Closure, Limited and Other Zombie Stories, Page 5Max Brooks
There were perhaps a hundred of us in Penang, the greatest concentration of our kind in history. Of that figure, perhaps a quarter departed the zone as Sirenes, while another quarter elected for feckless militaristic masturbation. That left fifty true combatants capable of fighting for only a few short hours each night before hunger, fatigue, and the eventual dawn forced withdrawal. While our nightly kills numbered in the thousands, they still had left a propogating force of millions.
We might have corrected that equation with just the right amount of transformed solbreeders. We could have chosen carefully and prudently, adding just enough reinforcements without upsetting the balance between pack and herd. We might have created a force large enough to clear the Malay Peninsula, then Southeast Asia, and from there, who knows? We might have given the humans just the kind of breathing room they needed, enough time to possibly pool enough resources to finish purging the planet without our assistance. The opportunity lay within our grasp, and yet none of us ever considered seizing it.
Likewise our second precept remained beyond discussion; direct open contact with humanity. Like recruitment, anonymity found its roots in the logical desire for survival. How could we, as predators, reveal ourselves to our prey? Did we desire the same fate as the sabre tooth cat, the short faced bear, or a host of other apex killers who had once feasted upon human bones? Throughout human history, our existence remained relegated to myths and childhood parables. Even now, in the midst of our parallel struggle for existence, we strove to conceal our efforts from solbreeder eyes.
What if we had abandoned the charade, and revealed ourselves to our unwary allies? Full disclosure would not have been necessary. We might have bypassed the ignorant masses in favour of an enlightened few. If not the Malaysian government then perhaps others operating ‘in exile’ throughout the region. There must have still been some nearby safe zones like ours, some human leaders who were willing to come to a mutual understanding. We would not have asked much, just the right to continue hunting as before. Homosapien leaders had never been loath to sacrifice their own people. We might have even negotiated distinct boundaries, feeding off specific refugees who’d lost everything in the maelstrom. Who would mourn, or even notice their passing? Perhaps the more lucid might have even submitted themselves willingly. Self-sacrifice was nothing new to solbreeders. Some might have actually prided themselves on literally spilling their blood for the survival of their species. Would it have been such a high price for their race to consider? Would it have been such a high risk for our race to propose? As with recruitment, I have no knowledge of any challenge to this sacrosanct law. It is bitter consolation that cowardice is not just a vulnerability of our species. In my short life, I have seen too many hearts of both night and day that lacked the simple courage to question their convictions. I now count myself among the guilty, who chose certain oblivion over opaque prospect of ‘Why Not?’
My sleep was dreamless the day Perai fell. It was the largest concentration of refugee camps in the Penang security zone, which was why some of us had set up residence just across the river in Butterworth. It was still relatively easy to feed in the mainland safe zone, unlike Penang Island where the government was able to enforce marshal law. Perai’s crimson fountain fortified us every night for battle. It also fortified the human effort as the last manufacturing base for munitions.
When the explosion occurred, I was resting deeply after our most ferocious battle to date. Three dozen of us had crept stealthily over the daybreeder wall along the narrow Juru river and attacked the heart of a swarm roiling out of Tok Panjang. We had returned depleted and discouraged, barely blunting their incessant push towards the humans. From our commandeered, thin walled flat, we could hear the collective moans rising with the morning breeze.
‘Tomorrow night will be different,’ Laila assured me. ‘The solbreeders still have the Juru as a natural barrier and every day they build their wall just a little bit higher.’ I wasn’t sure if I believed her, but I was too fatigued to argue. We collapsed in each other’s arms as dawn broke over the closing menace.
I awoke in mid-air, as the shock wave hurled me against the bedroom’s far wall. A half second later I felt as if scores of white hot branding irons were suddenly pressed against my skin. The detonation had blown out our windows and the glass had shredded our blackout curtains. Still blind from the reflected daylight and gasping from my smoking wounds, I rolled to the floor while reaching frantically for Laila. Her arms found me first, reaching around my waist and pulling me over her shoulder. ‘Don’t struggle!’ she shouted and threw a daycloak over my head. A leap, a crash of glass, and then we were on the concrete six stories down. Laila took off at a lightning dash, her steps echoing across a sea of shards. ‘What...’ I managed to croak.
