Bag Men: Origin (Book 6)

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Summary

Detective Avery Gannon stumbles upon a brutally disfigured corpse on a golf course. He thought the undead had been contained—everyone did. But they’re back, and now they’re smarter than we are.

Status:
Complete
Chapters:
3
Rating:
n/a
Age Rating:
18+

Episode 12 - Avery Gannon

West Acres Country Club, Sacramento

9:40 AM, July 4th, 2045

Detective Avery Gannon breathed raggedly, hunched above a patch of shrubs near the edge of the sand-trap. He supported himself with both hands clutching his bent legs above the knees, looking up, squinting in the bright sunlight. Through the fronds of the palm-tree standing over him, he could see small black shapes circling in the blue sky. Vultures. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. In the half-minute he had spent behind the tree retching, nothing had come up. Glad he hadn’t eaten breakfast yet, he took one last shaky breath, straightened his back, and stepped out from behind the rugged trunk of the palm tree.

The throaty buzzing of flies swept over him as he crossed the grass, back towards the sand trap. The golf course was deserted. It had been locked down as soon as the body was discovered and the police were called. No one had been allowed onto it, and no one had been allowed to leave the clubhouse building. Inside, a few dozen terrified citizens were gathered, being interviewed by police, their statements being taken down in detail for Avery and other detectives to pour over later. High-resolution photographs of their fingerprints were being taken. None of the usual, leisurely patrons of the course could be seen strolling across the acres of fields and hills; only the blue, dutiful shapes of police officers broke the undifferentiated green expanse, systematically combing the course in a grid search.

Avery saw his partner from behind, arms akimbo, standing so still it was as though she was frozen in time and space. Sensing Avery approach, she turned towards him, giving him a weak, pained smile.

“You okay, Av?” she asked. Susan’s voice was steady, but she was shaken by what she had seen, too. The obvious sympathy in her face made it clear that she knew exactly how Avery felt, because she was feeling the same way.

“Yeah,” Avery grunted. “I mean, no, but yeah, I can go on.” He smiled back. Susan gave a quick nod, her loose ponytail bobbing at the back of her billed police cap. Together, they turned and walked again to the mangled body, strewn for several feet across the sand-trap.

“I do not envy the poor fucker who stumbled on this,” Avery said, and it was Susan choked out an affirmative grunt. The body was sprawled on its stomach with arms and legs thrown out at erratic angles, as if they had seized-up in the midst of epileptic spasming. There was no head left on the body. All that remained of what was once a human face, skull and brain was smeared over a distance of about six feet, clotted in the sand and grass. It had been pounded to a grisly slaw; a slurry of white and gray chunks of brain, teeth, fragments of bone and copious amounts of dried blood, soaked into the sand, clumping it like cat litter. Even the eyeballs had been individually smashed. A few feet away in the grass, the killer had tossed the five iron which had obviously been the murder weapon. The club was completely caked in blood, from the cast head, splattered up the shaft, soaking the handle. The killer must have been covered in blood, too, hence the systematic search of the rest of the course, to find any blood-stained clothes the killer may have shed as he or she escaped which could help in making an identification. Susan walked around the club, snapping photos from several angles.

“This must have taken so long,” Susan observed, looking again at the extent to which the head had been destroyed. “The killer had to have been standing here for a very long time, just pounding and pounding. What is the mindset of a person doing that? How goddamn enraged do you have to be? They smashed individual molars.”

“A person who flies into a rage and murders someone doesn’t stick around and do this,” Avery said, shaking his head. “It happens in a flash. They’re seeing red one instant, then panicking the next, when they see what they’ve done. If this were driven by passion, we would see one or two solid hits. But this…” he scanned over the strewn corpse, falling silent for several seconds. “What is the word for this? Thorough? The head is completely destroyed. Everything is smashed. The killer didn’t miss a single detail. He must have been standing here for close to the run-time of a fucking movie, working on this. Who could sustain rage through all of that? And consider just how goddamn brazen it is. This is a public space. There are a couple of hills obstructing visibility from the rest of the course, somewhat, but someone could have walked into view at any time.”

“I’ll tell you one thing,” Susan said, “I don’t think we’re going to find the killer among the yuppies being interviewed back in the clubhouse. It’s hot out here. Whoever stood in the sun for all that time bashing the victim’s head in would be soaked in sweat and blood, and everyone I saw in the group being interviewed still looked put-together. They were in shock and the one who found the body was sobbing, but none of them was really disheveled.”

“Could have carried a change of clothes out here,” Avery said. “Clean clothes in a backpack. Changed, stashed the bloody clothes in the pack, and got back to the clubhouse to shower, in the time before the body was found.” He didn’t believe that had happened, but his mind was shifting through every possibility. He made a mental note to have all the trash receptacles in the clubhouse checked for a backpack or bag full of bloody clothes, just in case.

One of the other officers milling around the area had been carefully wrapping the blood-soaked golf club in plastic while Avery and Susan talked, preparing it for transport to the lab to check for fingerprints with liquid casting compounds. The invasive chemical processing involved with lifting fingerprints from the bloody, textured surface of the club’s handle would destroy the investigators’ ability to analyze the evidence as it had been found, so the officer who bagged the club had waited patiently for Avery to nod to him, signaling that they had photographed it undisturbed and gleaned all the information they could from it where it lay. When she was done photographing the body, Susan pulled on latex gloves and squatted down, gingerly tugging a wallet out of the pocket of blood-stained khaki shorts.

“His name was Daniel Rodriguez,” she said, opening the wallet in her hands and rifling through it to find his government-issued identification card. “Twenty-eight. He lived in Old Town. So, contact the family? Find out if they know who he was golfing with today?”

Avery nodded. “After we’re positive this really is Rodriquez, and that wallet wasn’t planted,” he said. “It’s not like we have a face we can match that ID photo to. Even the family couldn’t make a positive identification. We have to fingerprint him and hope his prints are on file.”

Avery Gannon

Residential District, Old Sacramento

12:17 PM, July 4th, 2045

Avery and Susan stood at the door of Rupert and Josefina Rodriguez, listening for movement inside. Avery touched the metal knocker, in the shape of a hand holding an orange, about to knock a second time, when they heard feet moving across the floor. The door opened, and a small, fit, middle-aged woman in a loose blouse and cutoff shorts stood in the doorway, smiling at them. Her black, chin-length hair framed a dark, delicate face; her thin arms and legs were well-muscled, suggestive of a high degree of physical activity. Avery often fell automatically into a feedback loop of observations and deductions about people he met, but in this case he was too focused on the difficult task at hand.

