Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Closure, Limited and Other Zombie Stories, Page 3

Max Brooks

  It was getting dark. He’d stop this time before his head hurt too much. Then maybe a few sips of water, and he’d make it an early night. Fred’s thumb found the dog-eared page.

  The Extinction Parade

  We called them subdead, and to us, they were little more than a joke. They are so slow, and clumsy, and stupid. So stupid. We never considered them a threat. And why would we? They had existed beside us, beneath us rather, flaring up like brushfire since the first humanoids left the trees. Fanum Cocidi, Fiskurhofn, we had all heard the stories. One of us had even claimed to be present at Castra Regina, although we mainly considered him a braggart. Through the ages we had witnessed their bumbling eruptions and humanities’ equally bumbling response. They had never been a serious threat, either to us or the solbreeders they devoured. They had always been a joke. And so I laughed again when I heard of a small outbreak in Kampong Raja. Laila had told me about it, on that warm, still night ten years ago.

  ‘This isn’t the first time. Not just this year, I mean.’ Her tone was mildly fascinated, as if discussing any other rare natural phenomenon. ‘Others have been talking, about Thailand, and Cambodia, maybe as far as Burma.’ Again, I laughed, and perhaps said something disparaging about humans, probably wondering how long it would take them to clean up the mess. I didn’t think about it again until a few months later. The whispers hadn’t abated. We were entertaining Anson, a visitor from Australia. He’d come for the ‘sport’ as he called it, a chance to ‘take in the local flavours’. We were both very taken with Anson, he was tall and beauteous and very, very young. He could not remember a time a before voice-wires and metal kites. His unburdened eyes glittered with envious vim.

  ‘They’ve made it to Oz,’ he said with childlike excitement. We were standing on our balcony, watching the Hari Merdeka fireworks blossom over the Petronas Towers. ‘Isn’t that amazing?’ he marvelled, and both of us believed he meant the fireworks. ‘At first I thought they could swim, they can, you know, not in the traditional sense more like waddling under water. But that’s not how they ended up in Queensland. Something about illegal boat people. Nasty business, I hear, all covered up and so forth. I wish I’d had a chance to see some of them! I never have, you know, not ‘in the flesh’.’

  ‘Let’s go tonight!’ Laila chimed in suddenly. I could see that our guest’s enthusiasm had infected her. I started to respond about the distance before dawn, before she cut me off with, ‘No, not there. Right here, tonight! I hear there’s a new flare up just a few hours away near Jerantut. We may have to trek into the bush a ways, but won’t that be half the fun?’ I was curious I admit. Months of rumours and a lifetime of stories had taken their toll. I confessed to them, as I confess to myself now, that I did in fact want to see one ‘in the flesh’.

  It is easy to forget, when you are one of us, how fast the rest of world can move. So much jungle had vanished, in what seemed the blink of an eye, replaced by motorways, tract housing, and mile after mile of palm oil plantations. ‘Progress’, ‘Development’: only last night, it seemed, Laila and I were haunting the rough, unlit streets of a new tin mining town called Kuala Lumpur. And to think I had followed her from Singapore because our previous home had become too ‘civilized’. Now, as our Lexus LSA sped down a river of asphalt and artificial daylight.

  We were not expecting the police roadblock and the police were not expecting us. They did not ask where we were going, or check our identification, or even point out that we had illegally crammed three riders into a two-seat motorcar. He just waved us away, one white-gloved hand pointing down the way we had come, while the other rested shakily on the flap of his holster. I will never forget his scent, or the scent of the other policemen behind him, or of the platoon of soldiers behind them. I had not smelled such concentrated fear since the ’69 race riots. (Oh, what a glorious time that had been.) I could see on Laila’s face how badly she wanted to return to the roadblock after our adventure. She must have seen the same look in me. ‘Careful’, she whispered, as one finger playfully poked my ribs. ‘It’s not safe to drive drunk.’

  We noticed the second smell several minutes later, after pulling off the motorway and returning to the site across the tops of trees. The olfactory impact struck us like a wall, human terror mixed with decaying flesh. A split second later, our ears were assailed with distant gunfire.