‘The factories!’ Laila answered, ‘A fire and accident... they’re here! They’re everywhere!’
I could smell her burning flesh. How much of her body was exposed? How much longer did she have before combusting? Those three seconds seemed a lifetime before I felt her leap again. Laila’s grasp abruptly weakened as a cold, hard splash separated us.
The cloak floated from my face. What had been small, searing wounds now melted into a general, boiling torment. I could see that Laila had taken us into the Mallaca straight, and she was now leading me by the hand towards the pockets of shade under anchored ships. There were so many of them now, with fuel bunkers dry and decks crammed with escapees. From the bottom they appeared to us as clouds would to solbreeders. We found a resting place under the semidarkness of an oil tanker. Ironically it was anchored over a sunken pleasure boat. We sat resting with our backs against the yacht’s broken hull, both of us too shocked and depleted to stir. Only when the shadow’s movement forced us to change positions did I notice the extent of Laila’s injuries.
Her body had been almost completely roasted. How many times had I warned her against sleeping in the nude! I stared into the mask of horror that had been her face, at the mist of minute, charred particles that lifted lazily from naked white bone. She had always been so vain, so obsessed with her unblemished beauty. That was why she had turned us so many centuries ago. Her worst nightmare had been the loss of her appearance. I could only be grateful that the seawater masked my tears. I forced a brave smile and drew my arm around her near skeletal shoulder. As her body shook in my embrace, one black, carbonized arm raised to point in the direction of Penai beach.
The subdead were coming, walking out of the silt-formed fog. Of course they did not notice us, passing without even the slightest recognition. Penang island, the last human refuge, was their only target now. We watched them silently, too debilitated to even move out of their way. One came close enough to trip over my outstretched leg. As it fell in slow motion, I extended my free arm to catch it. I’m not sure why I did that, neither did Laila. She looked at me quizzically and, with equal confusion, I shrugged. The burnt, cracked remnants of her lips pulled back into a smile, so much so that her lower one split in two. I pretended not to notice. I smiled back and held her close. We sat motionless, watching the cavalcade of cadavers until the ocean’s orange surface faded from blue, to orange, to purple, and finally to blessed black.
We came ashore several hours after sunset, into the teeth of a raging battle. Now it was my turn to carry Laila. Limp and trembling, she clung to my neck as we sprinted past the beachhead fray. I found a deep, secure burrow within the rubble of Georgetown’s fallen Komptar Tower. Its inaccessibility from both solbreeders and daylight was all we could have asked for now. With Laila resting silently on her back, steam perpetually rising from her wounds, all I could do was hold the mangled remnants of her hand and whisper the faint lullabies of a distant, almost forgotten youth.
We remained secluded in our ramshackle burrow for seven nights, Laila recuperating slowly while I foraged after dark for blood. There were still quite a few living humans left in Penang, fighting bravely as wave after wave of subdead rose from the sea. Those nights witness
ed the absolute best of their species, and absolute worst of ours.
There is no greater nightmare than watching one of your own kill another. The victim was smaller and weaker. She was murdered by a larger male over what I could see was a barely conscious meal. Madness? There were still so many other living solbreeders. Why fight over this one? Madness. So many human minds had collapsed. Why should we be any different? I observed several other murders during those seven nights, including one that took place for no apparent reason. There were two evenly matched males, each tearing and biting and trying to extract each other’s hearts. At the time I believed I could almost see their insanity, a living entity of pure dementia that bashed my brethren together like the war toys of a sadistic child. I would only wonder later if their duel might not be homicide but rather mutually agreed suicide.
Taking one’s own life was nothing new to my people. Immortality has always bred despair. Once every century or so we would hear stories of someone ‘walking into a bonfire’. I had never personally seen this action. Now I became its nightly spectator. In tears or silence, I watched so many of my species, so many beautiful, strong, seemingly invincible specimens simply step into burning buildings. I also bore witness to several acts of ‘suicide by subdead’ as several of my friends willingly sank their fangs into the walking plague’s putrid flesh. While their howls of agony tortured my waking hours, nothing so tore at my heart as the night I found Nguyen.