He smiled softly. “Mrs. Rodriguez?” he asked, and when she nodded, “I’m Detective Avery Gannon, and this is my partner, Detective Susan Gough. We need to talk to you about your son.”

Mr. Rodriquez had joined from upstairs soon after Josefina let the detectives into the house. Sitting in the living room, Avery and Susan had delivered the news of theirs son’s murder on the golf course — leaving out the astonishing, horrible brutality of it. There would be a time for them to learn more about their son’s death, but for the moment the fact of it alone was enough to drop on them. Josefina was rocked by paroxysms of sobbing, choking out words in Spanish to her husband, who held her around the shoulders, staring straight ahead with wide eyes and mouth slack. Avery and Susan sat in respectful silence for several minutes, speaking only to answer questions as the couple managed to form them.

Susan got up and walked into the kitchen, getting two glasses of water for the stricken parents. “If you’re ready,” she said gently when she returned to the room, “we need to ask you some questions.”

“Okay,” Josefina said, straightening up, as her husband rubbed her back in soothing circles.

“And you, Mr. Rodriguez?” Avery asked. “Are you ready?” He saw his blank, ashen face looking into space, and wasn’t positive he had even heard anything that was said.

Rupert blinked as if he had just woken up, and quickly nodded without speaking.

“Okay. Did you know your son was at the golf course this morning?” Susan asked.

“Yes—well, we’re not surprised,” Josefina said, wiping away tears and composing herself. “It’s Sunday. He usually plays on Sundays.”

“Does he go to the course with anyone, usually?” Avery asked.

“His friend Thomas often plays with him. Thomas Morrill. They’ve been friends since they were schoolboys.”

“Where does Thomas Morrill live?” Susan asked. “We should talk with him.”

Josefina gave the detectives Morrill’s address, then said, “You don’t think… you don’t think Thomas is involved? He is Daniel’s oldest friend. They never had any conflict that I know of.”

“There was a fight between them, once,” Rupert said, breaking his silence, looking like he was thinking back on very old memories. “It was over a girl. But that was years ago.”

“I don’t think that’s what this was about,” Susan said. “We don’t have any idea yet if Thomas could be involved; we just need to talk to him.”

Josefina looked at the floor. “Can we see Daniel?” she asked meekly.

Avery furrowed his brow, his mouth a pinched, thin line. “Yes,” he said. “But not right away. The coroner is examining him. We will let you know more just as soon as we can.”

Josefina bowed her head, holding her face in her hands.

Avery and Susan rose from their seats.

“Do you want us to send a social worker to be with you today?” Susan asked. “She could talk, if you want to talk, and keep you updated on anything more that comes out of our department. And help you contact anyone you want to contact.” Really, Susan was hoping they would accept the offer so the social worker could gently remind the grieving couple to eat and drink as the hours went by. Their day would be bad enough without them forgetting to take care of themselves.

Josefina nodded her head, not taking her hands away from her face.

As Avery and Susan walked out of the house, Susan pulled her cell phone from her pocket and placed the call requesting a social worker.

Avery Gannon

Technology Park, New Sacramento

1:35 PM, July 4th, 2045

Soon, the detectives stood outside the door of the modular apartment where Thomas Morrill lived with his sister Amanda and one other roommate, Martin Waters. As Avery raised his hand to knock on the sliding glass panel, a muffled scream tore through the apartment. The source was somewhere inside, beyond the tiled entryway, out of sight from the glass.

“What the fuck.” Avery groaned, pounded on the glass, and shouted, “Police! Open the door!”

“Hang on,” Susan said, drawing her gun. She clutched it by the barrel and swung the grip like a hammer, breaking a window near the door. There was a slight electric crackling sound as the clear photovoltaic panel short-circuited. She looked in past the broken glass, clearing out a few jagged shards, then clambered into the opening.

“The room is clear,” she said to Avery as she went. “I’ll let you in.” Dropping to her feet just inside and turning towards the keypad beside the front entryway, she unlocked the sliding door. An LED light turned from red to green with a gentle chime sound, and Avery threw the door open, springing onto the tiles beside his partner, his gun drawn. They heard the scream again — a woman’s voice. There were no words, just a guttural, animal sound of panic. Then, “Thomas, what are you…” the voice trailed off again into inarticulate horror and agony.

Moving in tandem, Avery and Susan advanced forward through a hallway, a living room, a second short hallway, and stopped at a doorway opening into a bedroom. Inside they saw a tall, lanky, blonde-haired man, brandishing a kitchen knife and cornering a blonde woman beside the bed. She was slumped against the wall, one arm pinned to her side where a wound was just beginning to blossom with red stains spreading across her white georgette blouse, the other hand raised to fend off her attacker. On the floor behind the two, a male body was sprawled in a pool of blood.

“Drop the knife!” Susan screamed, her gun trained on the man’s aorta. He turned to look at the detectives. His face was calm — more than calm, blank. He looked as though he was sleep-walking through the motions of murdering one man and attempting to do the same to the woman.

He took a single step forward, before Susan and Avery squeezed off five shots between them. Two rounds tore through his chest and heart, two caught him in the forehead, and one passed through his right eye. The man dropped to the floor, the knife clattering on the laminate. The woman collapsed just after, sliding down the wall leaving a trail of blood, crumpling on the floor across from, presumably, her brother Thomas.

“EMTs, now,” Avery shouted to Susan, rushing forward across the room and crouching beside the injured woman.

“Amanda? Is your name Amanda?” Avery asked, trying to engage her and keep her from sinking into shock.

She nodded, her eyes wide and glistening, suffused with tears.

“Amanda, I’ve got you. Everything will be okay.” As he spoke, Avery pulled a bulky plastic syringe from a pouch on his belt. It was a standard issue police XStat, like all officers carried for emergency, fast-acting dressage of gunshot or narrow puncture wounds in the crucial minutes before surgical treatment was available.

