Zed by Ste Whitehouse

Subject Theta had died for 197 seconds. I sat back and quickly confirmed the ECG readings and then looked over his blood works. O2 was obviously low, CO2 higher than the norm. A slight imbalance of electrolytes as the body fought against cellular death. The insignificant chemical trace of the potassium used to stop his heart. Nothing vastly dissimilar from the other twenty seven staged ‘deaths’ we’ve run through here.

I checked his viral load. No sign of the HR2ZV activating at all. Considering the horrific effects this retro virus has wrought on mankind its bloody hard to motivate it into working. I checked Subject Theta’s timeline. The cocktail of drugs were administered at 10:45am. His controlled descent into death came at 10:51. Defibrillation was commenced at 10:54 or 180 seconds after time of death. One shot, 75 joules and the subjects heart restarted as planned. Just like clockwork; but the damned Human Romero Type 2 Zombie Retro Virus did not activate.

I’m tired. I woke just after two this morning and could not get back to sleep; felt as though I was been watched even though the room was empty apart from myself. Serves me right for sleeping on a camp bed next to my office I suppose. I take a gulp of hot coffee before continuing. Shifting Theta’s data across the smart desktop into the digital holding folder and tapping Iota’s file. It opens up with all of her latest data streams. Subject Iota had died for 209 seconds. ECG flatlining, blood works similar to Theta’; viral load nil. It would be another three months before we could perform more ‘assisted deaths.’ Three months trying to figure out how the damn virus worked.

More to the point; why it worked the way it did. The HR2ZV was, at its heart, a bog standard retro virus. Communicable only by close contact, hence the overwhelming desire to bite and chew. It invaded every type of cell in a human body. Studies had shown it even in ovarian and testicular tissue. Death was a sexually communicable disease it seemed. At least Zombie death was. Once in a cell it spliced itself into the hosts own DNA. So far so normal.

Then it appears to just lay dormant; unobserved. We’ve only just developed markers to find it in living tissue and even then the bugger is good at hiding. God give me good old HIV any day. We haven’t even figured a good trajectory for the disease. You would think that once a good proportion of the hosts cells held the new viral code there would be a kicking in – a taking over – but even at 100% occupation there is nothing. It hides in plain sight – virally speaking – and does sweet Fanny Adams. Only on death does the virus actually activate; kicking in a number of responses that animate the corpse.

We all know about Zombies and what they are. What I’m trying to research is how long is dead? What does the virus do then? When does the virus start to take effect?

Spinning around in my chair I face out onto the street below. Dreary rain falls from a dull steel sky. A typical British summer. I glance at a few of the colourful umbrellas as they rush across the street or along the slick pavements. Fewer than before; much fewer. Thinned out. Culled. Call it what you like. The human race has gone through the flames and emerged, not quite phoenix like. Sure life goes on. But we all know the horrible truth now. Almost all of us have contracted HR2ZV; at least 89% of humanity at the last count – the bugger is easier to catch than the clap from an old prossie.

And when we die?

I try to focus my thoughts. Forget the monumental task ahead, try not to even think of a cure. That is WAAAAY down the line. Break the task into smaller pieces. But how much smaller can you get? If we can’t find out WHY it activates then how can we even begin to stop it?

Actually, I admire the virus. It is the perfect survivor. Evolution at its finest – for a virus. Often the balance between keeping your host alive and killing it is so very fine; but HR2ZV has solved this elegantly. Kill the host then reanimate the body. Simplicity itself.

The first recorded outbreak was in 1932, appropriately in Haiti; the home of the Zombie myth. The Halperin incident where – ironically – it was a white woman who initially succumbed. No one has ever been able to link that first outbreak with the culture or general background of the area. Then nothing was heard from the virus until over 30 years later when in 1966, and in Cornwall of all places, an outbreak of HR2ZV occurred in a tin mine.

