“Viruses mutate. They branch off through natural selection and evolve continuously. Microscopically, each new strand might look almost identical to the original, but the effects on the host can be radically different. Look at the Human Herpes Virus: HH1 is genital herpes, HH3 is chickenpox.”
I remember the lessons of my senior year biology seminar often nowadays. I wonder where Professor Schneiderman is now, if he’s still alive, still explaining virus behavior to a bunch of starving survivors. Probably not; most likely he’s dead and feeding on those starving survivors. I load my make-shift crossbow, take aim, and shoot–another undead falls and three push to take its place.
When the plague started spreading I was just starting my internship at St. John’s Hospital. I was one year from completing my Bachelor of Sciences with honors. I had a girlfriend, an apartment, and a closet full of jeans and hoodies. Now, I own a deserted hospital, about 50 miles of parking lot, and a few thousand undead who want to rip me to pieces. In terms of sheer quantity, I guess you could call it an upgrade.
Sitting on the roof of the abandoned St. John’s hospital, like every other character in a Zombie flick, I take aim again and another undead falls. If I keep this up I could kill them all in about three years. I grin and finish another Coke stolen from the broken vending machines. I’ll use it later for an improvised Molotov. In the meantime I aim and shot again. After all I got nothing better to do.
The first time I heard about the plague, I was in Professor Schneiderman’s class. Someone had asked him about the recent outbursts of unknown viruses in Africa or Europe. I wasn’t paying attention. I only remember the whole incident because Schneiderman seemed confused. He said it might be a new strand of the Marburg virus or maybe some sort of malaria. Someone noted that the two are completely different, and I asked what this plague was anyway. I hadn’t heard anything about it. Schneiderman started explaining and blamed the media for exaggerating what was probably a very local outburst. Classes were canceled a week after that because of undead janitors wandering through the science building.
I get out of my sunburnt recliner and pee over the ledge. The zombies stare blankly up and a few jump trying to reach me, three stories above. I laugh, and it sounds more like a cackle than the charming laugh my girlfriend loved. That scares me more than the hordes of undead under me. Once the plague started more people died because of stress, panic, and sheer madness then zombie bites.
The doors to the hospital are well-barricaded and I check them regularly, reinforcing them here and there. Between the food court, the hospital’s generator and the many vending machines I had enough food, fuel, and water for a hundred people. I even have enough work to keep me busy and happy, just making blots for my crossbow and thinking of new weapons. I just have to make sure I stay sane enough to enjoy all my wonderful blessings. I crash back into my recliner and, reaching for another hand-carved bolt, I think back to the night it all started.
It’s funny how a small mistake can change one’s life. I locked my car keys in the lab that evening. Laughing embarrassedly I turned back just as my colleague was opening the elevator door. There were a few doctors inside the elevator, and their white coats were splattered with blood. I heard my friend’s screams as soon as he entered the small metal tomb. Running towards the descending elevator I pounded on the metallic doors. Looking back, I wonder what I was planning to do. Fight three or four zombies unarmed?
The 911 number played a recording informing whoever called that all lines were busy. There was an emergency and we should stay inside, barricade ourselves, and wait for further news. Who was I to question a robotic voice telling me to hide? I ran back to the lab and locked the germ-proof doors. Nervously, I scanned the familiar cold room, expecting some insane cannibal doctor to jump at me. I was alone, surrounded by lab equipment, freezers with urine and blood samples and, thank God, a few computers with internet access.
Google was down, as were most websites on the West Coast. Luckily, the BBC website was still up. I browsed the headlines feeling nauseous. Most articles were just a few hours old and looked very much the same: “Zombie attack!”, “How to kill the undead,”, “Do not trust those bitten.” I skimmed the pages, wondering how the hell I could have ignored all of this for so long. News articles dating back almost two months warned about plagues in Europe, Asia, and the West Coast. Some politician in France pressed NATO for the usage of the nuclear bomb. An Israeli general ordered a draft of all the Jewish population. The whole world was crumbling to pieces, and I had had no idea. I had been too preoccupied by my own problems to listen to the news.
I searched the internet for hours. Spamming my girlfriends’ inbox with desperate messages and trying to find someone who had a plan. There were countless pictures and videos of the undead happily munching on the living. Wikipedia was updated every few seconds with entries about another Z-territory; that was apparently the proper term for an infected country. Someone erased the whole section on zombies and replaced it with a big font “AAAAH, THEY’RE COMING.” If the internet was an accurate mirror of the world, everything was going down the drain.