“Hold very still, Amanda,” Avery said. “This is going to hurt like hell. But it will save your life. You’re going to be fine.” He locked eyes with her and smiled. Susan finished her call for an ambulance, and joined Avery beside the victim. She saw Avery preparing the XStat, and moved to tear open Amanda’s blouse, revealing her turquoise bra, and, lower, the loose flap of skin where she had been stabbed, blood gushing.

“You’re fine, you’re fine,” Susan cooed, as Avery inserted the bulky syringe into the open wound. Amanda writhed and groaned in agony, being stabbed all over again; Avery depressed the plunger, injecting the contents of the syringe. 92 tiny, expandable cellulose sponges instantly flooded into Amanda’s body and began soaking in blood, puffing up to fill the wound and seal it, staunching the bleeding. Susan held Amanda’s hand, talking to her softly, keeping her focused and conscious. She cast a sidelong glance at Avery. She didn’t say anything to him, but he read the look easily. He was thinking the exact same thing. Did you see that fucker’s dead eyes? What the hell was going on here?

Avery Gannon

Residential District, Old Sacramento

7:15 PM, July 4th, 2045

Stepping through his own door, Avery paused in the entryway, listening to the voices in the living room. Wow, this has been a bad day, he thought. He was sinking. With a slow exhale, he let the voices wash over him and pull him up towards the surface, desperate to take a breath before he suffocated, desperate to pull himself ashore, back into his own life. Over fourteen hours had passed since he left home in the morning, and within that timeframe he had seen two mangled corpses, one with its head smashed to jelly by a golf club, the other with its throat slit by a kitchen knife so forcefully that the head moved like it was on a hinge. He had field-dressed a bloody stab-wound on a young woman. He had confronted the young man who caused all that carnage, and shot him to death. There was absolutely nothing questionable about his and Susan’s actions in that shooting, but that didn’t make it any less horrible.

In the hospital four hours after stumbling on the scene in the Morrill apartment, Avery and Susan had interviewed a groggy, red-eyed Amanda. She was loopy, not long out of anesthesia, following hours of emergency surgery, and chocked full of powerful pain-killers. But she was fine. The police detectives’ quick response to her injury had saved her life. She lost only a small fraction of the blood she would have lost without the Xstat; it was simple enough for Sacramento Hospital trauma-surgeons to remove the blood-clotted cellulose sponges from the wound and address the puncture, which had miraculously missed her major organs and arteries. Amanda was going to be fine physically, but it would be a long, long time before she recovered emotionally. As she described what had happened between her and her brother, Avery stared at the green floor in front of his chair, wincing occasionally at the nightmare he and his partner had broken in on.

“I saw Tom bending down over Martin…” she rambled sleepily. “I saw him through the doorway. And there was so much blood on the floor. I didn’t know what had happened. Some kind of accident. I saw Tom bending down and thought he was trying to help. I couldn’t imagine what had happened, but in all the ideas that flashed through my mind, it didn’t even occur to me that Tom might have attacked Martin. I ran into the room, but when Tom looked up at me there was something wrong with his face. He wasn’t scared. He didn’t look angry. He just stood up and stabbed me with a knife he was holding. I think I was too shocked right then to really understand that he was trying to kill me. I sort of staggered back, and I think I tried to talk to him. I don’t remember. But then you were both there, and there were gunshots. Tom was…he fell down…There was so much blood…” Amanda sank into deep, exhausted sobs, gulping air and shaking like an infant. Susan held her hand and talked to her, as Avery walked out of the room and stood in the doorway, his back to the scene.

There was no more information to get from Amanda. There was nothing she could tell them to make sense of what had happened, because there was no sense to it. There was no explanation; the carnage was simply the work of a madman. The brutal, pointless murders didn’t mean anything. It had ended with the madman being shot, and there was nothing else to investigate.

In the present again, standing in the entryway of his house, Avery heard the gentle tinkle of a piano. He couldn’t see it from around the corner, but he knew from simple familiarity that his husband, Walter, was sitting at the piano, his right hand laid casually at the upper octaves, playing simple motifs absentmindedly as he talked. Avery heard laughter. He shook his head to clear away the images of that day, and walked towards his living room.

“You’re just in time!” Walter said, half turning around on the piano bench as Avery stepped into the room. He didn’t know anything about Avery’s ordeals yet, and talked to him as if he were getting home at the end of any other workday. It was profoundly comforting.

“Oh? Just in time for what?” Avery asked.

“We’ve discovered yet another talent in the young maestro, here,” Walter said, gesturing to Steve, who sat a few feet away on the carpet, a book open in front of him. Steve beamed at Avery, and Avery felt a hot ball forming in his throat. There’s nothing quite like a day surrounded by death to make you feel unusually tender towards your family…

“That doesn’t surprise me, really,” Avery said. “But, pray tell, what is this talent?”

“Want to give a concert, Steve?” Walt asked, and the seven year old nodded enthusiastically, standing up in the middle of the carpet.

“Will you accompany me?” Steve asked, and Walt gave a thumbs up. He turned back to face the piano, placing both hands on the keyboard. His back became ramrod straight in a flash, professional posture coming to him effortlessly from habit.

Walt began to play; Avery didn’t recognize the piece from the initial few notes, but it was obviously something classical, as per usual for Walt. After a couple seconds of intro, Walt hesitated a beat, and Steve began to whistle. A loud, bright, clear sound; the seven year old’s cheeks puffed out as he blew with all the breath he could muster, lips pursed. It was a moment more before Avery recognized the tune, then it hit him: Mozart’s Queen of the Night Aria. Jesus. That’s a fiendishly difficult piece. And the kid just learned to whistle a couple weeks ago…

Walt continued to bang out accompaniment as Steve, face reddening slightly, puffed out the fast, complex melody with eerily perfect pitch. He was only a little boy, but something in his brain was obviously wired for music. He came to the highest, fastest barrage of notes in the aria, a section where Avery almost expected him to falter or go off-key. But Steve didn’t. Nor did he in the following minute and a half, coming to the end of the short, three minute song, finishing with a warbling, sustained note that cut off only a little too early, when his small lungs ran out of air.

Avery and Walt applauded; Steve took a bow in the middle of the carpet. The little boy sat back down, looking again at the book, open on the carpet in front of him.

“Well, can someone be a whistling prodigy?” Avery asked. “Because if that’s a thing, Steve definitely is one.”

