I entered the studio apartment, flicked on the lights, and turned on her oven. I was still drunk, but needed to maintain, so I opened the bottle of wine and set it on the coffee table in front of the black velvet couch that sat beneath heavy draped windows letting in little of the overcast day. The microwave dinged and she stepped out, steam coming off her body as she stood in the center of the room, a dead look on the face of my zombie whore. It took a minute for her to cool down from the microwave, so I grabbed two glasses from atop the dresser next to the bed and poured them half full. I sat on the bed, balancing her glass on top of the thick umber comforter that contrasted with the gray walls, and I unbuttoned my uniform jacket, letting out a deflating breath, wincing a bit. I took the pillbox from my pocket and washed two capsules down with the wine.
“Come here,” I said. She walked toward me and I handed her her glass. I ran my hand over her small breasts, her soft, bone white, death perfect skin. Except for the small stiches under her ribs on her left. I’d done that. I’d come home drunk a few months after they took my wife and son, replacing them with a forever perfect zombie. I wanted to see if she felt anything. I stabbed her repeatedly. She never even winced. When I sobered up I was disgusted with myself. It was something they would do, the Revenants. She was as much a victim as any of us. Maybe even a victim of mine. I’d sent thousands like her to Processing over the years.
I’d begged the Magnate to repair her. He did, calling in a French mortician from the Xombyne Corporation. He sewed her up with fine nearly invisible stitches. The dead can’t heal, but the repairs looked like pale little scars, and the stitching had never popped.
I don’t come here much, this apartment or the City. I’m at the front most of the time, capturing humans to Process, dropping frozen berserkers for the Spring thaw to flank the Tribes as we pushed from below.
“Yes,” she said.
I set down my glass, took hers and pulled her to me turning us around, tossing her on the bed. I took in her perfect dead body, appreciating it one more time before they came for me. I wasn’t scared. I was too drunk for fear. They’d come to arrest me, to bring me to the Magnate for my punishment. I was counting on it.
“You are so beautiful,” I said. “So perfect. Forever.”
“Here, have a sip of wine.” I picked up my glass and handed it to her.
“I will just have to throw it up later.”
“Come, we are celebrating. I’ve come all this way to see you. Drink. I command it.”
She took a sip.
“You like it?”
“I don’t like anything.”
“Say, ‘it’s delightful.’”
“Yes, it is.” I caressed her face and stared into her unblinking pale eyes. “Kiss me.” She did.
“Touch me.” She did.
“You’re sweaty,” she said.
“Yes, well, it was a long journey.” I fished out a handkerchief and wiped my forehead, soaking it in one pass. “The front is far North, now. We’ve had a big victory up there.”
“Is that what you’re celebrating?”
“Yes. To victory.” I took my glass from her and sipped. “Tonight, you are free. After they take me away, walk around the city. Enjoy yourself.”
“But, I can’t. I cannot enjoy.”
“I know. But try. Choose a place you’ve wanted to go.”
“I do not want.”
“They took want from me when they turned me.”
“Well, think of something. I command you to want something.”
She was quiet for a second. “Nothingness. Oblivion. Destruction. For me to end.”
“I know death. I desire nothingness.”
“Dramatic. Okay, well, then, I command you to walk around the city. Talk to people. Tell them to celebrate. Give away kisses. In fact kiss all you see.”
“Who is coming for you?” she asked.
“To arrest me. Treason, sedition, disobeying orders. But don’t worry about that now. We are celebrating. Drink.”
She took a sip and I joined her, watching her move with a smooth mechanical grace, freezing when she stopped. She never blinked.
The survivors of the Turning, the near apocalypse, reigned in the zombie hordes, turning them into a renewable energy source and perfecting the art of zombification. They could leave in just what they wanted, take just what they wanted. Only Revenants retained all their faculties, though they too changed as time went on.
Revenant, ghoul, dybbuk, zombie, berserk, slag. There’s real no difference between terms. They describe the hierarchy of will and consciousness displayed by the dead, with the Revenants at the top. The rest were various levels of slave, caused by alterations to the body during the turning process.
There was a pounding at the door. They’d arrived.
“Coming!” I pulled her close. “May all your wants come true.” I got up, chugged my wine, and buttoned up my jacket. “Get dressed, dear. And remember, I command you to go out and celebrate, as much as you can.”
I opened the door and Addington was there with two blank faced pales, the one on the left had a manacle grafted to his wrist instead of a hand. Addington, the human Commander of Interior Security, was red-faced and looked squeezed in his black uniform.
“Jakob,” he said.
My zombie walked up, wearing but a slip, reaching out to kiss Addington. One of the slags pinned her to the door jamb.
“Later, my dear, after I leave,” I said. She relaxed and the pales eased off.
Addington stared at me for a second, and flicked a wrist at the other zombie bailiff.
“Commandar Carranza,” he said in a dead monotone voice. “You are hereby under arrest and charged with Treason, under the Magnate’s Decree, Section 18.235, owing allegiance to the Lord Magnate, you have levied war against or adhered to an enemy, giving aid and comfort, and have been decreed guilty by He Who Gives life, and shall suffer his whim.”