I finally found the blog of a renowned neurologist in Zurich. Locked in his lab, he updated every few minutes as he performed a biopsy on his bitten assistant.
“There are four clear signs of the Z-Virus,” he wrote in his latest post. “Those infected moan almost constantly. Their eyes are fixed and seem glazed over. They do not breathe and they have an easily distinguishable smell of rotten meat. Also, be aware that it takes about five hours since death occurs for those infected to transform into a zombie,” the German doctor explained in between pictures of dissected zombie tissue.
But I knew he was wrong. I remembered seeing at least one of the doctors in the elevator when we arrived in the building, just three hours ago. Even more, they didn’t moan, and their clear, normal-looking eyes fixed hungrily on my friend. They did not look pale and dead, they looked every bit like any other human. I left an angry comment describing what had happened and continued browsing the web.
Slowly, reading countless posts and forums, I was able to piece a theory together. The zombie virus had mutated. It made sense in many ways. Europe was hit by an early strand of the virus, version 1.0 if you will. Traveling through Asia and then somehow making its way into the U.S. the virus transformed to respond to the local fauna.
I found a video shot in the suburbs of Tokyo. Five people suddenly collapsed in convulsions and jumped up within minutes, ready to kill. They ran towards their prey, screaming something in Japanese and cornering a young couple. Still swallowing pieces of flesh, they looked up with bloodshot eyes, searching for more prey. Less than thirty minutes later they dropped dead, only to rise again, slowly dragging their limbs and moaning.
A short scream for help somewhere in the distance makes me leap up and rush to the ledge. A group of new zombies runs down the highway, ready to join the hundreds already surrounding the hospital. They all look fresh. Their skin is not yet yellow and decomposed, their eyes look normal, and they can still run. Probably some unlucky survivors who manage to hide for the last few weeks decided to make a stand or dash for escape, or maybe they ran out of food and they became desperate. It didn’t matter, they got bitten and now they were slowly decomposing corpses. I sigh disappointedly and return to my chair. I haven’t seen one single survivor since the outburst started and I doubt I will anytime soon.
The strand of virus that hit the United States was probably the most dangerous. Instead of affecting the spinal nervous system and then spreading to the brain, it worked the other way around. It collapsed the frontal lobe, spread to the temporal lobe, then eventually made its way towards the spinal cord. It eliminated one’s personality and large portions of one’s memory, but left the rest of the brain in almost perfect condition; until it killed you completely, of course.
That was why the virus had managed to spread almost everywhere. The few of us who were prepared, had expected a slow, moaning undead corpse, like the European or African zombie. Instead we got a bunch of people who sounded human, looked human, and killed you without mercy.
All over the country families barricaded themselves in their homes, but instead of a rotten moan they heard cries for help or “Hello, how are you?” They knew from TV that zombies couldn’t talk or knock on the door politely, so they opened the bolted doors. Just like my friend who ignored the bloodstained scrubs and entered the elevator. Those were his colleagues, his fellow doctors, not undead monsters. Why wouldn’t he enter the elevator? By the time you realized you were wrong it was too late and you had someone’s teeth lodged in your arm. Professor Schneiderman would have been proud of my theory, if his brain still allowed him to feel anything at all.
I spent almost two days hiding in the lab, posting on every forum and blog I could find. Slowly refining my hypothesis and trying to warn others about it. Sometimes I received grateful answers. Often, I found more stories that supported my idea. A group of survivors in Oregon saw a police bus trying to save some women who seemed surrounded by zombies; only to get bitten themselves as soon as they stretched their arms trying to help. The women were still crying for help as they bit into the police officer’s flesh. A woman in Colorado saw a man attack a zombie and kill it only so he could eat a corpse himself. There were countless stories going around the internet and I read them with a mix of shock and horror.
I continued posting messages for my girlfriend, but if she ever saw them she never answered and slowly I realized I was alone. By the second day fewer and fewer new posts would pop up on the many zombie survivor forums and more websites wouldn’t load. Scared I asked for advice and one or two survivors scattered around the globe encouraged me to find food and maybe other humans in the hospital.
