Residential District, Old Sacramento
December 10th, 2069
Steve walked across the white carpeted floor of his living room, handed a mug to his guest and sat down, casually sliding his arm along the sofa back to encircle her. The Californian winter wasn’t cold by the standards of anyone from outside the West Coast, but the two of them used the mildly raw chilliness of the air outdoors as an excuse to sit more cozily together.
Bright sun streamed through the banks of windows behind them, falling on rows of bookshelves against the opposite wall.
“I’ve never seen so many books in anyone’s house,” Steve’s guest said. Owning printed volumes was increasingly unusual in a world that valued above all the conservation of limited resources. As just about anyone would, the woman seated beside Steve automatically associated text with digital media. The idea of experiencing text tactilely, through feeling paper against her fingers, and olfactorily, through the scent of leather binding, was exotic.
An incomplete collection of The Great Books. Red leather-bound Harvard classics. Benét, Freud, Balzac… New editions of books like these were no longer produced. The volumes in Steve’s collection predated the end of the old world.
“Yes, everything about me is interesting,” Steve said, grinning. “Including how I read literature. I’d rather have the actual print editions of books, if I can find them. It’s like holding a physical piece of our intellectual heritage.”
Steve’s guest Abigail looked at him for a moment. “You’re way, way too educated,” she joked. He was a hard man to form a comprehensive idea about. He was charming and likable, and often the things he said would have come off as contrived and pretentious, except he always seemed genuine. He said things like “intellectual heritage” without putting on an air. He was thoughtful, generous and supportive, but he was also a cynical, arrogant asshole. Not alternately, either—he was somehow all of that at the same time. All his contradictions made him a difficult riddle to solve.
“I feel safe,” Abbie said, shifting a little closer to Steve, “holed up here with a Bag Man.” She smiled impishly. She was teasing him. She knew he didn’t care for the slang “Bag Men,” a common term for Sacramento Bureau of Public Health agents.
“Trust me, you don’t want to bring the conversation around to my work,” he said. Truth be told, he was the one who didn’t want to talk about his work. But neither did he want to alter the mood in the room by shutting the subject down too forcefully.
Abbie wasn’t so easily dissuaded. “I actually kind of do,” she said, putting her mug down on the glass end-table after taking a sip of the piping hot tea. She turned back to Steve. “I don’t really know anything about VHV, which is awful of me. I should know more about the virus. Especially about the modern form.” She looked at him expectantly. It was his turn to speak.
“You have a definite morbid streak,” he said, furrowing his brow, but smiling. “I also play the violin. Do you want to talk about that instead? I’m kind of great at it.”
“Indulge me,” Abbie said. “Isn’t it your professional opinion that people should know more about the virus?” She was teasing, but it was true. “Treat me like a layman, as if I don’t know anything. Like, if the virus is still around, why aren’t there zombies anymore?”
Steve sighed. “Well, there are. But they don’t look or act like they used to. The change is actually pretty simple.” He gave in and started to speak plainly about the subject, as if he were lecturing on VHV to a group of Academy hopefuls. “The virus isn’t anything like other viruses. It has physical architecture and physiologic capabilities that normal viruses don’t have. For one thing, it can produce energy like a bacteria. When a living organism is infected, the virus forms bacteria-like colonies inside the host’s cells, and produces its own energy through the breakdown of host tissues. These colonies communicate using a physical network of chemical signals. No one really understands how they manage to do something so complex, but the communicating colonies create a sort of brain. This viral ‘brain’ uses the energy it produces to stimulate nerve tissue and trigger neural action potentials. It can commandeer a body that way. Think of it like this: if you hooked an amputated limb up to an electrode in a lab and shocked it, it would move. Same thing here. You get zombies when the virus uses electric impulses to stimulate dead muscles into moving.” Abbie was listening rapt and wide-eyed. Well, I guess this works, Steve thought. It isn’t quite like watching a horror movie together on a date, but it’s close enough.
“So that’s what a zombie was,” Steve went on. “A dead body, reanimated by the virus to spread infection. They would bite and scratch to infect, not to eat. They didn’t need to eat. The bodies were dead, and the virus itself used tissue decomposition for energy. So they killed following a reproductive drive to spread the virus into new hosts.”
“That is so horrible,” Abbie said, a chilled shiver running through her. Steve moved a little closer, shifting his arm off the back of the couch onto her shoulders.
“So that’s what the infected were like, but now they are different. The virus has evolved over all these years. Before, it attacked the entire body, killing it and reanimating it for its own use. But we got too good at recognizing infection and dealing with the undead. Now, in order to succeed at propagating itself, the virus has to avoid detection. It no longer kills the whole body. It only attacks the brain in a very targeted way. It takes over like a parasite. The body, meanwhile, looks totally normal, and the infected are such good mimics that they also act totally normal. They blend in with the crowd, so that nobody knows they’re there. They can spread the virus without being recognized and destroyed.”
Abbie shook her head in disbelief. “I knew that part, obviously. I mean, I knew that was what VHV is like now, but I didn’t know all those details about how it actually works. But now I’m confused. You said the virus evolved to be more successful. If the Sleepers—” Abbie used the popular slang for the infected— “just went about their business, pretending to be normal all the time, they could keep spreading the virus secretly for years. Wouldn’t that be the most successful way? Why do they turn violent? Why do they start killing? Isn’t drawing attention like that the last thing they want?”
Steve maintained his usual debonair demeanor and didn’t let on how uncomfortable he was becoming, continuing to talk about this. He wanted to change the topic. But he knew Abbie was curious and focused enough that she wouldn’t move on to anything else until he had answered her questions.
Steve said, “Do you want to have kids?”
“No,” Abbie said, tilting her head, obviously wondering where this was going.
“Okay. Do you want to have sex?”
Abbie laughed. “Is that a come on?” She asked.
“It’s an analogy,” Steve said, grinning again. “Sex, of course, evolved as our biological means of reproduction. It is ingrained in the tiniest parts of our morphology, in the nucleic acid that forms the genome itself. Call it a burden of our history, if you want. A molecular fossil or a behavioral relic. But the fact is, you personally not wanting to have kids does fuck all to change your sex-drive, because sex-drive isn’t attached to personality or reason. It’s older than those cognitive developments and can supersede them. It’s the same with the Sleepers. We’ve already been over how killing, for the zombies, had nothing to do with feeding. It was a reproductive impulse to spread the infection. It was analogous to the sex-drive in a normal biological entity. So as Sleepers deteriorate further and further under the modern virus, they start to succumb to that drive that is a vestige of the evolutionary background of VHV. We’re not talking about self-aware, reasoning beings, here. We’re talking about viral pseudo-brains that are barely above reptile. They can’t resist an urge like that when it starts to surface.”
Abbie shook her head again, processing everything Steve had told her. He was silent for a while, waiting for her to speak.
“Well, that covers it,” she said. “Thanks for explaining this. I know you didn’t particularly want to.”
Steve moved his hand from her shoulder up to touch her hair. “So, a couple minutes ago you thought I was coming onto you. But you didn’t say if that was unwelcome or not.”