Her skin was tanned brown and sunburned at the shoulders. ‘It’s time.’
Mark looked from the red armband tied around his bicep to the red band tied at the girls wrist. Her mouth trembled and tears streamed down her face.
* * *
Weeks passed like sands in an hour glass. Mark had impregnated five women and knew that the zombies would soon change his armband from red to green. He was led away yet another time but was surprised to find that a woman was not chosen from field. He was sure this was it, he was about to become food. He struggled and fought, but the zombies still managed to strap him down on a steel table. Once confined they left him to the ministrations of a single, short, squat zombie. It removed a syringe and intravenous line from a drawer and in a moment Mark was flinching from the needle prick at the crook of his elbow. He began to panic as a dark sludge inched through the tube. ‘What are you doing to me?’ He squirmed in his straps and tried to break free. The zombie simply grinned.
* * *
Mark was moved to a small bare room, the only furniture a small cot drenched in blood. He was ill for days and was not given food, his body grew weak. He wished he could escape but he could hardly move his limbs. He turned over on the bed and saw a zombie standing in the shaded corner to his right. The zombie flicked his tongue across his upper lip. ‘You again,’ Mark groaned.
Mark looked away from him and peered instead at his hands, his skin had turned a forest green color and was dotted with black spots. ‘What’s happening to me?’
‘Stage two.’ Stage one was the flu, stage three was death. ‘Do you know the story of Lazarus?’
‘What?’ Mark shivered in the cot.
‘Lazarus rose from the dead. We all are like Lazarus, we wake up from the dead more powerful and with a purpose.’
‘Our community. Each of us have a role to serve in the community, you included. Yours is most important, my brother.’
‘What is my role?’
‘You are going to bring everyone in that outpost to our farm.’
* * *
In the days that followed, Mark’s eyesight diminished but his sense of smell increased. He could smell flesh, blood and the stench of his own body. Gasses started squeezing out of his pores and he was nauseas. Death had indeed come.
‘Wake up Lazarus.’
Mark growled as he opened his eyes. He could not feel his heart pumping but he could feel the sludge coursing through his body.
‘You have awoken Lazarus.’
‘Why are you calling me that?’
‘We are all Lazarus, the people who have woken up from the deep slumber, resurrected into a new life.’
Mark pushed himself into a seated position. He could feel that his muscles had tripled in size. His joints felt like steel balls. ‘I feel different.’
‘You are different. You must be hungry.’
‘You have soup?’
The zombie flicked his tongue across his upper lip, ‘No soup here brother, but we have this.’
The door opened and a woman walked in. Her hair was silvery white and her skin was loosely wrinkled. She still had a warm smile on her face despite her obvious fate.
‘I will leave you two alone.’
‘Hi Mark.’ The old woman sat on the red blood-stained cot. ‘It has been a long time.’
Mark looked at the old woman longingly. He could smell the salty sweat and the sweet blood pumping through her veins. He could hear her haggard breaths before every word she spoke.
‘I knew this day would come I just did not know it was going to be with you.’
Mark tried to restrain himself but he couldn’t stop salivating. ‘You have to get out of here.’
‘Someone is going to feed on me, and I would rather it be you.’
‘No! No! I won’t do this! I am not a monster!’
‘Mark, my time has come. This is not fair to me or to you or to anyone. There is nothing we can do. My time has come.’
Mark saw the leathery hand of the old woman reach out to his cheek but he could not feel anything. His body told him that feeding on the old woman was what it needed for sustenance but he clung to his old way of being. He did not want to be a monster. He lifted his head and growled.
‘In due time you will accept who you are,’ the woman said, ‘You will succumb to the desires, but I have one request. Please kill me quickly before you feed.’
Mark embraced the old woman. He placed his hands on either side of her head and twisted it abruptly, snapping her neck. He looked at the leathery smile on the old woman and tried to smile himself. He could not feel the muscles on his face as he bit into her neck.
* * *
Scenes from Mark’s first life started to slip away from his memory. All Mark could think of now was blood. He craved it and he wanted more.
‘Lazarus.’ Mark looked up at his most frequent companion. ‘Don’t tell me that old woman wasn’t enough.’
‘I’m always hungry, I want more.’
‘Well she was quite lean and old, not a lot of meat. Sorry about that.’
Mark lowered his head. He remembered what the zombie told him in the Lazarus room. He remembered his role, and the images of Doctor Stevens, Jake and Samantha flashed in his head.
‘We have to go back Lazarus. Go back to your outpost.’
‘Why can’t you do it yourself?’
‘Because you, brother, are the scout, and you know what your role is don’t you?’
Mark pulled at the loose skin on his forearm and watched as his muscles squeezed at his veins, forcing the dark sludge through his body.
‘You have to find us a way in through all of those traps that you have cleverly set up.’
Follow the yellow brick road.
* * *
Mark stood behind a large pine tree. He peered around the side and looked at the large steel outpost. It was once a parking lot made out of steel grills but Mark had converted it into a makeshift safe haven. It wasn’t meant to last, but the traps that they had set prolonged their survival. He looked up at the guards at the post; they were nodding off to sleep.
‘Lazarus.’ The zombie squeezed Mark’s shoulder. ‘We are not here to kill. We need more people for the farm.’
Mark nodded his head. ‘I know what to do.’ He got on his stomach and crawled through the tall grass. He moved forward and the horde of foragers followed. He stopped when the grass shortened down a slope and raised his hand. ‘Stop.’
‘What is it Lazarus?’
‘I smell something.’
‘Blood!’ The blue-tongued zombie tilted his head and sniffed the air. ‘It is close but I don’t see anything.’
Mark pushed a tuft of grass apart and looked down the moat. He noticed a large growth of red and green plants with large spheres of yellow fruits. He sniffed the air. ‘It is coming from there.’ Mark crawled slowly. ‘Be careful they might see us.’ Mark reached the stem of the growth and looked at the bulging fruit.
‘What is it Lazarus?’
This plant – this fruit – Mark remembered the words of Doctor Stevens. This will speed up their decomposition and kill them – kill me.
‘Do you smell the blood?’
‘Yes we all do.’
‘It is coming from this.’ Mark picked up a fruit and showed it to the other zombies.
‘It smells heavenly.’
The zombies closed in on the fruit, plucking them from the plants and hissing with delight at the taste. Mark dug at the ground, ‘Let’s take them back to the farm,’ he growled. ‘Let’s make the humans grow this for us.’
Following Mark’s lead several of the zombies pulled out the crimson stemmed plants by the roots and brought them back to the farm. Despite a mild protest by the leader, the horde of zombies instructed the humans to grow the fruit.
As months passed, the frequency of foraging declined and the zombies grew weaker. The remaining humans escaped, returning to the outpost, braving the fabled yellow path.
Mark ended his days at the row of pine trees looking over at the vast growth of the crimson plants. In the last moments of his second life the face of the old woman returned to him. Her leathery smile warmed Mark’s body and for the first time since his resurrection he smiled. ‘My time has come.’
This story has been published with Infective Ink.