So much has been written about the commonalities between the two sites. Places where heavy labour was necessary. That mainly it was workers, the poorer demographic who had been affected. Theories abounded for a while that it was due to poor sanitation or ill health brought on by manual labour. It was only when the next outbreak two years later in rural Pennsylvania occurred that the full range of the virus hit home. Here was the first large scale infection and it effected everyone across the board. The Romero effect they called it initially and the name stuck to the virus – some lab rats sense of morbid humour. Worldwide we had to rethink our feelings of superiority. Suddenly the smart and the rich – or at least the comfortably well off – could be infected as well.

Over the next decade the virus moved into the cities. In 1978 there was a mixture of civil unrest, rioting and Zombies in Pittsburgh. A handful of survivors were found in a shopping mall on the city’s outskirts. After that there was no major outbreak for almost thirty years. When this next occurred in London in 2002 there was conjecture that the virus had a decade’s long cycle. A possibility nullified when my team discovered that this virus was a mutation on HR2ZV, which we called HR3ZRV. The second R standing for ‘Running’.

Thankfully that strain ran its course, pun intended, within twenty eight weeks and – despite reports to the contrary – it was confined easily in London. We were left waiting for HR2ZV’s resurgence. We did not have to wait long when in 2013 multiple worldwide outbreaks occurred that sorely tested the resolve of our species. The world was literally at war with itself.

Now here we are a couple of years later. Slimmer, healthier but also wary. Knowledge that we carry this virus within our cells has permeated all aspect of our lives now. There no longer is any perception of a ‘peaceful’ death. Death only leads to reanimation. There is no ‘spiritual’ resurrection in the modern world; it has become all too physically real. Cremation of the dead despite their chance of infection has become a way of life. Death is now communal. Who would want to die alone only to return as a means of transferring the virus to a loved one? The loner is looked upon as some form of deviance. If you have no family you still have Family. Connectedness, openness, is seen  not only as desirable but obligatory. Belonging is compulsory.

Major faiths though collapsed whilst minor ones flourished. Some offered redemption, others acceptance. Still others a cure. The world was turned upside down and sideways. And through all that time I continued my studies. Assistants have come and gone. Technicians’ flowed into one another; but I stayed the course looking, probing, examining everything. Like a woman obsessed, for truly I am, I peered into the gutter life of the Zombie tearing apart HR2ZV and putting it back together.

Its genome was fully sequenced a year ago. We know – I know – what makes it tick. The phosphates and sugars and bases that cling to each other to create the virus that creates the monster. The elegant double helix that encompasses its deathly cargo. But even that knowledge is unhelpful; flawed. Knowing the enemy does not make it any less deadly; does not bring succour. All it does is make us feel informed. Educated. What is missing is the means to stop it. An anti-viral that will curtail its activation.

Hence this latest project. Nine volunteers willing to be chemically murdered again and again. To have their life taken from them so that we can observe how the virus works on activation. Only it doesn’t. Not in under 417 seconds; the longest one of our test subjects has been ‘clinically dead.’

I turn back to the data but I can recall each and every subject and their results with a clarity that probably borders on the obsessive. I shuffle folders across the smart desk, reviewing ECG with ECG, Potassium levels with Potassium levels. An hour later I still have nothing.

Sitting back I notice that the intercom icon is flashing. I minimise the desk top and tap the call. “Yes?” I had left strict instructions with Luci so this must be important.

“Ms Sharma is here Ma’am.” The webcam was disabled but she must have heard the exasperation in my tone, “She really needs to see you Ma’am. I explained that you were tied up with assessments.” Assessments was Luci’s code for urgent.

“Of course Luci. Send her through.”

Ms Sharma was subject Beta, stage four Neuro-Blastoma – the cells have already metastasised and spread. Barring chemo all we can do is keep her ‘comfortable’ – and so suitable for a trial in which we ‘kill’ the patient on a regular basis. I had met and vetted each of the nine subjects and was aware of each of their personal afflictions.