  The neighbourhood must have been especially built for the plantation workers. Rows of neat little houses lined broad, newly paved streets. We could see shops, cafeterias, a pair of grade schools and the large Catholic church, now common for our country’s Filipino guest workers. From the top of the church steeple, the highest point in this prefabricated settlement, I could only gawk at the carnage below. The fires caught my attention first, then the blood stains, then the drag marks, then the bullet holes lining several of the houses, many of which looked like their windows and doors had been stoved in by a mob. I noticed the bodies last, perhaps because they’d already cooled. Most of them were lying in pieces, a mélange of limbs, and torsos amongst loose organs and amorphous chunks of flesh. Some corpses remained reasonably intact, and I noticed all had small round holes in the centre of their heads. I reached over to point them out to Laila and noticed that both she and Anson had vacated our rooftop perch. I guessed they must have made for the sounds of shooting.

  For a second I became lost in memory, lulled into nostalgia by the sensory banquet of collective human death. For a moment it was the 1950s again and I was lurking through the jungles in search of human prey. Laila and I still talked fondly of ‘The Emergency’, how we hunted the scent trails of either communist insurgents or commonwealth commandos, how we struck from the shadows while our quarry’s weapons (and bowels) discharged from panic, how we greedily supped upon the last succulent drops from their frantically beating hearts. ‘If only’ we would lament for decades, ‘if The Emergency had lasted’.

  I have heard it said that the more memories one acquires, the less room the mind has for conscious thought. I cannot speak for others, but at my age, after the remembrance of so many lifetimes crammed into my ancient skull, I do suffer from occasional lapses of ‘preoccupation’. It was one of those lapses, lost in the recent past, and unconsciously licking my lips, that I descended from my omniscient perch, rounded the church’s corner and practically collided with one of them. It was a man, or had been one recently. The right side of his body was still smooth and supple. The left side had been badly charred. Dark, viscous fluid oozed from numerous, steaming wounds. The left arm below the elbow had been severed, cleanly, as if from a machine, or more probably, from one of those great hacking knives the workers used to harvest their crops. His left leg dragged slightly, digging a shallow trench behind him. As he lunged forward, I instinctively drew back, crouching for a lethal blow.

  And then came the unexpected. He, it, just slouched slowly right past me. It did not turn in my direction. Its one good eye did not even make contact with mine. I waved my hand in front of its face. Nothing. I stepped beside it and kept pace for several seconds. Nothing. I even went so far as to stand directly in front of it. Not only did the silent brute refuse to halt, but it barrelled into me without even raising its arms. Hitting the sidewalk, I let out an unexpected guffaw as the subdead abomination trod over my body without even taking notice!

  Later I realized how foolish I had been to expect any other reaction. Why should it have recognized me? Was I food? Was I even ‘alive’ in the human sense? These creatures obeyed only their biological imperative, and that imperative drove them to seek out only ‘living’ beings. To its primitive, diseased brain I was practically invisible, an obstacle to be ignored and, at best, avoided. For a second I could only marvel at the absurdity of my situation, giggling like a child as this pathetic obscenity dragged its mangled carcass past me. Then rising to my feet, I withdrew my right arm and swung. I giggled again as the head tore easily from the shoulders, bounced hard against the opposite house, and came to rest at my feet. Its one
working eye continued to move, continued to search and, ridiculously, continued to ignore me. That was the first time I came face to face with what the human solbreeders referred to as a ‘zombie’.

  The following months could be called ‘the nights of denial’. They were the business as usual nights where we tried to ignore the threat growing steadily around us. We talked, or thought, very little about the subdead, and could not be bothered to keep abreast of the news. There were many stories, from both humans and our kind, of subdead risings on every continent. The subdeads were incessant and expanding, but most of all, they were just boring. We always seemed to be bored, such is the price of conditional immortality. ‘Yes, yes, I’ve heard about Paris, and your point being?’ ‘Of course I know about Mexico City, who doesn’t?’ ‘Oh for Hell’s sake are we going to bring up Moscow again?’ For three years we shut our eyes, as the crisis deepened and the humans continued to either die, or turn.

