Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Closure, Limited and Other Zombie Stories, Page 4

Max Brooks

  Now the entire room turned in Nguyen’s direction, although his burning, accusing eyes stabbed directly into Laila’s. ‘The sapiens are fighting for their very survival! And they are losing!’ He then spread his arms dramatically, drawing a semicircle of emptiness. ‘And when the last one of them vanishes, what in hell’s name are you or I or any of our race going to live on!?!?’ Silence answered Nguyen. His eyes swept the assembled group. ‘Have none of you thought beyond tonight’s feeding? Do any of you comprehend what it means to have another organism compete with us for our one and only source of food!??!’

  At that point I ventured a timid response, something on the order of ‘but the subdead have to stop eventually. They have to know...’

  ‘They don’t know ANYTHING!’ Nguyen cut me off. ‘And you KNOW that! You KNOW the difference between their kind and ours! We hunt humans! They consume humanity! We are predators! They are a plague! Predators know not to overhunt, or overpopulate! We know to always leave one egg in the nest! We know that survival depends on maintaining the balance between ourselves and our prey! A disease doesn’t know that! A disease will grow and grow until it’s infected the entire host! And if killing that host means killing itself in the process, so be it! A disease has no concept of restraint or notion of tomorrow! It cannot grasp the long term consequences of its actions, and neither can the subdead! We can! But we don’t! We’ve been condoning it! We’ve been CELEBRATING it! For the last few years we’ve been blithely dancing in a parade to our own extinction!

  I could see that Laila was becoming agitated. Her eyes locked on Nguyen with a predatory gaze while her thin lips curled back around her fangs. ‘There will be more solbreeders,’ she said in a soft, almost hissing voice, ‘there will always be more!’

  And that became the conventional wisdom. From the historical, ‘when have humans not risen to the challenge of the subdead?’ to the pragmatic, ‘yes, the present global human socioeconomic system might disintegrate but not the humans themselves’ or the humorous, ‘as long as humans keep fornicating with abandon, there will always be more’. From the dismissive to the confrontational, so many of our people clung to the same desperate argument, ‘there will always be more’. Desperate is the only adjective that describes this new phase of our existence. As the subdead continued to multiply, as they surged over one human stronghold after another, the argument of ‘there will always be more’ became more insistent, more dogmatic, more desperate.

  And yet it was not the disciples of ‘more’ that troubled my daylight sleep so deeply. It was those who thought as I did, who began to follow Nguyen’s logic and ‘do the math’ for themselves. Humanity was indeed reaching its collective tipping point. The subdead had sparked a chain reaction, just as our Vietnamese sage had predicted. Every night the corpses stacked higher in Penang’s streets and hospitals and makeshift refugee camps. Malnutrition, sickness, suicide, and murder followed, and the subdead had not even reached our zone.

  We knew there would not, could not ‘always be more,’ but then what was to be done? ‘To be done’; the question at first seemed so alien. I could barely ask myself, let alone query others. Now that we were facing an apocalyptic threat, wouldn’t the logical conclusion be to prevent it? Of course it would for anyone but a race of passive parasites.

  We were like fleas watching our host dog fight for its life, never considering that we might have the power to aid it. We had always looked down on solbreeders as a so-called ‘inferior race’. And yet that race, confronted daily with its own weakness and mortality, had taken destiny by the throat. While we skulked in the shadows, they had studied and sweated and changed the face of their world. And it was their world, not ours. We’d never felt any ownership of our ‘host’ civilization, no need to contribute, and hell forbid, fight for it in any way. While the great metamorphoses, the wars and migrations and epic revolutions, passed before our eyes, we craved only blood and safety and habitual relief from ennui. Now, as the course of history threatened to carry us into the abyss, we remained shackled by near genetic paralysis.

