The building was standing. The apartment complex was near the northwest limit of the overlap, and looked to have been minimally affected. His apartment was around the back, as far to the northwest as possible. It looked normal. Hugh had his keys with him, having hoped to check the place. The electricity was on, the water was running and he waved his thanks to the Feds. The soap and shampoo were a bit gritty, and the water tepid, but he spent a long time scrubbing, none-the-less. He had to wrestle with his bureau to get to the clothes, but they seemed all right. He bundled up his smelly clothes and sought the laundry room. He used lots of detergent and the longest wash cycle.
I'd toss them, but it’s going to be like this, every zombie we catch.
A radio so cheap no one would steal it resided on one shelf. He clicked it on, dialed in the AM news station.
"In Cairo, Egyptian forces were pulled away from Search and Rescue efforts in the delta region to break up clashes between devote Muslims and the people they call heretics. It all started with a group of Egyptian actors performing an act of homage to the ancient Egyptian Gods for the tourists. But when they actors started talking like it was serious, and appointed a Pharaoh, conservative Imams raced each other to declare fatwas against the group." "Actors?" "Yes. Once you are out of Cairo, this is a very conservative country, the troupe’s acting crossed some line in the sand, and now the fatwas are flying."
"That’s unfortunate, it’s bound to impact the tourist trade, and Egypt cannot afford to let that happen. And speaking of tourists, how is the Milos eruption impacting plane flights?"
"So far, Cairo has been out of the worst of the high level ash fall, and the air has been very clear below five thousand feet. Planes from France and Italy can take off normally, fly south, and then east, and drop down beneath the ash cloud for the last stretch."
He left the machine to do its thing and walked back to his apartment, thinking.
Volcanoes. Can an overlap cause volcanoes to erupt, can an overlap trigger earthquakes? Perhaps where the Earth’s large structure doesn’t quite match?
And if so, is the danger gone once the Overlap is past? Or did it all just add to the stress, and move up the time table for the next big one?
The voices in his head had nothing to say.
Just because some of them knew what this was, doesn’t mean they knew a lot about it. None of them would have experienced a merge, prior to last week.
His bachelor habits stood him in good stead. The refrigerator was nearly empty. He bundled up everything there, and three oddly bulging cans in the pantry and hauled it all out to the dumpster. He shifted clothes from washer to dryer. It was so normal.
The radio was reporting on a sudden increase in cattle rustling. Interviewing a rancher in Wyoming.
"Must have cut the fence and driven them through. A bunch of buffalo got in and are probably spreading Hoof and Mouth and Brucellosis all over my pasture."
Hugh snorted. "Hate to tell you this, but those are your cows, Bud. It’s going to be an interesting couple of years."
He jingled his keys and looked at his old pickup. Might as well find out. It was old, none of the fancy electronics cars were full of these days. He rarely drove it, walking the three miles to the station as a rule. The rugged old beast fired right up, and he drove first to the fairgrounds, where he read his mail – replacement credit cards, thank goodness! Then he wandered back to the camp area and found nearly half the refugees hanging on.
Del was out at a wooden picnic table, tapping away at her computer.
"How are the kids doing?" Hugh looked around, some sort of running and sword fighting seemed to going on.
"They are starting to consider it a great lark, best thing they ever did. Now that they're back with their families. They talk about what the world smelled like when they were dogs and they romped around as lambs. If their parents can accept that, not try to make it sound scary and horrible, I think they’ll all be fine."
"Sounds like you have issues with some of the parents."
"Yes. Well, maybe I’d understand better if I had a child. But honestly, must they insist the children be traumatized victims?"
Hugh nodded his understanding. "The kids aren’t seeing it from that perspective."
"Anyway, I got Grandfather's old truck back from the shop . . . I figure I’ll take off for Los Angeles after breakfast tomorrow. I've got three interviews set up, and a old friend from high school said I could stay with her. I went shopping for business clothes." She ran fingers through her hair. "I ought to have gotten a haircut."
"I kind of like it. It’s unusual. Err, mind you I liked it solid brown too."
She snorted. "Covering all bases, in case it reverts? The Feds claim they’re going to open an office in the mall, with a research library on everything they know about these overlaps. In the mean time, I’m gathering eyewitness testimony. I understand you had an interesting run in with a pair of zombies today."
Hugh chuckled. "Yes, and however much the people look like movie zombies, they seem to have their wits about them. Would you like me to tell you all about it over dinner?"
