Tasman Lee looked over her seven patients’ records.
Lieutenant Cathy Hobson of the Reilly Creek Police had been killed, then revived by a merge, fortified by several others, but . . . if she hadn’t been walking and talking, Tasman would have judged her several days dead, from the color and decomposition of tissues.
Tasman rubbed her arms and shivered. Cathy had been the first, and a zombie, as predicted. But the other six were almost stranger.
Cyrus Tyrrell had small horns, not unlike a cow’s, growing from the swell of the skull above his ears. His cognitive tests seemed normal.
Sally and Margarite Valaskovich were unable to maintain a normal body temperature. Most people would be dead, at the temperature they had been when they’d arrived. But it was the faint green tinge they’d taken on when they stood in the sunny window of their room that really disturbed her. They said they drank water, leaking into their basement, and dripping off exposed roots. Did the water provide most of the merging atoms? And had the tree roots provided the rest? And did the other two get a larger dose of plants?
Those two, both women, were unconscious, breathing slowly, body temps low. Getting a bit green in the sun.
They didn’t know the name of the intense, black haired boy. He preferred four legs to two, pacing with anxious whines in circles around his room. She’d sent samples for DNA analysis. Could there really be dog genes in the boy? And if so, would he be a mosaic of cells, human and canine, or had the change gone all the way to the intracellular level. Dog genes on otherwise human chromosomes.
"Now that is scary." Her mind skittered nervously away from concepts such as sterilization. "There will be no coercion. None. But I will certainly council the young man."
Her phone chirped at her.
"Doctor? We’ve got another zombie for you."
She shivered again, and wondered how many patients they’d have in a week’s time. And what will their symptoms be?
Monday, 24 August 2020
"No guns yet?" Hugh shrugged. "No matter, the Feds are packing, they can deal with the zombies and werewolves." His eyes drifted toward Sandy. The youngster had merged at least once with a dog. What affect would that have? "I hate to be paranoid, but perhaps we should understate some of the merges we experienced. If someone is delaying our weapons order, perhaps someone is ready and willing to shoot us."
Harry blew out a deep breath. "Don’t even think that . . . because if they are watching us, maybe we really are dangerous. A danger to society."
"Harry . . . " Hugh sighed. "Hell. We haven’t a clue, have we?"
"No . . . Cathy’s sinking fast. We’re going to lose her."
Theresa had been listening from the outer room. Now she walked in and shook her head. "We lost her two days ago, guys. This weird stuff . . . for a bit I was hoping . . . But there aren’t any miracles. Other people merging with Cathy probably isn’t enough to save her, and it may have condemned those people in those other worlds to a similar fate."
Hugh winced. "Yes, whatever is happening over there, over on all those worlds, we haven’t a clue. And we probably never will know." He glanced out toward the street. "And here are my federal escorts, all ready to start examining people. I’ll report back if there’s anything . . . suspicious about how they treat the people they label zombies." He walked out and found a lady doctor had been added to the posse.
Tasman Lee, tall, thin, and severe looking, mixed race, Black, Asian and White. She was wearing a suit that made her look more like a lawyer than a doctor.
"Pleased to meet you doctor. Err, I almost hate to ask, but do you have any experience with treating zombies?"
She flushed, making her look a great deal less remote. "No. No one has. We’re just going on a report from a moderate sized overlap in Europe seventy years ago. And reanalysis of some Medieval diaries. They think that a lot of the fatalities from the Black Death were in fact overlap problems."
"Medical analysts with a special department of Homeland Security I didn’t know existed until three days ago. This is all so new to us modern people. And so very strange. Personally I hope they’re completely wrong, but then the medical half of my mind clicks in and says ‘Wow, this I’ve got to see!’ "
Hugh nodded. "I know an overly analytical woman I’ll have to introduce you to her. In the mean time, pull over. That guy having trouble with his hog is one of the bikers that was in the middle of the mess."
"I thought they’d all been arrested?" Tasman peered through the glass at the man, but followed Hugh as he left the car.
"Yep. But the few security camera records that survived – when people are merged they look different. We’ve literally got no proof that these lads have done anything wrong."
The biker, Manny Torreson turned around and scowled. "You! You killed me!" his hand went to his shirt collar and pulled it down. A stub of metal projected from an oozing wound just under the collar bone. Pus and red stained lymph dripped, bruised purple streaks winding away from it.
"Ah! Was that you who merged with Viktor? Raped three women, killed one of them?" Hugh was feeling extremely naked, without a gun.