“Apparently you can be a whistling prodigy,” Walt said. “And the proof is right here in front of us. Okay, Steve, now that the concert is over, time to go brush your teeth and start getting ready for bed. We’ll be in to see you in a couple minutes.”

Steve rose to his feet and trotted out of the room. Walt turned back towards Avery and smiled. “So there’s what we’ve been busy with this Sunday,” he said. “How about you?”

Avery considered how much he wanted to say about the day’s events. On one hand, he didn’t want to make Walt sit through graphic descriptions of the most horrible things imaginable. On the other hand, if Walt turned on the news later, he would almost certainly see the story reported, and it would be a rude shock to learn from such an impersonal source that Avery had been confronted by a knife-wielding lunatic and forced to gun him down.

“Ask me later,” Avery said, shaking his head. He didn’t want to ruin Walt’s evening, sure, but neither was he eager to think back on it all, himself.

Walt raised his eyebrows. “It was that good?”

“Oh, it was great.”

Walt nodded in understanding. He knew Avery would talk to him eventually, and didn’t press him to say anything before he was ready to. “Do you want me to put something together for dinner?” he asked.

“Nah, I really don’t feel like eating anything tonight.”

Walt gave a mock frown. “You don’t feel like eating anything?”

Avery laughed. He hadn’t smiled in fourteen long, long hours, and it was a pleasant surprise to find he still could, after the day he’d had. “Well, maybe something, later.”

After talking a little while longer in the living room, Avery and Walt checked in on Steve in his bedroom. The boy had already brushed his teeth, changed into his pajamas, and was climbing into bed when his fathers knocked on the open door, stepping in to say goodnight. Avery still felt uncharacteristically raw, and hung back in the doorway to get a full view of Walt standing on his knees beside the bed, exchanging a few casual words with Steve, kissing him on the forehead, and switching off the bedside light.

Avery had been thinking a lot about Amanda Morrill. How would things ever be the same in her family? How could they recover from a wound like the one that had been dealt to them? Avery’s own family was tiny, but no one was in it by accident. They were the people, out of all the people in the world, that he had chosen to bring into his life, to surround himself with, devote himself to. They were the bedrock of his world.

Something happening to his family, like what had happened to Amanda’s family, would kill him.

Avery Gannon

Hiking Trails, Old Sacramento

11:00 AM, July 16th, 2045

“Holy shit,” Susan said. She was speaking under her breath. Even standing right beside her, Avery could barely hear her. The detectives were standing side by side a couple paces away from a small pond, surrounded by quaking aspen trees. The hiking trail was well-worn, wending between the grey trunks of tall black cottonwoods, descending over a long declivity and turning sharply to follow along the banks of a riverbed. The river was dry, but in one spot, a shallow basin of stagnant water glistened in the morning sun. Around the stagnant pool, four uniformed officers waited in silence. Two more waded through the water and tall reeds, dressed in rubber overalls and muck boots, carefully pulling a white object out of the sucking mud and reeking water. Susan and Avery were getting their first clear view of it as the two men gently pushed it onto dry ground, the four others quickly stepping in and dragging it out of the reeds onto the clear dirt of the path.

Body-decomposition in water moves through a predictable timetable, making it possible for experienced and knowledgeable forensics experts to judge how long the corpse has been in the water with considerable accuracy. The corpse on the path in front of Avery had already begun to de-glove — the greenish, blotchy skin was starting to peel away from the waterlogged body, as subcutaneous fat deposits melted away, loosening the skin — telling the detective that it had been in the water for over forty-eight hours. But probably not much over, the warm water in July acting to speed along the whole decomposition process. It had been found floating face-up. Drowning victims are invariably discovered facedown with the head drooping down farther than the rest of the body, in the absence of river currents or other external forces to adjust them — meaning that this woman in the still, stagnant pond had not merely drowned. The eyes were milky white, but intact. On land, the eyes, mouth and groin-area of a corpse are the first parts that will be infested by insects and eaten by maggots, thus the presence of eyes on the decomposing body told Avery that it had been in the water since death, protected from insects. By the same token, any facial injuries on the body had clearly been inflicted premortem, rather than being postmortem damage from flies or ants. Among other facial injuries, there was severe damage at the sides of the head.

Susan and Avery walked slowly around the body, taking stock of its contorted position, cataloging the catastrophic injuries that were still apparent even in such an advanced state of decomposition.

The victim was a woman, heavyset, seemingly middle aged, though it was hard to tell. They would know much more after the body was autopsied and hopefully identified. But finding the likely cause of death would not have to wait until autopsy: it was plain to see that her neck was broken. The head had been wrenched around nearly one hundred eighty degrees, like she were an owl, turning to look behind her. Her right ear was missing, torn clear off. Her left ear was also damaged, stretched and deformed. It looked to Avery like whoever had broken her neck had done so by grabbing her ears and twisting like a valve. One ear had come clean off in the process. They would probably find what was left of it in the immediate area.

“Look at her back,” Susan said. She had been following along with Avery’s observations, and now drew his attention to another injury that probably preceded death. Her back was visibly broken, bent like a roof-bracket in the middle where her spine had been snapped. It looked like she had fallen from a height and landed with her back across a railing.

“Or like the murderer...” Avery made a motion like breaking a bundle of sticks over his knee.

Susan cocked her head at him “Seriously? The killer would have to be so strong to lift her up like that. This woman wasn’t tiny. ”

“Strong, like someone who could grab a person by the ears and twist their face around to look the wrong way? I think we’re dealing with a freakishly physically powerful killer, here.”

Susan pursed her lips, looked back and forth between Avery and the corpse, and nodded. It was hard to imagine, but it really did look like the killer had broken the victim over his knee. It wouldn’t be plausible, except for the lack of alternative explanations. There were no heights to fall from in the vicinity, and they knew from the absence of insects on the body that she had died right here and gone straight into the water. And if that had happened to her back somewhere else, she would be found somewhere else. There was no way she would have managed to move anywhere; not even crawling.

“So what you’re thinking is,” Susan said, “the killer surprised her while she was hiking, broke her back, pinned her on the ground and snapped her neck, then tossed the corpse in the water?”

“It’s astonishingly brutal,” Avery said flatly. “It’s... This isn’t normal. That insane killing on the golf course, and now this. I know people kill each other. But not like this.” Avery didn’t finish the thought. Susan looked quizzically at him; there was a shadow passing over his face as he fell silent and stared fixedly at the body.