A pause, and near panic in her eyes. Then they met his and she relaxed. Nodded. "Certainly."
They were back at the fairgrounds by midnight. "Have a good visit with your friend. Drive safely and all that. But I hope no one down there offers you a job. Just don’t let any other smart ass cops give you tickets. And prepare to be seriously and relentlessly wooed when you return."
The good night kiss had tons of passion and promise in it. I won’t push, yet. Dare not. The voices in his head were silent. Had they faded away, or did they simply agree with him, this time? Go away. I am neither a Russian Noble nor an Evil Wizard.
The third zombie was significantly less decayed than the first two.
And that is how I am going to think of them. Experiments. Numbers. Not patients. Not people who are dying.
Dr. Tasman Lee scrubbed her hands, again. "I have a horrible feeling the odor is going to be pervasive, for the length of this experiment."
The Deputy who’d been tasked with assisting her untangle and clean up the zombie was what she’d always thought a Californian should look like. Tall, blonde, tanned, with open, extravagant body language. And he talked like one as well.
"Like, your nose turns off after a bit. Then the trick is to not get it cleared up again, you know? ‘Cause you’ll have to do it all over again." He shut his mouth on something that might have been "Dude." Or worse, "Dudette."
"It’s not my fault." The zombie scowled at the soft restraints that strapped him to the bed.
Tasman suppressed a smile. "Thank you, you handled him very well." She kept her attention on the handsome deputy. I will not think of these zombies as regular people. I won’t.
"Did not! Disrespectful oversized lout." The zombie tried hard but couldn’t quite manage fully indignant.
It is going to be hard.
"Ah, well, see, everyone knows Red. The dude’s lived here forever. Don’t matter how yucky he is, he can’t scare us. Man, you should’a seen the way he decorated for Halloween! It was like, incredible. All the kids went there, especially."
"It was scary. All the kids ran screaming!"
Deputy Brandon grinned. "That was half the fun."
Tasman felt her smile escaping. It is not going to work. "I hope we can save him. The literature isn’t hopeful – but that was before modern antibiotics."
"Yeah. That’s right. Heh. You hear that, Red? You’re going to be just fine."
"Hah! Now if she could cure my arthritis, now that would be something!"
Deputy Brandon took himself off, and Tasman turned to her new patient. "Mr. McAiever. Why don’t you tell me how it felt?" Doomed or not, this is going to be a superb, and possibly unique chance to hear about the process, from the inside, so to speak.
"In a follow up to what we thought was an amusing prank, horses having stripes bleached into their coats, race track officials have gone to the police with horse theft charges. The DNA results are back and it seems that the horses were not bleached, they were hybrid zebra-horse crosses. Where someone got over a hundred Zorses, and what they think they can do with over a hundred racehorses is anyone’s guess at this point."
"How could anyone profit? They can’t race the horses without papers and proof of ownership, nor can they use them for bloodstock, for similar reasons."
"The police seem to think blackmail may be the answer, Keith. The next few days should tell the tale."
"Oh, the poor horses!" Marry Elizabeth looked up at Lenny.
He was smiling.
"Well, yes it is a bit funny, but the poor horses. I hope they don’t get hurt." She looked Lenny over and sighed. "I wish those nasty spots were clearing up faster. Honestly, you’d think you’d had a wrestling match with a cactus." Mary Elizabeth checked the temperature of the Jacuzzi. One hundred and four. Surely that and the extra chlorine would kill the germs. She helped Lenny ease into the hot water. He hissed a bit and tried to say something.
"Oh, the tissues. Of course. Goodness, those have got to be the worse infected sinuses in the world. I think I’ll run down to the aquarium store in Roseville and get some Aquacycline for you. After all, the doctors are so busy, I’d hate to bother them with a little sinus infection."
Lenny nodded vaguely and reached for a handful of tissues as a blob of pus oozed out of his right nostril.
Les was a bit late getting back on the street, but then, so were most of the people who’d been involved in capturing Red. There’d been rats everywhere, and they’d decided to catch a sizable sample for the researchers before they cleaned up.
Hugh was wearing a leather jacket, and Les wished for similar protection. Or maybe chain mail.
Manny Torreson hadn’t been sighted again.
So they started a search pattern from the Speed D Lube outward, looking for rats, setting traps, and putting out poison.
Hell of a way to spend ///Christmas Eve.
And it didn’t get any better.