Manny was a very large man, in every sense of the word. Six foot five, broad muscular shoulders, beer belly. And the strange look in his eyes . . .
The world wrenched. Men leaped to their feet. Hugh danced back out of the edges of a campfire. He split his attention between the three men now between him and Manny, and the man behind him. That man rose, releasing a sheep he had probably been intending to butcher. He had a very large knife in his hand. Small horns on his head.
Demon World, this time.
Manny leaped for the nearest man. He wants another merge.
The other two were jostled forward as Les and Ron jumped for Manny.
Tasman shrieked as the sheep ran into her as it tried to flee.
Hugh backed away from the knife man, edging to the side so he could see the others as they staggered back to their feet. The world twisted and the knife man disappeared. Manny backed away and ran. Hugh cursed and let him go. Grabbed Les as he tried to stagger off that direction. "No. Your gun isn’t reliable any more. The metal will be compromised. Let him go. This time."
"I was a sheep!" Tasman swayed, hands to her face, then held out for examination. "I was a sheep!"
Ron and Les swapped glances, then they both felt their heads.
"No horns." Ron sounded relieved.
Les gulped. "They were bandits. They thought they were demons, because they grow these cow-style horns around the full moon."
"The Full Moon isn’t until the twenty-eighth. They must grow them over the week ahead of the full moon." Hugh snorted. I sound like Del. Or the wizard.
"Look at my clothes!" Tasman’s lawyer suit had patches of wool quilted into it. The men looked at their orange overalls. The demons hadn’t been over dressed, but bits of leather and thin spots showed randomly.
"This is happening to our bodies, too, isn’t it?" Les held his hands away as if they belonged to someone else.
"With live stuff, the swaps seem to be much more fine grained. Not so patchy. So, you want to go change at your hotel, or go shopping and not mention this to them? We’ve been wondering just how hard nosed you Feds were going to be about this . . . stuff."
They swapped glances and Hugh strolled off a bit while they argued in whispers and gestures.
". . . see zombies in the field. I wasn’t expecting another overlap . . ."
". . . must know it’s ongoing . . ."
Hugh walked further away. He had things to think about of his own. Mostly about what seemed sensible at the time, but in retrospect sounded like a one man killing spree. And his victims, at least one of whom had just come back to haunt him.
So the one that was merged with Viktor has gone zombie. I also killed Ivan, and trampled Yuri. Yuri might not have actually been dead. And the woman they killed. Are they all back? Hugh searched his memories, but came up blank. I don’t remember all that many people getting killed. Possibly a couple at the police station, Del’s rope traps, a few pipes to heads. Not to mention the people we tossed in the oil changing pit that overlapped a root cellar in the Russian world. We didn’t realize there were more worlds. Did I bury them alive? What about the head Biker, Renaldo Silva? He was killed late in the Overlap, and Merrick evacuated the Russian peasants. But the other worlds could have provided him with a revival. Damn. I need a list from the morgue.
The Feds had stopped arguing, so he walked back.
"We are certain our colleagues wouldn’t do anything so ridiculous as consider us compromised." Tasman looked frightened. "We’ll return to the hotel and change clothing."
"Sounds like a plan." Hugh headed for the car. "Assuming we don’t have to walk." Now I’ll see what these Feds are up to.
The Feds had taken a downstairs wing and a conference room for a week. The Auburn Hotel was a modern edifice on the interstate, not one of the historical buildings. The Fed’s wing was in a state of quiet uproar, stressed looking people in the hallway talking in undertones. Looking around, and instantly zeroing in on the clothing damage of Hugh’s three companions.
"Tasman! Not you, too!" A woman in a white lab coat recoiled half a step. "Why were you down there?"
Hugh cleared his throat. "It was a single, short overlap. I doubt anyone will have a problem."
A heavyset pale man frowned at him. "You are?"
"Captain Hugh Barclay, Reilly Creek PD."
"This is Regional Director Regis Schulenburg." Les looked a bit stiff.
"Director. I went through a number of merges, the end result physically was some gray and blonde hair. Mentally? I kept a few memories, and I can now speak Russian. But there’s no . . . sense of another personality being there, as it was during the merge. I have a few more days experience in dealing with it than your people, if you’d like me to talk to any or all of them who were in town this morning."
"Thank you Captain. But this very disturbing phenomenon needs to be studied, and loyalties examined."