  And in the fourth year, ‘The Nights of Denial’ became what we, ironically called, ‘The Nights of Glory’. That was when general knowledge of the outbreak swept the world, when governments began formally revealing the nature of the crisis to their people. That was when global systems began to erode, when national links closed and national borders collapsed, when minor wars ignited and major riots raged across the world. That was when our kind entered a phase of unbridled, celebratory ecstasy.

  For decades we had complained about the oppressive interconnection of the solbreeders. Railroads and electricity had placed enough pressure on our rapacious nature, to say nothing of the telegraph and the accursed telephone! Recently however, with the rise of both terrorism and telecommunications, it seemed as if every wall was now made of glass. As we’d once left Singapore, now Laila and I had recently been considering moving from the Malay Peninsula altogether. We’d discussed Sarawak or perhaps even Sumatra, anywhere the lights of knowledge hadn’t yet burned away our dark corners of freedom. Now our exodus seemed unnecessary, as those lights began thankfully dimming.

  For the first time in years, we could hunt without fear of cellphones or surveillance cameras. We could hunt in packs, and even linger over our struggling repasts. ‘I’d almost forgotten what pure night looks like,’ Laila had once gushed during a blackout hunt, ‘oh what a delicious seasoning is chaos.’ Those nights still found us deeply grateful for the subdead, and the liberating distraction they wrought.

  One memorable night found Laila and I scaling the balconies of the Coronade Hotel. Below us, on Sultan Ismail Street, government troops thrust lances of tracer fire towards a horde of approaching cadavers. It was an intriguing spectacle, so much concentrated military might; grinding, pounding, pulverizing, yet still not eradicating the subdead. At one point we were forced to leap to the flat roof portion of the Sugei Wang Plaza (no small feat), as the shockwave of an aerial bomb brought a rain of glass from the hotel’s windows. It was a fortuitous decision, because the Plaza’s roof happened to be crammed with several hundred refugees. I gathered, from the opened food containers and dry water bottles, that the poor wretches must have been trapped there for some time. They smelled unwashed and exhausted, and so deeply, seductively afraid.

  I remember little else, save flashes of violence and the backs of fleeing prey. I remember the girl, however. She must have been from the countryside, so many were flooding the cities in those days. Did her parents believe they were seeking shelter? Did she even have parents anymore? Her scent lacked none of the modern urban dwellers impurities, no ingested hormones or intoxicants, or even the cumulative stench of pollution. I relished her delectable purity, and later cursed myself for lingering with anticipation. She jumped without hesitation, without so much as a yelp. I watched per plunge directly into the groaning, writhing horde.

  The subdead moved like a machine, a slow, deliberate mechanism with the sole purpose of transforming a shrieking human child into a mass of unrecognizable pulp. I remember her chest heaving its last breath, her eyes staring up at me with a last twinkle of recognition, before they were extinguished in a sea of hands and teeth.

  In my youth I’d listened to an old occidental reminisce about the fall of Western Rome, and gnashed my teeth with envy at his experience of that empire’s demise. ‘Half a civilization burned,’ he boasted, ‘half a continent submerged in a millennium of anarchy.’ I would salivate, literally, at his stories of hunting the lawless lands of Europe. ‘It was liberation the likes you Asian’s have never, and I fear, will never see!’ How solid his prediction had seemed that short decade ago. Now it rang as hollow as the shell of our crumbling society.

  I am not sure when ecstasy gave way to anxiety. It would be difficult to trace that exact moment. For me, personally, it came from Ngyuen, an old friend from Singapore. Both highly educated and naturally intelligent, he was Vietnamese by descent and had spent enough time in Paris to become a student of French existentialism. This might explain why he never succumbed to the capricious pleasure-seeking so common for our race. It might also explain why he was, to my knowledge, the first to sound the alarm.