The Hotel laid on a fairly nice Christmas Eve dinner, and Les got to sit across the room and watch two other men drool over Tasman. He stabbed juicy dark meat with more force than strictly necessary.
"You have got it so bad." Ron had his notebook with him, and his kids, aged ten and twelve were periodically returning to their mother’s notebook to show off various gifts.
"I know. Pathetic, isn’t it? I’m getting vibs like she doesn’t even like me."
"Just as well. I mean, is it wise to make a play for a doctor? They have worse hours than us, and I’ll bet she’s got a huge student loan balance."
Les looked at him in disbelief, then caught the twinkle in the eyes and repressed grin. "Very funny. I mean, I know you married sensibly, but why’d Suz choose you? Temporary insanity?"
"Permanent, otherwise she’d have dumped me decades ago."
"I heard that!" Even tinny and in competition with the background noise they could hear the amusement. The picture jerked around to face her. A damn good looking blonde, hair tucked casually behind her ears. "Now who’s this miracle that’s caught the professional bachelor’s eye?"
"Sssh!" Ron grinned. "I’ll bring you up to speed in private. So far the job is just disgusting and nasty, so stop worrying about anything except the state of the laundry I’ll be bringing home. In fact I may just toss it all and buy new when I get there."
"Ronald Alva Scalzoni! Have you ruined that beautiful suit we just bought?"
"Erm . . . I pretty sure I can put in on the expense account, hon."
"Smart move! Tell her when you’re far away and probably stuck here long enough for her to get over it." Les leaned into the range of the video pickup. "Thanks Suz, I’m taking notes on how to be a good husband, and you guys are just the best research material . . . " He laughed as she made a rude gesture. I want a family like that. Damn, what’s got into me? Hadn’t laid eyes on her before the airport. Forty-eight hours later I am completely domesticated. No more Wild Man Les.
"Relax, hon, the suit is hanging in the closet, and the clothes I ruined were government issued bright orange coveralls. I was doing the world a favor, ruining them."
Suz shook a finger at him, dimples escaping her attempt to look severe.
Les decided that the dressing looked less like zombie ooze than the mashed potatoes and gravy, and concentrated on it. The cranberry sauce was excellent, and a cheerful bright red that reminded him of nothing whatsoever. Really.
Schulenburg spoke briefly, thanking them for their dedication over the holiday, and wryly delivered their presents – a compendium of everyone’s reports to date. After pumpkin or apple pie, things got more casual.
Les eased into Tasman’s circle of admirers.
"Cathy is sinking fast. If she weren’t breathing and sometimes even semi-conscious, I’d judge her four days dead from the state of decomposition. It’s very unnerving."
Les shivered. Rubbed his arms, feeling cold suddenly. "What about the other two? Red wasn’t, umm, killed himself, he just merged with dead people."
Tasman nodded. "Multiple times. The MRI seems to indicate widespread spots of complete cellular death. Small ones, so far. On a smaller scale, tissue biopsies have, on average five point two percent dead or dying cells. But the random scatter means there are occasional clumps that are twenty percent or so, and those tend to grow. Dying cells give off /// which triggers apoptosis, cell death, in the neighboring cells. It’s a natural cancer fighting mechanism. Here, it’s making a bad situation worse. We’re pushing anti-oxidants and everything else we think might turn the process off and stop the cascade. If we can save enough cells, we can save the patient." She huffed out a breath and her shoulders slumped suddenly, the brief animation gone. "Depending on the amount of brain damage, of course. We may just be saving bodies, not . . . people. Patient two is . . . not in good shape either."
"That’s . . . unfortunate. Do you have any idea how we can tell in the field . . . " Les shook himself. "Never mind. I’m flashing on too damn many zombie films. I wish no one had ever used the term here."
That got nods. "I keep wondering if we’re ever going to just start shooting them." Jason Mata was one of the older agents here. Tough and experienced. Second in command. "Then I tell myself to stop being an idiot. This isn’t a movie."
Back in his room, Les snapped on the TV. Anything to stop thinking about real zombies.
25 Dec 2020
"Merry Christmas." Les tried to looked bright and alert as he set his buffet breakfast tray down . In the morning light he’d looked normal. Like himself. Very cheering, after what was easily the worst night’s sleep in his entire life. Including nights when he’d gotten no sleep at all.
Tasman looked like she hadn’t gotten to bed yet, and just blinked vaguely at him.
His stomach curdled. "So, how’s Red?" he sat.