Avery Gannon

Police Headquarters, New Sacramento

6:00 PM, July 19th, 2045

The dead woman had been identified as Kimberly Ryan, a fifty year old who had formerly lived in Wichita, and, like so many others, fled to Sacramento in the final days of the plague that destroyed America. She’d stayed ahead of the advancing wall of the undead, and had arrived in Sac a couple months before the apocalyptic last stand that cost so many thousands of lives but secured the survival of civilization into the future. She had lived safely in Sacramento for almost a decade.

Her mangled corpse was identified by dental records and her family contacted. Sure enough, her granddaughter, Victoria, had reported Kim missing days before, after several attempts to call her had failed and her worried relatives didn’t find her at home. No one had known she planned on hiking that day, and searchers had not been sent into those woods. She wasn’t found until a young couple spotted the white mass in the stagnant water that morning and reported it to police.

The autopsy only served to confirm the detectives’ initial observations on the obvious cause of death. It gave no other insight into the case.

Avery and Susan began by canvassing Kimberly’s family, looking for anyone who might have known she was going to hike the day she died. Finding no promising leads in her immediate circle, they expanded the search to friends and acquaintances. They found that many, many people were shocked and horrified by what had happened to Kimberly, but didn’t find anything else of worth. It was looking increasingly likely that the woman had been murdered by a stranger in a chance encounter.

Truly random crimes are by far the most difficult to solve. After three days of fruitless investigation, Avery turned back to a clawing, sneaking thought that had occurred to him on his first sight of the ruined corpse…

Standing in his office, Avery poured over an assortment of photographs on his desk. Head-shots with brief, bullet-point bios and case details printed below them, all pulled from the SPD database. Some of the killings were unsolved. Other victims, like Daniel Rodriguez, had their photographs positioned next to photographs of their murderers. The photos were spread out on a large white-board laid across the desk; Avery had drawn lines in marker between many of the photos as if he were building a family-tree. He was looking for a pattern; he was delving through the records of these killings looking for a connection that would suggest all these people had, even in passing or without knowing it, been physically near each other…

“What are you doing?” Susan asked, stepping into the office with a cup of coffee in her hand. It was getting late in the afternoon. She would be going home soon, and had come to say goodnight. She had not expected to find Avery working.

Avery looked up at her. He looked tired, as they both were, but below that, there was something else that fatigue couldn’t account for. The same shadow that had passed over his face that morning beside Kimberly Ryan’s body. Some morbid, unspoken thought scratching its way out from the inside.

“What do these crimes have in common?” Avery asked. It was a leading question. He spoke as if he already had a sound idea of the commonality the cases shared, and he wanted to know if it was also apparent to someone else. Susan walked around the desk, sipping her coffee. It was decaf. An afternoon ritual of hers; her signal to herself that it was time to begin unwinding at the end of the day. But the urgency in Avery’s voice told her not to unwind too far yet.

“They’re not geographically related,” Susan observed, looking at all the names, faces and addresses. “These are cases pulled from all over the place. And they’re not related by a clear timeline, either. And I don’t see anything related in any of the killers, in cases where the killer was caught. No, I’m not seeing anything in common between them. Give me a hint?”

“On the surface, there’s nothing,” Avery said. “These victims don’t represent cases that can be linked by time, place, or any other detail. They are ideologically related, by the same collective mentality of the killers — the same brutality, the same insane, pointless violence. And the killers are superior. They can’t be touched. They can’t be seen. There are never defensive wounds in these cases. Never indications of a life-or-death struggle. The victims are taken completely unaware, completely overmatched by the superhuman strength of their murderers.”

Susan stared at Avery. He was pale, eyes shadowed, brow drawn. She had the impulse to ask him if he was feeling all right, but she didn’t. She said, “Some of the cases are unsolved, so we could conceivably be looking for organized super-predators on the loose. But we already found some of the killers — like Thomas Morrill. That was just some psychotic kid. He wasn’t part of any organization of killers. I think what you’re looking at here is a list of coincidences.”

Avery laughed, bitterly. “That could be. That could very well be. But it’s a lot of coincidences. And let’s just assume for a second that there is something below it all. Senseless, random killing. Physical strength overmatching ordinary humans. And remember Thomas Morrill’s eyes? Complete disconnect. His face barely even registered that we were shooting him. What does all of that sound like?”

Susan was silent, holding Avery’s gaze with an uncertain expression. He was rambling.

“I’ll give another hint,” Avery said. “It’s something we thought was extinct. It’s something that isn’t supposed to exist in this world anymore.”

“Are you talking about the undead?” Susan said, taking in a sharp breath. “Are you saying these people were murdered by fucking zombies?” She looked genuinely pained, listening to Avery. Her every instinct was telling her that he had seen too much and finally snapped. She could understand that — he had survived the Darkness, just like she had. He had lived in Sacramento all his life, waiting on the West Coast and watching the whole country collapse like a row of dominos falling straight towards him. Susan had lived outside through all of it, only coming to Sacramento at the end with the other refugees, when there was nothing else left, and nothing to do but stand in the last city for all she was worth until her life was torn away from her. But they had both survived, and others had survived. They had outlasted the plague and they were rebuilding. Now, the whole existence of Sacramento, the whole survival of mankind, was predicated on the fact that they had eradicated the Pan Virus. They had worked at it for years, culling the last of the undead, but they had succeeded. No one saw zombies in the former California, anymore.

She was surprised to realize she was becoming angry at Avery, despite her pity. What he was saying was a sort of blasphemy. “Because if that’s what you’re saying,” Susan went on, “that’s fucking nuts. You saw Thomas Morrill. Did he look like a zombie to you? Yes, he was dead-eyed — but not literally fucking dead.”