  These revelations are, naturally, the harvest of hindsight. They were not so lucid as I stalked my hunting ground that night at Temenggor lake. The human barricade in the 4 Motorway was their latest breakwater against the surging tide of subdead. What was left of the military garrison had erected some makeshift fortifications but refrained from destroying the bridge. They must have still clung to the idea of reclaiming the far bank. The central island was designated as a ‘quarantine’ zone, the former nature preserve now overrun with ‘detainees’. Our kind found it to be the ideal location for stalking some unsuspecting refugee who’d strayed too far from the others. That night ran red with gluttony. I had already fed on two previous refugees before purging my body and searching for a third. Such acts had previously been unheard of among our people, now it was becoming commonplace. Perhaps it was some misguided means of overcompensation, an unconscious need to exert control over our situation. I am still uncertain of the deeper motives. From a conscious, emotional perspective, I can claim all trace of enjoyment had evaporated from my hunts. Now rage was all I felt for my victims, rage and irrational contempt. My kills were becoming unnecessarily painful. I found myself mutilating my victims’ bodies, even taunting them in the moment before death.

  I once went so far as to cripple the target with a blow to the head, but left him conscious enough to hear my words. ‘Why don’t you do something?’ I mocked, my face inches from his. He was old and foreign and could not understand my language. ‘Go ahead!’ I snarled, ‘Do something!’ It became a psychotic mantra, ‘Do something, do something, DO SOMETHING!’ Recalling it now, I suspect ‘Do something’ was less a provocation, than a masked cry for help. ‘Please do something’ was what I should have said, ‘Your species has the tools and the will! Please do something! Find a solution that will save both our races! Please do something! While there’s enough of you! While there’s still time! Do something! DO SOMETHING!’

  That night by Temenggor lake, I was too blood drunk to commit such acts on my latest feast. The haggard wretch was equally incapacitated, only her condition was mental. Many of the refugees were suffering from what the humans referred to as ‘shell shock’. Many of their bodies had survived beyond their minds’ limitations. The horrors they witnessed, the losses they endured, many of their psyches had simply melted into oblivion. The woman I fed on had as much recognition of my presence as the subdead. As I opened her veins, she gave what could only have been a small sigh of relief.

  I remember how repulsive her blood had tasted on my tongue, thin and starving and tainted with the cumulative residue released from self-digested cellulite. I considered rejecting her mid-consumption and searching for a fourth victim. Suddenly I became distracted by a cacophony of screams and moans, louder than before, and coming from the western side of the bridge.

  The subdead had broken through. I saw it the moment I stepped out of the jungle. The human barrier of overturned cars and debris was swarming with carnivorous automatons. Whether the defenders had run short of bullets or courage, I did not know. All I saw were humans in full retreat before the swarm. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of the creatures surged over the barricade, crushing their brethren that had formed a ramp of compressed flesh.

  I sprang up onto the bridge, calling for Laila in the pitch only detectable by our species. No answer came. I scanned the fleeing human multitude, hoping to discern her deep amber aura against bright pink human mob. Nothing. She was gone, nothing but the frantic solbreeders and the surging, howling subdead. That was the first time I felt it, an emotion so powerful and so long forgotten. It was not anxiety, I had become all too familiar with that sensation. Anxiety is the fruit of potential harm; fire or sunlight, or a new substrain of biomechanical doom. This was not anxiety. This was not conscious thought. This was primal and instinctual and it gripped me like an invisible claw. This was something I had not felt since my heart had stopped beating so many centuries ago. Thi
s was a human emotion. This was fear.

  It is a curious thing to be a spectator to your own actions. I remember every tear, every punch, every second of violence as I tore into the subdead horde. Ten, eleven, twelve skulls imploding, necks cleaving... Fifty-seven, fifty-eight spines shattering, brains rupturing, one hundred and forty-five, one hundred and forty-six... I counted each one, as the hours stretched and corpses mounted. Driven was the only word that describes my actions that night, operating without will, as a daybreeder would one of their great machines. Driven without inhibition or pause, until another hand grasped mine. I recoiled, drawing to strike, and found my eyes staring into Laila’s.