Hugh sighed. "That world, if it was the one I think it is, had a nuclear war fifty years ago, and is still recovering. I really doubt anyone is going to have problems with feelings of loyalty to either the Prime Minister of Greater California nor the Presidente of Deseret. Whom I assure you is no one a modern Mormon would recognize as such. An offshoot cult sort of teamed up with some rogue Catholics and reinvented the Inquisition."
"But you speak Russian." The Director eyed him belligerently.
"Yes, and a bit of Chinese. I merged multiple times with a man whose rather tepid loyalty was theoretically to Tsar Ivan IX of Russia, but all his enthusiasm was aimed at California. I don’t feel any urge to become Russian. Or Chinese."
"So you say."
Hugh shrugged. "The government of the people your people merged with doesn’t exist in our world. In what way could they possibly display such loyalty, even if they did feel it? I know this is very strange to you. I assume you didn’t experience the overlap yourself, else this conversation would be a bit different."
"You’d know what it felt like, someone else inside your head. Two very distinct personalities, not merging, not melting into each other the way the physical bodies do. Fighting for control of the body. You would have felt the alien mind peel away and disappear. Leaving you alone and whole in your head."
"Hmph." He at least looked thoughtful.
Bishop looked stiff and rejecting.
Yeah, I wasn’t too happy at first, either. Hugh swapped a glance between the pair of them. "So tell me. Given your attitude. Are the citizens of my town, who are exhibiting symptoms you have labeled ‘zombie’ going to receive medical care, or a death sentence, sans jury?"
The crowd murmur dropped around them.
Schulenburg’s eyes narrowed. "Because we need to understand the phenomenon, the zombies will be treated medically, and treated well. Every effort will be made to cure them. Including loosening the protocol on experimental therapies, if more standard treatments don’t work."
"Glad to hear that. Had my first encounter with one today, and he was in much better shape than our officer in the hospital. Walking, talking, displaying memory, an understanding of the cause of his problem, and he deliberately merged, to gain ground on his condition. Of course, he was also one of the escaped Bikers who terrorized the town through the overlap."
"In some cases, shoot on sight is going to happen." Schulenburg was watching his reaction, and looked surprised at Hugh’s smile.
"Well, you have to be careful about shooting, around here. I don’t have a gun, and after a merge the reliability of your agents’ weapons was questionable, which is why we didn’t pursue. Shooting zombies may not be an option, if we keep having these little overlaps. May I recommend that every weapon in the area of the merge today be rigorously tested before anyone holds it in their hand and pulls the trigger?"
Schulenburg nodded. "I heard about your Chief’s gun. That was the only time any of you even tried to shoot anyone, correct?"
"Correct. A statistical analysis of how many guns fail after one or two merges could be useful. In case an overlap happens while we’re in a confrontation with aggressive zombies. Or something more dangerous."
The Fed nodded and ran his eyes over his people, summoned one man with a point and crook of finger. "Collect all weapons that were in the area of the overlap."
"Whether or not the person carrying them merged." Hugh added.
Schulenburg nodded. "Stand test them."
Les glared at the image in the mirror.
He was breathing too fast, and blinked away tears of rage. "You can’t tell, with inside lights. My skin is not lighter. My hair is not a bit reddish, and I Do Not Look Like That Man. That damned Caucasian demon!"
Les adjusted the set of his clean shirt. He tied the tie with quick, jerky movements, snapping the end of the tie as he crossed it over.
He grit his teeth as he studied the results. "It’s my imagination. No one will see a thing." You hope. "I am proud to be Black. I like me as I am. I am ME." Old corrosive poisons he’d forgotten surfaced, refreshed, ready to replay childhood insults, assaults, the social stigma of being black. And having his nose rubbed in it, over and over. Even from his adopted siblings. Especially from his adopted siblings. "I don’t care about that any more. They were young and stupid. Now I’m an adult, and smart. I’m doing better than they are." He was a little shocked at the strength of the emotions that had ambushed him. He forced himself to think, to not feel. I am rational. Intelligent. Above all this bullshit. He drew a long deep breath, let it out slowly, carrying all the tension and memories away with it. With thought came fear. That was very unlike me. Was it like Jack Robbie? He took more calming breaths. Pictured himself wrapping the violent feelings up in a bag and tying it carefully shut. Calm and self confidence flooded back in so strongly it felt like a physical sensation.
I’ll think about this all later. When I have time. Then he turned and walked out of the room.
It was getting colder as the day progressed, and the ///damp chill promised rain before long. Hugh was waiting in the lobby and walked outside with him.