"We suctioned out his lungs, and he’s breathing all right, for now. One of the other zom . . . patients had a bad night. We had to strap her down after she attacked a nurse. And she’s making these horrible noises, sometimes you can understand a word or two and she’s cussing or threatening us." She looked away and blinked back tears.
Les scooted over and reached to hug her. She stiffened, and he stopped, let his arm drop and scooted a bit away. Drat, what’s with the Ice Princess Routine?
"And the rats are so horrible, inside and out. I don’t think I can eat."
"Is it just ordinary bacteria, or is there something unique in there?" Atta boy. Get her into a professional mode, forget the personal stuff. For now.
"It’s exactly what you’d expect from a rotting dead body. Pretty well interspersed throughout the body. Red has a whole lot less . . . dying tissue than Cathy Hobson, the police woman. Because Cathy was killed. It’s her own cells that are experiencing accelerated death, with the foreign cells keeping her alive. Red’s the opposite. I . . . have some hope there. Patient two isn’t communicative, so I don’t know if he’s . . . well, a primary zombie or secondary. If that makes sense."
"Primary ones died, secondary zombies just merged with dead people. Good. Perhaps today we can track down that first fellow. Manny. He’s a primary, but pretty lively."
"The biker? Be careful! He’ll be dangerous in a way completely unlike the first three, who were nice people. Manny wasn’t. And, he probably isn’t thinking clearly and his self control may be gone."
"Yeah, he’ll be like Cathy. Sooner or later. As the necrosis advances. Are you coming out today?"
She shook her head. "I need to work on the rats, see if anything can be done for them, and then apply that to my patients. And anyone else who comes in. Even people who only overlapped once will have trouble. Fever, abscesses. We’ll be double checking ER visits, and I talked to a couple of local doctors about it as well. They both merged, knew what I was talking about. The county hospital is so far away from the hotspot that I haven’t found any doctors there yet who merged."
"That’s got to be awkward."
"Yes. Fortunately they overbuilt. We’ve taken over an empty isolation wing on the third floor for a rare outbreak of bubonic plague that we want to keep isolated. As far as they know."
"Heh. Bubonic Plague. Umm, haven’t I read that it’s endemic to rodent populations here in the west? Umm, those rats haven’t actually got it? Have they?"
"We’re testing for that, along with hanta virus, rabies, distemper . . . everything we can think of, actually."
"Generally diagnosed through dissecting the brain. Impossible to tell in these poor rats. I’ve vaccinated John, Cathy, and Red. And . . . You had close contact with one of those rats."
Les looked down at his collection of buffet offerings. They’d been chosen for their lack of resemblance to anything zombie. Sausage links, toast, orange juice. He started eating. He had a feeling he was going to need the fuel.
"It’s only two shots. Today." She smiled. "And another on days three, seven, fourteen and twenty-eight. I’ve already had my starter set."
Les smiled thinly. "All things considered, it will be a pleasure. Compared to the alternative."
The morning briefing started late, as the zombie hunters all reported for vaccinations first.
An hour later, at the sporting goods store, Les added a couple of aluminum baseball bats to the pile. You never know, there could be another merge. He ran a nervous hand through his hair and froze. A hard little nub on the stretch of bone above his ear. His hand shook a bit as he checked the other side. A matching bump, sore.
He wiped sweat from his brow and fought down nausea. Am I turning into a zombie? Be sensible. I didn’t merge with anything dead. And Jack Robbie . . . so he had horns, big deal. I probably just banged my head and didn’t notice. Probably happened while wrestling with Red. Now get out there and find zombies, and arrest them.
Dr. Zealand had already checked the rats this morning. He’d changed antibiotics on a quarter of them, added steroids to half of those and half of the rats on their original antibiotic protocols.
Tasman made a quick circuit of the lab. Nothing left undone, no notes of explanation. She heard the door behind her, and turned as it closed behind Zealand.
"So, Ned, are you taking over the research part of the intervention?"
"Yes. You seemed to be much more competent with the human subjects, so I will leave their day-to-day handling to you." The big man smiled genially.
Tasman subdued her temper. He’s the boss. The herd leader. Her breath caught as her conscious mind caught up with what she’d just thought. She swallowed and tucked it away for future examination. Right now, she nodded. "You’re the boss, Boss."
His smile broadened. "I was hoping you would see it that way."
I see that you are reaching for a big splashy result to boost your visibility before you retire. What are you aiming for? High paid lobbyist? Surgeon General?