The woman who came through into my office was not the energetic young woman I had met only a few weeks ago. She was gaunt and pale under her naturally darker skin tones. Her eyes were deeply set and the bags under them had taken on the colour of ground coffee. She looked about in a haunted manner, as though something was following her into the room.

I offered her one of the two armchairs and asked if she wanted a drink of any kind, I sat opposite her and let her pour out her story. She spoke of disturbed nights with multiple bad dreams. Of waking, sure in the knowledge that someone else was in the room with her; although there never was.

Of the dreams themselves, they were almost always similar. A chase in which slowly she finds herself unable to move; a shadow whispering in her ear that multiplies until she can hear hundreds of soft voices swamping her in a crescendo of sound. A sense of becoming trapped and hidden beneath something else. Held in her body unable to reach out.

She tells me of patches of dry skin, almost dead she says, that are appearing on her body. She shows me one such patch on her right arm. I’m not a Dermatologist or Oncologist so cannot really say if this is an effect of her drug regime or not. I take some samples of blood and tissue. I bag them ready to be sent down to the labs.

I try to comfort her as best I can. Platitudes really; trying to wrap hard edged truth in softer wool, hoping that no one will really notice. As we speak she fiddles with her engagement ring; twisting it back and forth. She bites her bottom lip nervously and hardly looks up at me. When I do catch her eye a spark seems to have vanished.

Finally she leaves and I beckon Luci into my office. She comes in and closes the door. “Before you say a word.” She raised a hand, “Hear me out. Six of the cohort have contacted me with the same dream over the past few weeks. Not…” She carried on quickly before I could say a word. “…similar. The same. A chase in which they find themselves slowly unable to move. A whispering shadow that becomes hundreds of voices; each whispering but together deafening.”

“Okay. This might mean something but I’m not a Psychologist. These are all terminally ill patients. Dreams of helplessness, possibly being chased are bound to be a reoccurring motif.”

“One more thing. I asked them to contact me when they had their next dream and let me know what it was like and when it was. They all contacted me this morning. All six dreamt that they were being chased through an overgrown grey Hyde Park, along Speakers Corner. Every one of them woke at 2:17am.”

Luci handed me the transcript she had typed up. This was …odd. Luci turned to leave and then looked at me. “Ma’am? What happens if the virus becomes active in someone who is alive?”

“It doesn’t. It simply lies dormant until death and then somehow activates and reanimates. That’s what this study is trying to identifying the point that the virus activates.”

“I understand that Ma’am, but what happens if someone dies and the virus is activated but then they are resuscitated? That’s what’s happening to the people in the study, right? They’re dying then been brought back to life. Could that create some sort of living Zombie?”

“Of course not! That would be preposterous!”

“Why?”

I stared at her as she left the office. Suddenly I notice how drawn she is, tired looking. A random thought comes to me. A dream from the night before. Running, being chased; my limbs slowly seizing up; and a whisper. I look out at the street below and realise that I’m scratching my arm. Some dry skin that has been irritating me for the past few days. It is mottled and grey, unfeeling. I wonder about the efficacy of the virus; how easily it is transmitted and how we all appear to be susceptible to its touch. I wonder about reinfection of a new strain, a different virus; and I think of Luci’s question and a thought comes to mind.

“What if it was not so preposterous?”

 

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Ste Whitehouse is a retired careers advisor who grew up reading Asimov, Moorcock and Clarke. He was shortlisted for the Creative Futures Short Story competition 2017 and was a runner-up in the Lulu Novel competition 2018 with “Soul Mates.” He has had a number of short stories published in Schlock Webzine and his comic can be found at www.humanizationcomic.com (and it is also available on Etsy). His self-published YA novel, The Useless Princess, came out on Kindle a few years ago. He could have a social media presence, but he spends way too much time writing or playing Fallout 4 to have the time.

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