"I’m officially impressed." Les tried not to shiver, standing in the parking lot. "The last time a Regional Director listened to a small town cop was 1989, three forty in the afternoon."
"Ha, ha. DHS didn’t exist back then. Your flattery will have to improve in quality before it starts taking effect."
Les nodded. I think I’d like this particular small town cop, if he’d never merged with anything else. Anyone else. If I can’t tell who I am now, how can I know anything about him?
"So . . . what kind of people did you merge with?"
"Two sheep herders, one was a Turk of some sort. The other? That world didn’t have any equivalents, so I really don’t know. Never saw a mirror. A couple of Russians. Miserable nobles, killers and rapists, all with their noses in the air. Thought it was their right. One criminal, one royal guard. One demon, same world as we merged with today."
"Those demons, they believed they could do magic."
"Yeah, some of the other words thought that too. The Bikers got off on the idea, merged deliberately, hoping to keep it, to be able to use it in the Real World. So to speak."
"Yeah." Les scowled down at his hands. Rotated them. I am not lighter. I am not. Damn it, I fought my inner demons once, I won’t restart the war. Drop it and get back to work.
Ron and Tasman walked out of the hotel and angled across the parking lot toward them. They were much more casually dressed, and both had raincoats slung over their arms. Tasman was in hospital green scrubs, with hypodermics sticking out of the pocket.
She saw him looking. "After this morning I am not going to fool around with the next zombie. He’s getting enough curare to keep him on a respirator for days."
Les whistled. "Remind me to never get between you and a zombie. So what’s the plan? Should we try to find that guy again?"
Hugh hesitated. "I think I’d like to take a look at one particular location, then we’ll try to find Manny." Drops of rain started falling and they hustled into the car.
Les let Ron drive, turning half around in his seat to talk to Hugh. "So, did you kill him?"
"Yep. Not that I recognized him. He was merged with a Russian, and looked more like him than Manny. There were four of them, and three women they’d been raping. One of the women was dead. I didn’t give them the benefit of the doubt, just rode in and started whacking. Yes, with a sword. From horseback. It was an interesting couple of days. But what I wanted to check, just before that happened, I had a fight with five other Russians, and dumped them in the working pit of the Speed D Lube, and dumped stuff over top to hold them down. This was early on, and I hadn’t realized there were a whole lot more worlds."
"You beat up five of them?" Ron slanted a dubious glance at the cop.
The cop grinned. "I had an unfair advantage. I'd merged with their poorly respected teenage prince. They recognized him. They were sitting around a campfire, didn't even stand up when I walked up to them with a baseball bat in hand. I thought about them just this morning, and now I’m wondering if I killed them all. Let’s go take a look at the pit."
The Speed D Lube had burned, before the pit had been turned into an impromptu jail.
"There was a root cellar, you see. I figured I could keep both the biker and the Russian noble halves locked up." Hugh walked in the already open door, shining a light around.
The building was mostly still standing, and in the working bays, the stuff Hugh’d used to cover the pit had been shoved aside. The remains of the roof funneled the rain into dirty streams that seeped through the wreckage inside and disappeared. Les produced a flashlight and shown it into the pit. It was half filled with dirt and burned debris. There were man-sized pits in the dirt, half collapsed, filling now with water. Footprints led away from the nearest. Les flashed his light around. Five pits where Les could envision men frantically digging, trying to get above the alien dirt . . . He shoved back in revulsion. What sort of cop could trap people in this? It’s barely a mile to the police station, they’ve got a lockup there. Barclay is seriously compromised. I’m going to have to watch my back. Les stepped back and shifted his light so he could see Barclay.
"Looks like all five got out. What shape they were in is anyone’s guess." Hugh turned away.
"You’re not wasting any sympathy, are you?" Tasman was frowning at Hugh.
"No. And I ought to. I know how difficult it is to gain control of the body, keep the other person from doing whatever they please."
Something rustled in the dirt. Their lights swung back, sought the dark back corners, swung forward to the area below them, where the pit extended under their feet. An arm swung out of the shadows. A filthy hand reached upward, grabbed the edge of the overhanging floor. The arm was clothed in tatters, the skin pale where it wasn’t livid and bruised. Scabbed. Oozing. The rest of the man wasn’t visible. Tasman pulled out a hypodermic. The hand retreated, snatched a handful of dirt and tossed it. They all flinched back, despite the poor aim, the harmless dirt. Another toss from the shadows, this one solid. Squealing. The rat hit Ron across the face, leaped to Tasman’s shoulder.