“Look back on the history,” Avery said, speaking calmly despite the sudden heat in Susan’s voice. “The zombies changed. In the beginning, they were useless, shambling. They overwhelmed by sheer numbers. But as time went on, they changed—they got faster. They could run. They could jump. Individuals, instead of just hordes, became dangerous. And eventually they seemed to be getting smarter. They turned into rudimentary pack-hunters. They could coordinate with each other. Don’t you remember that? And by then, we were almost done killing the last of them off. We don’t know where it was going to go next — we don’t know what the next change would have been. But what if we’re seeing the next fucking change right now. What if these are the new zombies: smart enough to blend in with us, to act human until they get someone alone? What if they can now kill without being seen?” The words were pouring out of Avery uncontrollably. He had never given voice to this before, but it was a crawling, festering dread that had been growing in the back of his mind for seven years, ever since the day Steve came into his life…

Susan shook her head, mastering her sudden anger. When she spoke again, she sounded collected. “Av, you need some time off. And no one can blame you for that. This job is fucking horrible sometimes, and we’ve had a string of really bad weeks. Have you thought about asking the captain for some time? You never take a sick day. I’m sure you have a lot built up.”

Avery looked at her blankly. “So, you’re saying I’m sick.”

Susan shook her head, “I’m saying you must have time off you can take advantage of if you want it,” she said. “And it seems to me that you should take advantage of it.”

Avery’s partner mumbled “Goodnight,” and walked out of the room without waiting for a reply.

Avery Gannon

Central Government Administrations Building, New Sacramento

2:32 PM, July 24th, 2045

Avery sat in the white, carpeted reception area outside the office of the Surgeon General. A laptop computer rested on his knees, closed, waiting. It contained all the evidence he had gathered to support his idea; murder cases from all over Sacramento, stretching back for a few months. All related, as he had told Susan, by the collective mentality of the killers. Brutal, senseless killings — a few where victims were entirely overmatched by unknown assailants, but a vast majority where trusted friends and lovers suddenly, inexplicably killed their own confidants with a level of detached ruthlessness that defied belief, even for a jaded criminal investigator.

Avery’s husband, Walter, academic that he was, had said that the cases Avery told him about were like Hercules, stricken with madness by Hera, slaying and incinerating his own children. Except, for these killers, there was no contrition after the fact. There was no clearing of their senses, no return to who they had been. They carried on with their lives mechanically, giving no indication they even remembered the killings. If they were caught, they fought police with the ferocity of wild animals; or they sometimes resigned themselves to justice with aloof disinterest, as if life and death meant nothing to them. After days of digging into these cases, Avery had reconstructed the travels, habits and movements of the killers. He had pieced together that, though they lived in various parts of the city-state, it could be confidently asserted that each of the killers had very likely, at one point or another, been physically near one of the others. It could be theorized that there had been opportunity for an actual, physical viral infection passing between them. A viral explanation underlying the cases was not outside the realm of possibility.

And so Avery had made an appointment to meet with the Surgeon General. If he was correct, the cases detailed on his laptop represented a public health crisis the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the plague that destroyed civilization. It threatened to plunge all of Sacramento into anarchy, and finally extinguish the remnants of the human race, if it were not immediately curbed. Curbed somehow, though Avery had no idea how it could be done.

How do you fight an enemy that is indistinguishable from your friends? How do you protect your loved ones from danger, when that danger might be growing inside yourself without you even knowing it?

It was a vague fear that had been crouching in the back of Avery’s mind for seven years: zombies beginning to learn. That fear had been etched into his brain in a flash of drama and horror the day he adopted his son Steve…

October 24th, 2038, Avery walked through the streets on patrol. An SPD officer, then, assigned to a beat. Like any police officer patrolling the suburban sprawl of Old Town, he was intimately familiar with the district, and had personal relationships with the citizens, strengthening police effectiveness through a cooperative effort to build a safer community.

Ambling casually through the warm afternoon air and heavy, saturating afternoon sun, Avery glanced up into the high dome of the sky. The day’s robin’s egg blue had deepened to purple and black at the zenith, phasing through shades of dark blue downwards towards the horizon-line, where a band of crisp yellow ran like old papyrus. The long, lingering Pacific sunset was drawing on in front of him, making his routine progression between landmarks on his patrol route pleasantly serene — until a harsh sound caught his attention and drew his gaze to an alleyway a hundred feet down the road.

A woman walked out of the mouth of the alley, carrying a naked baby in her arms; the baby was wailing and squalling intensely, like it was hungry, afraid or in pain; the woman rocked it slowly, but said nothing and seemed almost oblivious to the child. She was dressed in draping garments, and a black shawl covered her face. She seemed to be wearing traditional Muslim attire, but Avery was familiar with the little neighborhood and knew none of the local residents were practicing Muslims. She had come from somewhere else. Why she was traveling on foot in a different district, near dark, carrying her baby, remained to be seen. She walked quite slowly along the street, but was coming directly towards Avery. The baby coughed and choked, screaming so hard it was losing its breath. The shawled woman did not speak.

“Is something wrong, ma’am?” Avery said. He stared intensely, but he couldn’t make out the woman’s face at all, her back to the setting sun, lost in the shadowy folds of her fabric coverings. But as she approached, he was getting a clearer view of her baby: the tiny, white form was shockingly thin. Her baby was screaming because it was starving. The woman must have been looking for help.

“Ma’am, do you need assistance?” Avery asked, rushing forward towards her. She was only ten feet away now, but still said nothing; the baby was quieting down from exhaustion. Avery was prepared to lead the woman back towards one of the standing telephone kiosks that lined street corners along his patrol route; he would call for an ambulance to rush the baby and its mother to the closest hospital for emergency rehydration and feeding, and to examine child and mother for other trauma; he reached out his hand to the woman. She threw the baby aside like a doll and lunged forward.

It happened so fast that he could barely process the reversal. The woman who had approached him beseechingly, clutching her suffering baby, had thrown the baby aside like trash and was grabbing him by the shoulders with shockingly strong hands. She leaned forward, head lolling down, biting at the side of Avery’s neck through the fabric of her shawl. He barely managed to shove away in time to avoid the bite — falling to the ground. She was much too strong. Pushing against her, while she braced herself and held her ground, was like pushing against a concrete pillar. She didn’t budge, and Avery threw himself away rather than move her. She loomed over him as he lay on his back on the sidewalk. He managed to draw his gun while she stooped towards him; emptying his clip into her, he saw bullet after bullet bite through her torso, spraying clouds of blood out of exit-wounds in her back, while she advanced without flinching. The shawled woman still did not make a sound.