  Her hands were shaking, slick and black with subdead putrefaction. Her eyes burned with animal exhilaration. ‘Look!’ she growled, referring to the hundreds of silent, mutilated mounds before us. Nothing stirred, save a few severed, snapping heads. Laila lifted her foot above one of the air-gnawing skulls and brought it down with a guttural grunt. ‘We did this,’ she exclaimed, the realization mounting within both our chests, ‘WE did this!’ Panting for the first time in centuries, she waved her hand over the distant barricade, and the next wave of subdead now traversing it. ‘More.’ Her whispers grew into roars, ‘More. More! MORE!’

  We lay dying for the next few days. How could we have known that subdead fluid was so lethal. The micro fissures of close combat, the deep immersion in their virulent corruption. After a night of over a thousand slain, we appeared destined to be the final casualties. ‘At least you fed before,’ said Nguyen, as he came to our darkened sanctuary. ‘I have discovered the sapiens’ blood is the only antidote to your contamination.’ He had brought with him two meals, a male and a female, both bound and struggling and screaming against their gags. ‘I considered silencing them,’ he said, ‘but I chose purity over convenience.’ He then held the females’ neck to my lips. ‘The influx of adrenaline will only hasten your recovery.’

  ‘Why?’ I asked, surprised at Nguyen’s generosity. Selfishness was a common trait among our people, both in material possessions and blood. ‘Why save these morsels for us? Why not...’

  ‘You’re both famous,’ he announced with almost youthful giddiness, ‘What you did on the bridge, what both of you accomplished... you’ve inspired our race!’

  I could see Laila’s eyes widen as she greedily fed on the male. Before either of us could speak, Nguyen continued with, ‘Well, you’ve inspired our race in Penang. Who knows what anyone of either species is doing outside this safe zone. But we’ll sort that out later. Right now the critical fact is that you showed us what is possible! You showed us a solution, an escape! Now we can all strike back together! Some others have already started! These past three nights at least a dozen have leapt beyond the human defences, and have penetrated deep into the heart of the approaching mega swarms. Thousands of subdead have fallen! Millions more will follow!’

  I don’t know if it was Nguyen’s words or the rush of human blood, but my thoughts sank quickly into numbing euphoria.

  ‘You saved us!’ he cooed in both our ears. ‘You have declared war.’

  And the war began with many of our kind following the example that Laila and I had set on Lake Temmengor. At least we had learned from our near fatal mistake of exposure, and either sheathed our hands in gloves or else bound them with impermeable material. Some of our kind learned to fight entirely with their feet, developing what I suppose the solbreeders call a ‘martial art’. These ‘skull dancers’ carried themselves high above the flailing arms of the subdead, leaping and crushing as if on a sea of eggshells. It was graceful and deadly and while not particularly important to our war effort, it was also one of the few aspects of our culture that anyone could claim was truly ours.

  Unfortunately every skull dancer was matched by an equal number of ‘emulators’, those of our kind who chose to arm themselves as solbreeders. The emulators wielded human inventions; firearms, blades or bludgeons. Their argument being that such implements were more ‘efficient’ than our bare bodies. Many chose their weapons based on the era, or the geography of their previous lives. It was not uncommon to see former Chinese brandishing a broad, double handed dadao or former Malay carrying the traditional Keris Sundang. One night in the Cameron Highlands, I actually observed a former occidental rapidly firing and reloading a rusted ‘Brown Bess’ flintlock musket. ‘Some talk of Alexander, and some of Hercules’, he sang with motions so quick they matched the speed of a modern day automatic rifle, ‘of Hector and Lysander and such great names as these!’ As impressive as the spectacle was, I could only wonder at his remaining supply of powder and shot. Where on Earth had he acquired either? For that matter where did any of them attain their particular implements, and how much time did they waste attaining them? How truly ‘efficient’, or simply some subconscious emotional need to reconnect with the proactive hearts that once beat within them?

  I believe the latter lay at the centre of another, even more fanatical emulator clique. We dubbed these imbeciles the ‘militarized emulators’ as they organized themselves into quasi-human ‘strike teams’. They bestowed ranks and designations upon themselves, even creating protocol such as salutes and secure passwords. Within a month, several of these ‘strike teams’ had sprouted in and around Penang.

  The most notable was ‘Field Marshal Peng’ (not his real name) and his ‘Army of the Blood Line.’