He was strolling, for lack of a better word, down the middle of Macallister Street, amidst the remains of subdead and solbreeder corpses. His face was peaceful, almost chipper. He did not seem to notice me at first. His eyes remained locked on the luminous east. ‘Nguyen!’ I called nervously, not wanting to waste any more time getting ‘home.’ Scrounging was becoming difficult and I was eager to return my catch to Laila before the sun rose. ‘Nguyen!’ I shouted with growing impatience. Finally on my third call, the elder existentialist turned. He looked up at me standing on the rubble of the old mosque and gave me a friendly wave, ‘What are you...’ I began but was quickly silenced by his answer. ‘Just walking into the dawn.’ His tone implied an action both obvious and expected. ‘Just walking into the dawn.’
I did not mention what I’d seen to Laila, nor did I tell her about any of the horrors beyond our little cave. As she fed off the barely breathing sustenance, I forced the brightest smile possible and repeated the words I’d rehearsed in my head. ‘We’re going to be fine,’ I began, ‘I know how to get out of this.’ The notion had come to me that first day under the ship, and had germinated rapidly over the past several nights.
‘Husbandry,’ I began, and her still mending eyebrows crinkled in wonder. ‘That’s how the solbreeders became the dominant species on the planet. At some point they switched from hunting animals to domesticating them. That’s what we’re going to do!’ Before she could speak, I placed a hand to her regenerating lips. ‘Just consider it! There are still hundreds of vessels that must contain thousands of solbreeders. All we need to do is take one of those ships by force. We’ll just sail our livestock to an island somewhere. There are millions of them close by. All we have to do is find one large enough to construct a solbreeder ranch! Some of those islands might even have ranches on them already! Well, the humans don’t think they’re ranches, they think they’re havens. But wait till we arrive! One night of violence, just enough to eliminate the alphas in the herd. The rest will follow. They’ve been through so much they’ll be ripe for the taking! We’ll begin breeding solbreeders! We’ll keep weeding out the troublesome ones, keep fattening and hobbling the submissive ones. We might even breed out much of their intelligence over time. And we have all the time in the world! The subdead won’t last forever, you’ve seen them rotting, eh? Eh? How long can they last, a few years, a few decades? We’ll just wait them out, safe on our island coral, with our self-sustaining blood supply or better, even better, we go to Borneo or New Guinea! There must still be some human tribes out there that haven’t been touched by this holocaust! We can become their rulers, their deities! We won’t need to tend them, or slaughter them, they’ll do it all themselves, and all for the love of their new Gods! We can do it! You’ll see! We can and we WILL!’
At that point I legitimately believed everything I espoused. It didn’t matter how we were going to find and capture either a ship or an island. It didn’t matter how we were going to keep this mystical ‘herd’ of solbreeders captive, or healthy, or even fed. I’d only just thought of the Borneo-New Guinea option and so those details seemed even more trivial than human husbandry. What mattered was how deeply I wanted to believe in myself, and how deeply I wanted Laila to believe in me.
I should have recognized the smile on her face, how closely it resembled Nguyen’s. I should have restrained her that instant, with steel and concrete or even my own body. I should have never gone to sleep that day. I should not have been surprised at what I found the next evening. Laila, my sister, my friend, my strong, beautiful, eternal night sky. How long had it been since we were children of the beating heart, laughing and playing beneath the warmth of the noonday sun? How long had it been since I followed her into the darkness? How long would it be before I followed her into the light?
The nights are quiet now. The screams and fires have long faded. The subdead are everywhere now, shuffling aimless as far as the eye can see. It has been almost three weeks since I hunted the last remaining humans in the city, almost four months since my beloved Laila turned to ash. At least part of my ranching strategy has taken form. Some solbreeders still exist on nearby anchored ships, living off fish and rainwater, and some hope of eventual rescue. Although I feed as sparingly as possible, their numbers continue to diminish. I have calculated another few months at the most before I drain the last of them white. Even if I had half the knowledge, or will, to implement my plan of domestication, there still would not be enough left for a sustainable herd. Facts can be a most cruel master, and as Nguyen once said, ‘I’ve done the math.’