Avery kicked his left foot out, hooking his instep around her lead ankle. Slamming his right foot against her shin just below the knee, he pushed, simultaneously pulling her hooked foot out from below. The leverage unsteadied her, despite her strength. Toppling over backwards, the folds of the woman’s shawl fell open and Avery saw her face. Bulging, milky white eyes. Corpse eyes. Her greenish, rotting skin was stretched across high cheekbones, waxy and torn. Her lips were shriveled, permanently pulled away from her jaggedly broken teeth. Expressionless, she writhed and fought to get back to her feet like an unbalanced beetle. Oh my God, oh my God, it’s undead. It’s a fucking zombie.

Avery scrambled to his feet much faster than the creature, instinctively ejecting the empty cartridge from his semi-automatic handgun and slamming a fresh one home. He was moving automatically from rote training; mind shocked into silence, hands shaking from adrenaline. Without consciously aiming, he fired a burst of shots at the moving corpse’s forehead. Two missed and threw up sparks against the sidewalk; two others found their target, bursting the front of her skull like a decomposing pumpkin. The corpse stopped moving.

For a moment after the gunshots, all Avery could hear was ringing in his ears; then, his own ragged breathing; then, finally, he became aware again of the squalling baby. It’s alive, he thought. Turning towards the source of the sound, he saw that the baby had landed on a stack of cardboard boxes outside a doorway, saving it from a hard spill against the concrete sidewalk.

“Call an ambulance,” he screamed. The twilit street was still empty: but Avery knew there was no possible way no one in any of the surrounding buildings had missed all the gunshots. Everyone was obviously staying inside, hunkered down in fear, but someone had to be listening now.

“I’m a police officer, call an ambulance,” he screamed into the semi-darkness again for good measure, as he knelt down over the screaming baby. It was painfully thin; the belly was round with starvation, the limbs gaunt, angular sticks. He saw that it was a boy. A starving, terrified little boy.

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” Avery cooed, voice quaking, lifting the baby up and cradling it against his chest. In that moment, it didn’t even occur to him that the boy might be a Pan Virus carrier.

He rose to his feet, sheltering the baby with his arms and turning away from the ghastly sight of the zombie he had shot. He started walking in the direction of the hospital, talking quietly to the suffering child, until he heard sirens in the distance, coming towards him…

“This is a lot to take on,” Walter had said quietly, a week later, looking down at the baby nestled in white blankets in a glass-sided hospital cradle. The infant was getting stronger by the day. Rehydrated. Reconstituted. He was ready to be discharged, no longer in need of constant monitoring by medical staff. The doctors had tested for Pan Virus infection, and found that, by a miracle, the baby had not contracted it.

Like with anyone born outside Sacramento, there were no records, no means of identification, and no possibility of reuniting the baby with relatives. Rather than let him pass into the foster system, though, Avery and his husband decided to adopt the baby themselves. Ever since they had made that choice three days before, they had labored over choosing a name. Standing over the cradle, just a day away from bringing the baby home, Walter said, “How about naming him after your father? Steven Gannon?”

Avery thought silently for several moments. “Maybe Steven,” he said. “But we are both his family, now. He should have something from each of us. Instead of Gannon, he could take your last name.”

Walter nodded. “Steve Bradford,” he said slowly, forming the syllables like a composition in poetic meter. “I like that.”

Over the years that followed, Avery had thought a great deal about the evening when he’d confronted that zombie in the street.

The physicians who treated Steve in the hospital had dealt with the immediate situation: re-feeding the starving child, testing him for Pan Virus infection; they hadn’t stopped to surmise about the events that led him to where he was found. They didn’t explain to Avery how it was possible that he hadn’t been infected during an extended period being carried by a zombie, or how he hadn’t already starved to death in the time it must have taken for his mother’s infection to progress so far. She certainly wasn’t still feeding him. She was already dead. They didn’t venture any explanation for why the undead woman would carry the baby; the closest any of the doctors came to a real guess was to say, “Perhaps the infant was too small to trigger a predatory drive in the zombie, and it continued to carry it simply because she always had in life. A sort of mental inertia.”

But not knowing any of these things was torturous for Avery, in the beginning. He had theorized extensively, playing with the few facts at hand, and what he ultimately decided was the foregone conclusion was profoundly unsettling: The zombie had set a trap.

The baby could not have originally belonged to the woman. The boy would have already been long dead by the time the woman was as far gone as when Avery had met her. No, the zombie must have killed the real parent, but taken the baby alive. Seeing the woman with the starving baby had made Avery move in to help her…was that the exact reason she carried it? Was it a deliberate, calculated trick to deceive, disorient and kill humans? Was the zombie’s attire also part of a plan? Her face had been totally covered; she was not recognizable as undead. Even the fact that she emerged from the alleyway while Avery was totally alone in the street was perhaps too convenient to be merely coincidental. It seemed like an orchestrated tactic. Had she been waiting in the alley, the exhausted baby asleep in her arms, sensing people in the street, waiting for someone to pass by alone?

The zombie had to be thinking. It was able to anticipate human reactions, and to exploit them. It was something new, exhibiting characteristics never seen before in the undead. But no one would listen to him, and after a while he stopped talking about the idea because the pushback from his peers was so intense. Finally, he stopped even thinking about it altogether. Until the day he stood over Kimberly Ryan’s body, and the old fear sprang back into his mind, and he realized the prototypical thinking zombie with its simple disguise and clever trick might have been a precursor to something much worse: a human-mimic; a zombie so well disguised that no one can see it; a zombie that blends into a crowd…

The cheerful voice of the Surgeon General’s handsome, brown-haired secretary drew Avery out of his memories. “Dr. Paradise is ready for you, Detective Gannon,” he said, his hand lightly touching his earpiece, turning away from his desktop computer to face Avery, smiling widely.

“Thank you,” Avery said, nodding, rising from the white sofa and moving towards the glass double-doors into the office.

“Come in, Detective,” Sacramento Surgeon General Noel Paradise said, smiling affectedly. “Please, have a seat. I hope you haven’t been waiting long.” Paradise was a short, square-shouldered man who looked to be in his mid-to-late thirties. He was well-dressed and manicured, but his combed-over hair, faint beginnings of jowls, and the tiny goose pimples clustered under his eyes like on the abdomen of a reptile offset the sharp, attractive look he seemed to be working to create. His dark goatee was carefully shaped, frosted with silver hairs at his chin and at the tips of his mustache. He wore a sweater-vest and grey slacks; both were of light materials, but layered appropriately for how excessively cool the air-conditioned office was kept.