The zombie before me unhinged his manacle-hand.
“There’ll be no need for that,” I said.
“Are you fucking crazy?” He’d rolled up the partition window between us and the slags in front of the limo. “Retreating a whole division? Deserting your command?”
“I did not desert. I withdrew. There’s no more need to be there.”
“You mean besides your orders?”
“We can make peace with the North now.”
He shook his head. “Jesus, what are you talking about?”
“See, they’re in our thoughts, our language.”
“‘Jesus.’ Biggest zombie of them all.”
He stared at me. “You’re drunk.”
He shook his head. “They weren’t expecting you to come back.”
“I made no secret of it.”
“They thought you’d run.”
“Where? Across the sea to the Eastern Hordes? To Europe and the Xombyne Corp.? South to the Families? The dead are everywhere. Running’s no good.”
“We agreed to a timeline. The other Commanders– We cannot protect you.”
“Timeline! You bastards would wait forever, getting fat while they continued to breed us to stock the energy fields or make us into berserkers or butlers or janitors or whores or slags. Whatever little puppet they want. And we just wait. We’re zombies already. They trade us between the Magnates. We’re currency.” I could feel sweat trickling down my back, collecting under my ass. My head swam a bit, but I felt no pain.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Never felt better.”
“Why now, Jakob?”
“I’m through. I’ve given all I can. There’s nothing else they can take from me.”
“They’ll find something.”
I looked out the window and saw people on the streets, living, breathing.
It was easy to keep your head down. The Magnates provided for everything, kept a chicken in every pot. Ecologically, we weren’t in competition. The mindless zombies who turned cranks and turbines turning eldritch energy into electricity, weren’t fed human flesh anymore. They yearned for it, but didn’t need it. They didn’t all last forever. There were some slags from the Turning still in the fields. But, some fell apart weeks after arriving, eaten from the inside by maggots. The fields were constantly dusted with pesticides and salt. Every year whole crops were lost to infestation, and the Magnates restocked from their chattel. Zombies averaged about 30 years in the fields.
Only the Revenants ate humans. But there were few of them, and they knew not to overfeed. They needed us, desperately. The Revenants, though they portray themselves as gods to the masses, were vain and fragile, fearing their looks would be marred by decomposition and wounds that could not heal. They rarely left their compounds. The early ones were patchworks of stitches and skin grafts. We exist as their officers, engineers, scientists, artists, entertainers, painters, and inventors. They lost their imagination, either from zombification or from age. Many had outlived curiosity and dreams and existed only to control.
We entered the drive up to the Magnate’s estate, a sprawling complex that had been built by humanity subjugated and the dead reanimated shortly after the Turning.
“What was your friend’s name?” I asked. “Your lover? The one they took from you.”
He paused, looking out the window. “Joseph. They said I had to have kids. They gave me Alyssa. We did.”
“And they took her from you as well, yes? And your kids? And replaced her with a zombie whore?”
“No. They gave Joseph back to me. After they turned him.”
“They try to make us love them.”
“No,” he said. “I don’t think they even care.”
We entered the Main House. I’d been there a number of times, mostly for military briefings. Once when they inducted a new Revenant. Once to watch the zombification of Commander Meyers and his staff, who’d attempted a coup 10 years ago. Everything looked exactly the same. The same silent tuxedoed butler, his movements crisp and precise despite having his eyes and lips sewn shut. The same collection of Pseudo-Hellenistic Post-Life sculpture (zombie warriors, kings, queens, and gods). The same marble floor that spread across a lobby big enough to be a hangar. The artwork was dwarfed by the three-story floor-to-ceiling windows. Every boot hit echoed into the susurrus of a room that large.
The butler walked us down the center of the lobby and then turned sharply to a set of doors in the right wall. He opened them to reveal a Revenant banquet.
A small dead boy in a pink and black blazer and shorts sang arias over the soft groans of a man strapped to the large granite dinner table. A blinded servant cut into his thigh, just below the tourniquet, carving a juicy slice for the Magnate’s plate. They had already eaten the man’s right calf and left arm. He tried to scream as the servant cut another serving off of him, but his voice was weak.
The room reeked of raw meat and shit.
The table sat under a large stained glass window depicting Zombie-Christ with his empty sockets, tatters of flesh-colored glass hanging from his putrefying skull-face, surrounded by zombie angels casting humans from the Garden. The Magnate sat at the head of the table that was held up by sculptures of humans crushed under the weight of the stone top, while two sleek Dobermans gnawed discarded human bones.
The Magnate was one of the original survivors of the Turning, he’d been an old man when he died. He’d lost his right arm to the zombie hordes, replacing it with a gold clockwork limb that ticked as he moved. He’d been turned before they’d perfected zombification, and his mouth was a permanent gaping smile, gray leathery skin stretched taught over bones and his stricken eyes hidden behind thick sunglasses. To his right sat Lady Amalia do Cambro, Revenant emissary from Xombyne in Europe, who was a study in contrast to the Magnate: raven hair, long thin arms, supple white skin, graceful neck, soft smile. A sculpture of proportions. The pinnacle of zombification. I didn’t recognize the other two pales.