Maybe some of my kind have taken on similar ‘husbandry’ projects. Maybe some have managed to succeed. The world has suddenly become a very, very big place, and across its vast horizon, there are always possibilities. I suppose I could try to strike out in search of these survivalist colonies, with a hobbled solbreeder or two under my arms. Perhaps I could find some means of keeping them alive for a bit, giving them food and water, and chaining them together during the day while I burrowed. I remember one of the Sirenes discussing a similar idea for his sojourn. If rationed carefully and traveling at maximum speed, I might even cover a good amount of nearby land. And what I might discover is what keeps me rooted to the island of Penang. At least in ignorance there can be fantasy, and these nights, fantasy is all I have left.
In my fantasy, repugnant mobile carcasses will not inherit the earth. In my fantasy, children of both night and day will somehow survive long enough for the subdead to dissolve into dust. That is why I have preserved these memories, on paper and wood and even glass, as I have emulated from a human ‘apocalypse novel’. In my fantasy I am not simply wasting my final nights with fruitless, Malthusian ramblings. My words will serve as a guide, a warning, and the eventual salvation of the race known to all as Vampires. I am not the final flickering of a light that had allowed itself to be extinguished. I am not the last dancer in the extinction parade.
A Story from the Zombie War
The following interview was conducted by the author as part of his official duties with the United Nations Commission for Postwar Data Collection. Although excerpts have appeared in the official UN report, the interview in its entirety was omitted from Brook’s personal publication, now entitled World War Z, due to bureaucratic mismanagement by UN archivists. The following is a first-hand account of a survivor of the great crisis many now refer to simply as ‘The Zombie War’.
THE GREAT WALL: SECTION 3947-B, SHAANXI, CHINA
Liu Huafeng began her career as a sales girl a
t the Takashimaya department store in Taiyun and now owns a small general store near the sight of its former location. This weekend, as on the first weekend of every month, is her reserve duty. Armed with a radio, a flare gun, binoculars and a ‘DaDao’, a modernized version of the ancient Chinese broadsword, she patrols her five kilometre stretch of the Great Wall with nothing but the ‘the wind and my memories’ for company.
This section of the Wall, the section I worked on, stretches from Yulin to Shemnu. It had originally been built by the Xia Dynasty, constructed of compacted sand and reed-lined earth encased on both sides by a thick outer shell of fired mud brick. It never appeared on any tourist postcards. It could never have hoped to rival sections of the iconic Ming-Era stone ‘dragon spine’. It was dull and was functional, and by the time we began the reconstruction, it had almost completely vanished.
Thousands of years of erosion, storms and desertification, had taken a drastic toll. The effects of human ‘progress’ had been equally destructive. Over the centuries, locals had used – looted – its bricks for building materials. Modern road construction had done its part too, removing entire sections that interfered with ‘vital’ overland traffic. And, of course, what nature and peacetime development had begun, the crisis, the infestation and the subsequent civil war finished within the course of several months. In some places, all that was left were crumbling hummocks of compact filler. In many places, there was nothing at all.
I didn’t know about the new government’s plan to restore the Great Wall for our national defence. At first, I didn’t even know I was part of the effort. In those early days there were so many different languages – local dialects that could have been birdsong for all the sense it made to me. The night I arrived, all you could see were torches and headlights of a few broken down cars. I had been walking for nine days by this point. I was tired, frightened. I didn’t know what I had found at first, only that the scurrying shapes in front of me were human. I don’t know how long I stood there, but someone on a work gang spotted me. He ran over and started to chatter excitedly. I tried to show him that I didn’t understand. He became frustrated, pointing at what looked like a construction sight behind him, a mass of activity that stretched left and right out into the darkness. Again, I shook my head, gesturing to my ears and shrugging like a fool. He sighed angrily, then raised his hand towards me. I saw he was holding a brick. I thought he was going to hit me with it so I started to back away. He then shoved the brick in my hands, motioned to the construction sight, and shoved me towards it.