Les lunged and snatched it by the tail. The tail came off in his hand; he dropped it as it writhed in his grip.
Hugh swung the flashlight and knocked the rat off her shoulder, into Les’s chest.
Les made a frantic grab and hoisted it by the nape of its neck. Held it out away from him as it squirmed. The fur felt greasy, slippery, and the thing stank of corruption, a dirty damp streak down its side was oozing something that looked mostly like mud in the poor light. The smell of putrefaction twisted his stomach.
"This is the biggest rat I’ve ever seen." Les swallowed and concentrated on not getting scratched or bitten as Hugh dumped the contents of a metal trash can. "And I really wish I wasn’t seeing it now." He threw the animal into the can and Hugh slammed the lid on it.
A rhythmic hissing came from the pit.
Ron ran a nervous finger around his collar. "Is that thing laughing at us?"
They called in their location, and requested help.
It took a net, four men, and three baseball bats—for the rats—before they got the zombie out of the pit.
"I ain’t going to no hospital. It’s against my religion. I can’t pay for it. Hugh, c’mon Hugh! You know these are the Black Helicopter people. They’ll take me away and I’ll never be seen again. You gotta help me, you know me, I’ve known you all your life. Your Daddy still owes me a hundred bucks. Plus interest. Look, I could forget the interest, just get me out of here."
"Red, you need medical treatment, and the doctors need to study you and how medicines work. Now you just stop being a cantankerous old man and tell me what you’re doing in the pit."
Les looked down on the little old man and felt sick. Can they really save him? Some how? His sense of smell had rolled over and died at least an hour ago, but there were visible pustules and weeping scrapes everywhere on the old man’s body, where it could be seen through the mud.
"You know him? Recognize him?" Tasman stuck a swab through the mesh of the net and scraped up a sample of skin where it was reddened but not oozing.
Hugh nodded. "Red McAiever. He’s a retired jockey. My father raised quarter horses, and Red rode a fair number of them."
"Damn right. When I was young and skinny, I was, like, a God of the Racecourse."
"So . . . how’d you wind up in the pit?"
"Well, you know how it’s been, the last couple of days. The staff at the retirement home ran away, and we old goobers, we tried to as well. I heard something funny in here, and went in. There was these Bad Boys down in the pit whaling away at Mr. Franklin, the president of the bank, you know? Ole Frankie was doing good, woulda held his own ‘cept there was four of them. I told them to leave him alone, and they said they would if I’d help them get out of the pit."
"So you did, and then they pushed you in?"
"Yeah, how’d you know? Anyway the weird stuff kept happening, and me and Mr. Franklin were hard put to keep from being buried. And these rats came, for the bodies, the ones that Mr. Franklin and I kept merging with. We kept shoving dirt and rocks and whatever over on this side, and I finally boosted Mr. Franklin out. He couldn’t pull me out, so he went for help. And I’ve been stuck down here with the rats and the bodies and dirt coming and going ever since."
The medical staff had started relaxing while he talked. Tasman even smiled at him. "Well, we have a bunch of zombie rats now, to dissect and experiment on, so hopefully we can get you over this nasty stuff."
Red nodded. "Yeah. I’d hate to go all, you know . . . " He crossed his eyes and reached out with clawed hands. "Brainzzzz . . ."
The doctors leaped for safety, and Red fell over laughing, then coughing, then coughing up blood and pus and choking . . . he was manhandled onto a gurney, an EMT with an airway tube approached with trepidation. Hugh stepped up and steadied the old man’s head.
Les fought to control his gorge. He looked away and tried to concentrate on finding any more zombie rats.
Red was wheeled away, and the ambulance departed.
"Those nasty rats are going to be all over town." Ron joined him. "The doctors are certain they can’t transmit zombie germs, but you’ve got to wonder about other stuff. Staph, flesh eating bacteria and such, you know?"
"Yeah. God that was disgusting. And funny. So, that’s two zombies we’ve seen. The criminal biker acted like a criminal biker, and the funny little old man acted like a funny little old man. Neither of them were much like the movie zombies I was expecting." Les looked over at Hugh. "So, you’re going to know most of these people."
Barclay nodded. "Yeah. God I hope your people can help them. But for the immediate, I wonder if I could get a ride to my apartment. It was on the borderline, and if it’s sound, well, right now I’d just about kill for a shower. And I suspect I smell so awful that no one at the fairgrounds is going to want to be near me, or have me and these clothes near them."
"Amen. The Hotel doesn’t know what it has let itself in for. C’mon."