During the second night, after the last forum I could find on-line went down, I decided to try my luck and leave the room. I had a few candy bars in my backpack but by now I was starving. Besides, the garbage can I used as a toilet stank up the room and I was certain I would get infected soon if I didn’t get fresh air. I printed all the information on survival and how to improvise weapons that I could find. I memorized three pages of best responses in crisis scenarios, and I felt as ready as I was ever going to be. The many forums helped me overcome my shock and the few posts encouraging me to seek help motivated me. I was alive and if I wanted to stay so I needed to act. Looking back, I wish I would have thanked all those strangers while I still could, they probably saved my life.
I had converted a metallic table leg into a club of sorts and I used a garbage can as a shield. Luckily, there was no one on the third floor, and I could make my way into the nearest bathroom. I took back as much water as I could and I broke open the mint dispenser. The next day, I broke a candy machine and twisted my primitive club beyond repair in the process. In a utility room I found a red, metal axe stored among the fire extinguishers. I still thank God for that amazing tool.
Even so, armed with an axe, it took me almost a week to dare visit the lower levels. Now, I know it was foolish to have delayed. If there were any zombies that accidentally found the stairs and smelled me I could have been trapped in my lab until I starved. I had to secure all entrances and clean the building as quickly as I could.
When I finally dared to sneak towards the lower building I only found three zombies. One was a janitor locked inside of a quarantine room. I blocked the door leaving him to scratch the bullet proof glass. Another one was trapped in the vent and only his legs were outside. I gave him a good push and blocked the passage. The third one almost bit me as I was breaking a vending machine open. Luckily, it still retained some of his speech abilities and called out before it attacked me. I turned in time to side step away from him, and he crashed into the wall. He was a big man, probably twice my size, and I was lucky that he had yelled before attacking me. I hacked him to pieces as he screamed bits of unintelligible phrases in a harsh voice. Later I would return to study his decaying tissue and complete my theory but then I just crashed, glad to be alive.
The first floor was the worst, but it was not nearly as bad as I had expected. Later, I found out from the surveillance cameras that most of the zombies had left the building within the first few hours of the outburst. Almost all the tapes showed the same scene: one doctor or nurse collapsing in convulsions, two or three people rushing to help them and being bitten. When there was nothing alive left in the building, the undead wandered outside, searching for more food. I wondered where they would go when there was no more food outside either, but I found that out soon enough.
On the third day after I barricaded the doors on the first floor and secured the basement, the first pack of zombies appeared in the deserted parking lot. They were all doctors or nurses, and they seemed drawn by the building, crashing into its walls in a wave of human flesh. I was curious if they could smell me or if it was the familiar sight of the hospital that made them come back. Ironic that even after dieing, we try to arrive at work in time.
Within a week, I couldn’t tell the doctors from the construction workers, the bankers, the teachers, the prostitutes, and all the other kinds of undead. I could just tell that there were more of them every day. Sometimes they would arrive at night, other times they would just show up in a pack coming down the interstate, like St. John’s Hospital was the holy grail of zombie-hood. I cursed them and threw improvised Molotov’s. I contemplated suicide several times and almost hung myself one cold, clouded morning. But what was the point though? In the end I decided I might as well keep all the moaning undead entertained. Maybe some poor bastard, somewhere else, would be able to make a run for it, as I put on my little distraction, although I had no idea where the hell you would run.
Over the last weeks I managed to isolate the virus and analyze it. I knew almost everything about its biological properties and I developed dozens of theories on how it could have appeared. I watched the zombies gather every day and I probably killed around a thousand. Did it matter at all? Probably not. Anyone who could appreciate the difficulties of my survival was dead anyway. But I did have a perfectly secure building to call my own and I could sunbathe in the nude, drinking Coke and shooting zombies with a homemade crossbow. I was living the modern American Dream, might as well enjoy the blessings of my situation.
I aim at another undead, a fat one with a funny moustache, and I shoot, narrowly missing his frontal lobe but hitting his left eye. He falls, and I take another bottle of Coke. I should probably make another run and get more sodas from the vending machine on the first floor. The sun is still up, and this is going to take a while.
Bio: Alex Moisi is a Romanian born college student, living in Illinois and ignoring real life issues like angry friends and failing classes in favor of post-apocalyptic scenarios and disturbing “What if?”‘s. His work can be found in a few e-zines and on-line at www.dracken.co.nr.