Fool. This work is going to be hushed up and disappear. Nobody, not even the President, is going to want to ever hear about this again. Which means they won’t want you hanging about Washington.
Or me. But I don’t have your sort of ambition.
She turned and walked out to check her patients.
"Young man! What do you think you are doing?"
Hugh looked over and grinned, as Gabby Feisal advanced on a suit clad Fed with her broom in hand. Rumors that the old woman couldn’t put it down were rife.
"Sorry, Ma’am. We’re trying to stop a problem with rats before it gets any worse." Jerry Some-thing-or-other looked too young to be a Fed. He looked like he should be going door to door, bible in hand, for his church youth group.
"I have cats, you know. You can’t go poisoning rats that my kitties might eat."
"Ma’am, I’m sorry but . . ."
"Trying to poison my cats, eh?" Gabby’s voice turned suddenly hostile, and Hugh looked over in surprise.
Are those bandages around her wrists? And she’s wearing a lot of makeup . . . I’m too faraway for the smell to be detectable, with all the background odors . . .
"Miss Feisal?" Hugh trotted over but he wasn’t quick enough to distract her.
Her lips pulled back from her yellowed, worn teeth and she snarled as she dropped the broom. Leaped. Her fingers locked around the Fed’s neck and her teeth sought his face.
The Fed fell backwards with a yelp. He grabbed Gabby’s hair to keep her from biting his nose, his ear, cheek, the teeth were snapping madly and she started a shrill keening noise. The Fed was turning blue. Hugh locked an arm around the old woman’s neck, elbow under her chin and hauled her back. At the far stretch of her arms, he couldn’t budge her any further. He reached around with his free hand and pried at her hands. They were cold and slimy, the nails biting into the Fed’s neck. He couldn’t get a grip, couldn’t break her grip. Les and Ron joined the scrimmage, two hands to each of the old woman’s. A finger broke with a distinct snap. Hugh applied more pressure to Gabby’s neck, cutting off her own breath. Another snap; her right hand came loose, and he staggered back, twisting the old woman to the side so she couldn’t regain her grip. Ron was still wrestling, trying to free her left hand, as the Fed sagged. Les was on the cell, then pulled a pocket knife out of his trousers and opened a blade. A quick stab and twist and Gabby’s thumb was dislocated. They pulled her fingers out of Jerry’s neck. Blood flooded the gouges, but no arterial spurt. Les danced around Hugh, cuffs in hand, while Ron checked Jerry. He was gasping in short gurgling breaths. More running feet were the next nearest squad of Feds, and Hugh could hear the wail of an ambulance siren, blending eerily with the keening woman as she jerked against his grip. Hugh still had his arm around her neck, and her left wrist in his grasp. Les grabbed the woman’s other hand and hauled it away from clawing Hugh’s leather jacket. They wrestled her over to her porch rail, and Less cuffed her hand to it. She jerked away from the post. The metal cuff scraped off the bandages and cut into her flesh easily. Three more men came to assist and finally her hands were tied behind her with strong cloth, wet with the blood and pus dripping down her wrists. Hugh opted to hold on to her, keeping her pinned down and relatively immobile, while the Feds gawped and called overhead for advice. An ambulance came and took Jerry away. A plain van came to collect Gabby.
The EMT inside looked defensive. "We had to work all night to clean the ambulance, and the smell! Jesus H Christ. We had to strip it, toss all the disposables, everything that couldn’t be wiped down with alcohol or boiled. No more of these cases are traveling in an ambulance."
Gabby Feisal was strapped down to a hard plastic stretcher and taken away.
Then they searched her house, and sent away for animal cages. Five cats, all with various degrees of necrosis.
Hugh slumped down on the front step. "What was that, at that first meeting? Something about violent rages?"
The Feds standing around nodded.
"Guess I’d better read anything you lot have on hand about it, and maybe we ought to get nets, wrap people up in them like we did Red. Cheap nets that we can burn, after."
Hugh walked four blocks to the police station.
Francine, on desk duty, recoiled, hand going to her face.
"Is the water on? Showers working?"
She nodded, and held the door for him. "Try not to touch anything on your way through. What is that?"
"Old Gabby Feisal has turned into a zombie. And five of her cats."
"And I thought the overlap was bad." She shut the door firmly behind him.
The tattered rags that remained of the clothes in his locker were about right for chasing down zombies. So long as no one mistook him for one.