  We had met in Penang. Laila and I had been forced to vacate KL when an unchecked, daylight fire threatened to engulf our entire block. Several of our kind had recently been lost that way. We hadn’t fully understood how comfortable our life had become in recent times, constricted yes, but also extremely comfortable. Most of us had long abandoned the notion of fortified nests. They had gone the way of the torch and the pitchfork. Most of us now lived as solbreeders, in comfortable and, in some cases, opulent urban palaces.

  Anson had lived in one of those palaces, in a glittering tower far above Sydney harbour. Like the rest of our world, his city had degenerated into subdead induced bedlam. Like the rest of our race, his appetite had succumbed to bloody bacchanalian bliss. From what we heard he had retired one morning to his high rise alcazar, just as the Australian government gave permission to use military force. No one is sure how his building collapsed. We’d heard theories ranging from stray artillery fire, to demolitions detonated far beneath the city streets. We hoped that poor Anson had been atomized in the explosion, or else quickly immolated in morning sun. We shunned the image of him pinned beneath thousands of tons of debris, tortured by pinpricks of sunlight as his life force slowly drained away.

  Nguyen had almost suffered a similar fate. He had had the good sense to flee Singapore the night before a solbreeder offensive. That evening he had watched from across the Johor Straits as his homeland of over three centuries burned. He had also had the presence of mind to bypass the crucible of KL and make his way to the new solbreeder ‘Security Zone’ of Penang. Millions of refugees were inundating the several hundred square kilometres of urbanized coastline. With them trickled dozens of our kind, some from as far away as Dhaka. We had managed to ‘acquire’ several restricted domiciles of our own, removing the previous human owners and guarding against future squatters. What our new homes lacked in comfort they made up for in security. At least, that is what we told ourselves as the situation deteriorated and swarms of subdead moved steadily closer to Penang. It was in one of these domiciles, after a night of hunting the nearby refugee camps, that Nguyen first voiced his concern.

  ‘I’ve done the math,’ he said anxiously, ‘my calculations are disturbing.’ At first I didn’t know what he was talking about. The older generation have deplorable social skills. The more they retreated into their memories, the harder it was to communicate. ‘Famine, disease, suicide, interspecies murder, combat casualties and, of course, subdead infection.’ My puzzled expression must have been obvious. ‘The humans!’ He hissed impatiently at me. ‘We’re losing them! The slouching filth is slowly exterminating them.’

  Laila laughed. ‘They’ve always been trying to do that, and humans have always put them down.’

  Nguyen shook his head angrily. ‘Not this time! Not in this shrunken world we live in. There were more humans than there had ever been! There were travel and trade networks that linked these humans as neve
r before! That’s how the plague spread so rapidly and so far! The humans have created a world of historic contradictions. They have been erasing physical distances while at the same time erecting social-emotional ones.’ He sighed angrily at our blank expressions. ‘The more humans have extended their reach across the planet, the more they desired to withdraw within themselves. As the shrinking world created a higher level of material prosperity, they have used that prosperity to insulate themselves from one another. That is why, when the plague began to spread, there was no global, or even national call to arms! That is why governments worked in relative secret, and in vain, while their populations busied themselves with petty personal concerns! The average solbreeder didn’t see what was happening until it was too late! And it is ALMOST too late! I’ve done the math! The homo sapiens are close to their sustainable tipping point. Soon there’s going to be more subdead than living humans!’

  ‘And so what?’ I’ll never forget those words, or the casual, inconvenienced way Laila sighed them. ‘So what if there’ll be a few less solbreeders? Like you said, if they’re too selfish and stupid to stop the subdead from hunting them, then why the hell should we care?’

  Nguyen looked as if the sun had risen in Laila’s eyes. ‘You don’t get it,’ he rasped. ‘You really haven’t made the connection.’ He paused for a second, retreating several steps and searching the room as if he’d dropped the right words somewhere on the carpet. ‘We’re not talking about ‘a few less solbreeders’, we’re talking about all of them! ALL OF THEM!’