  ‘The plan for victory is being finalized as we speak,’ he told me one night while gesturing to a map of Southeast Asia. Laila and I had been curious enough to pay a visit to the ‘Field Marshal’, hoping that he might very well have the answer to our precarious predicament. Twenty minutes at ‘SAC HQ’ cured us of that hope. From what we could tell, the army consisted of half a dozen members, all clustered around a collection of human maps and human satellite radios and human books on everything military. They all looked quite resplendent in their gold-trimmed, black uniforms, complete with blood red berets and even matching human, and I write this without jest, sunglasses. More impressive than their appearance were their proficient debating skills. ‘Static Defence’, ‘Choke Point’, ‘Search and Destroy,’ and ‘Clear, Hold and Build’, were just a few of the terms we caught amidst the flurry of verbal clashes. The ‘Marshal’ must have noticed our glances over his shoulder, and our reactions to his ‘Strategic Operations Staff’.

  ‘The final blow needs to be decisive,’ he said confidently, smiling and nodding in his staff’s direction. ‘Therefore, let a hundred flowers bloom. Let a hundred schools contend.’

  ‘If only we had a hundred of anything,’ sighed Laila as we dismissed the ‘Army of the Blood Line’ and the ‘Bare Fang Militia’, and the ‘Noctactical Wing’ and the handful of other militarized emulator bands who barely stopped a few raindrops of the raging subdead storm.

  Numbers continued to be our enemies’ greatest asset, numbers in both bodies and hours. How many of the latter found our kind feeding, resting, or just cowering from the rays of the sun? Could any of this be said for the other side? As we retreated with each sunrise, those decaying carcasses continued to advance, kill and multiply. For every swarm we obliterated, the following night saw instant replacements. For every kilometre we cleansed in darkness, the new light brought renewed infestation. Despite all our vaunted physical strengths, despite our supposed ‘superior’ intelligence, despite the overwhelming advantage of not even being noticed by our adversaries, we fought as hapless gardeners in the face of an overwhelming blight.

  One faction might have been able to improve our situation, and they called themselves the Sirenes. These courageous individuals took it upon themselves to seek out our kind all over the world, and rally them to Penang for the sake of a coordinated effort. The Sirenes believed that only a true army of our kind, massing in the hundreds and concentrating at one specific location, could eventually begin to purge our planet. I applauded their efforts, but had little confidence in their success. With the breakdown of global transport, how were any
us going to travel farther than a few dozen, or perhaps hundred miles before the next dawn? Even if they found shelter from the sun each morning, could the same be said for nourishment? Could they really be expected to ‘live off the land’, hoping to stumble upon some isolated human outpost every night? Even if some Sirenes succeeded in contacting more of us, how could they convince them that Penang was any safer than their present location? How was a mass exodus to Penang even possible? One of our kind trekking across the globe was next to impossible. How could a supposed ‘Army’? Against all logic, I never lost hope that one night would see a ship appear off our cost, or an aircraft (as if any of us ever learned to fly) suddenly swoop out of the sky. Through all my nights of combat, I continued to fantasize that suddenly hundreds of us would suddenly materialize out of the night. I had seen similar scenes from human history, places like Stalingrad and the Elbe River, images of handshakes and embraces, icons of renewed hope and ultimate victory. These icons haunted my fitful rest, tantalizing and tormenting as I waited in vain for the Sirenes.

  There were other possibilities, options that might have meant our salvation but only at the cost of sacrilege. Our race had no ‘religion’ in the spiritual, daybreeder sense of the word. Similarly we carried no complex code of moral conduct. Our allegiance lay in only two inviolate taboos.

  The first was to create only one other in our own image. It was the reason time had failed to expand our population. While never discussed, this silent commandment must have had its roots in the predator’s notion of balance. As Nguyen had said, it would have been impossible to leave one egg in the nest if too many predators walked the earth. It was logical and reasonable, and the rise of the subdead, in fact, affirmed that notion of balance. But when faced with impending triumph of the subdead, could we have not, perhaps this once, slightly modifies our ancient cannon?