The human commanders were standing beneath the window next to a blinded servant with a zombification cart: an assortment of drills, vials, syringes, straps, and knives. They had been gathered to watch my punishment. Addington joined them.
Yarborough stood at the Magnate’s shoulder until he saw us and came over. He was a tall thin ghoul, the Magnate’s chief of staff. He wore a form fitting black suit, a jeweled obsidian pistol at his side.
“Commander,” Yarborough said in his raspy voice. “Nice of you to come back to the City. We’ve been anxious to speak to you.”
“And I to you, ghoul.”
He clasped my arm in a steel grip and brought me to the Magnate’s side.
The boy finished his piece and they all clapped.
Their meal groaned.
“I applaud the ingenuity of the Italians,” the Magnate said around a mouthful of flesh. “They knew the value of culling their flock, of cutting the balls off little boys, retaining the purity of youth. If only they could have heard a dead child sing. Castrati grow fat and old, eventually dying. We’ve defeated time. How old are you, Armand?”
“I was ten, Magnate, when I was turned,” the little boy said. “I am nearly sixty, now, Lord.”
“You hear that, Amalia? He’s older than you.”
“And a better singer. Though I can see over a steering wheel.”
The Magnate waved his hand as the entourage laughed politely. “What do you know about steering wheels? When was the last time you drove yourself anywhere?”
“Touché, Magnate,” she smiled.
“Ah, Yarborough, I see our guest has arrived.”
“Magnate,” Yarborough said, taking a deep bow. I bowed slightly. “I present Commander Carranza.”
“Commander, would care for something to eat, drink?” He gestured to a bowl of human ears the Revenants were snaking on like chips.
“Perhaps some whiskey.” I produced my kerchief and wiped my neck.
The Magnate snapped a finger and the blinded butler walked over to the wet bar near the commanders, pouring me two fingers of whiskey.
“Have a seat, Commander.” He gestured to a seat at the far end, his arm tick-tocking. “So, tell me, what have you done with my army?”
“I have returned it to you.” I took the glass from the butler and drained it. I started coughing. I put all I could into it, turning it into a fit. I finished and my heart was pounding so hard I felt like it was knocking air from my lungs. “Pardon me, Magnate. Went down the wrong way. The trains carrying the army should’ve arrived days ago. Along with a generous crop for Processing, these past few weeks.”
“Yes, we received them. I meant: what did you do to my war? What’s this about peace?”
“Lord, I was able to secure a peace with the Tribes.”
“Commander, perhaps you don’t understand what the war is about. It’s not about peace. It’s about bodies. We need more for the power fields, more stock for replacements.”
“Yes, lord. That is your goal.”
One of the pales raised his eye brows.
The Magnate’s sunglasses set on me.
“You know I’ll just send the army back. You think this will slow things? Long enough to convince me of peace? Or have you always desired to be one of my dead soldiers? A berserk, perhaps?”
“No, Magnate. I knew you would send the army back and continue the war, but there was no more reason for humans to fight your war.”
“Why’s that, Commander?”
“Because we’ve won.”
“Not you, Magnate. We humans. We’ve destroyed you.”
The Lady Cambro locked eyes with me.
“What are you saying, Commander?”
“You don’t putrefy. Your cells don’t auto-lyse. But if you lose too much mass, dissolution, which is why you can’t replace all your tissue with synthetics or too much preservative. Once we started dissecting zombies–”
“My overseers, my ghouls–”
“We dissected them first. We Commanders cracked your cyphers long ago.” I heard one of the humans curse my name. The pales turned and stared the living. “We fed you what you wanted to hear, all the while cultivating and weaponizing this little thing called necrotizing fasciitis. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? Flesh-eating-bacteria. It doesn’t really eat flesh, per se, just converts cellular material into a putrefying exotoxins–”
“You think we haven’t encountered this before?”
“Not aerosolized. Nasty little thing. It spreads like fire through dead flesh. Putrefying it, liquifying it. Most of the living can resist the infection, with active immune systems, which you dead no longer posses.”
“You can’t think this will stop us.”
“Perhaps not. Which is why I returned to you an infected army. And the humans I sent to Central Processing this last week. The living who become infected will putrefy, never to be reanimated. But before they die, they become perfect little weapons factories, sending aerosolized bacteria into the air with each breath, each cough.”
I met the Magnates gaze and gave him a cough. The ghoul grabbed the collar of my shirt and jacket and ripped my uniform open. There were probably gasps or hisses, I don’t recall, taking a moment to catch my breath as everyone stared at the necrotic flesh mottling my chest. I looked up and the Lady was in the corner. The Commanders started to move. The Magnate stood. “I’ve ended you.”
“You’ve ended nothing!”
The Magnate moved faster than I expected, suddenly at the ghoul’s side, unholstering the jeweled obsidian pistol. He shot, punching a wet hole into the infected area. I expect he shot me a number of times after I died.