“No, I haven’t been waiting long,” Avery lied diplomatically, smiling back and shaking the Surgeon General’s hand, his laptop tucked under his left arm.

“Please,” Dr. Paradise said, “Tell me more about what we discussed over the phone…” He only knew the barest outline of what Avery had come to talk about.

Sitting across the desk from him, Avery opened up his laptop and began walking Dr. Paradise through his investigation into murders that fit the profile he had developed, which he had applied in screening cases from all around the city, dating back for months. He explained his theory about changes in the Pan Virus and the emergence inside Sacramento of new, unrecognizable undead. The Surgeon General listened for the most part without comment, brow drawn, face creased with deepening lines as he sunk into a graver and graver expression. After several minutes, Avery finished speaking. Paradise’s affected smile had evaporated from his austere face like morning dew off of a boulder.

He touched an intercom button on his desk. “Mr. Bolduc,” he said, addressing his secretary, “clear my schedule for the rest of the day. No, the rest of the week.” Paradise lifted his finger from the button and looked back at Avery. “There might not be anything in this,” he said, his voice flat. “But the evidence you’ve accumulated is convincing, and demands immediate studies be conducted to verify or disprove your theory. I will need you to leave the names of the suspected vectors with my secretary — such as that man you shot, who you suspect was carrying the virus. I will need his body for testing. I will also need the bodies of victims, so leave their names as well; and the names of people who have been in close contact with the killers.”

Avery nodded towards the laptop on the desk. “I will leave this computer with your secretary. Your office can coordinate with the police department to transfer the remains.”

“And the prisoners,” Paradise corrected. “I will need the few killers that fit your profile who have been captured alive. They will be essential for experimentation and testing.”

Avery almost shuddered. He couldn’t imagine what kind of experimental research was about to be conducted on those killers, but the cold, clinical detachment in Paradise’s voice spoke volumes about the ordeal that must have awaited them. They’re not even human, he reminded himself, squashing any pity that could have started to develop in him for those creatures.

“This is where my full energy and attention will be focused until we have a clear answer, one way or the other,” the Surgeon General said. “If what you suspect is true, then there is no more urgent public health crisis facing our entire population.”

They both knew his statement was not inflated. If the Pan Virus had adapted to spread through humans undetected, then the survival of the entire race was in question.

Dr. Paradise reached out to shake Avery’s hand. “We will be in touch.”

Avery Gannon

Sacramento Police Headquarters, New Sacramento

5:00 PM, July 24th, 2045

The office of the Surgeon General wasted no time in organizing a transfer of remains and prisoners. Within hours, Avery was back at SPD HQ watching technicians in full Hazmat coveralls and surgical masks sweep through the building, into the morgue, collecting body-bags and hurriedly carrying them away on stretchers to be loaded into waiting refrigerated trucks. Prisoners were moved by Hazmat technicians accompanied by a detail of Special Ops soldiers sent in by the Military and equipped with M40 gas-masks and NBC protective suits, as if they were rushing into a battlefield under threat of biological warfare.

The teams handled prisoners like animal-control officers capturing stray dogs, opening their cells and instantly choking them around the neck with snares on catch-poles, pulling them out into the hallway and forcing them to walk along, surrounded by guards carrying stun buttons and assault rifles. The prisoner’s protests fell on deaf ears, and one after the other they were thrown into individual armored vehicles and taken away.

Less than seven minutes after the transfer began, it was over. Avery stood outside the main entrance of the building in stunned silence, listening to the low rumble of the last armored vehicle fading in the distance. He had known the transfer would be done efficiently, but he hadn’t expected something so much like a military raid.

For five days after the transfer took place, Avery heard nothing from Paradise or his office. During that time, the detective kept his finger on the pulse of reports coming into the police department, scouring the central database for any other cases that could fit the profile he had established. He didn’t find any new ones.

His partner Susan, though still working with him with staunch professionalism, was talking to him less. There was a membrane of silence between them that discussion related to their work could permeate but pleasantries and friendly banter could not. What she was feeling, Avery couldn’t say, because she communicated nothing. But she seemed to be racked by far more than merely embarrassment at having dismissed Avery’s thoughts on the strange killings, only to have officials in the Government take his evidence in dead seriousness. Well beyond that, the raid on the police station seemed to have shaken her by driving home the cold, incisive reality of the threat Avery had described. Everything in their lives, their whole city-state, was built on the bedrock of one simple article of faith: the plague, which had destroyed the world and nearly wiped out mankind, was over. They were moving on. They could rebuild. Now, that bedrock was crisscrossed with spider web cracks; doubts crept through it, drilling into it like drops of water wearing away at beach stones. The cracked bedrock could shatter at any moment, depending on what they eventually heard from the researchers who were peeling back the skin of the killers and looking beneath it; poised to drop horrible findings like the hard, decisive blow of a hammer and chisel.

Finally, Avery received a call from the Surgeon General’s office. Alex Bolduc, Paradise’s secretary, asked the detective to come see the Surgeon General immediately. He didn’t sound like he was smiling.

When he arrived at the Central Government Administrations building, Avery was shown directly to Noel Paradise’s office. No waiting in the reception area.

Today, the Surgeon General had no affected smile for him. He looked under-slept, pale and haggard. Avery sat across from him, expecting an immediate answer about the results of his research on the possible vectors his men had harvested from the police. But to Avery’s surprise, the Surgeon General’s first words were bizarrely abstract.

“How familiar are you with the theory of evolution?” Paradise asked.

Avery shrugged, caught off guard by the question. “As familiar as the next person,” he said. “Survival of the fittest. The best and strongest pass on their genes, so their descendants evolve.”

The Surgeon General shook his head. “That is a popular mischaracterization,” he said. “The ‘fitness’ of an organism depends on reproducing and ensuring the survival of the population, rather than merely on strength, speed or size. Individuals within a population vary in characteristics, and many of those characteristics are inherited. There will be different rates of reproduction within the various members of the population, and over time these differences will shift the makeup of the population. More offspring are produced than can be supported by finite resources in the environment, and not all offspring live long enough to reproduce. Thus, those individuals which survive and reproduce pass on their own characteristics, until, after a few generations, they become predominant over those which do not reproduce as often. This is natural selection. Descent with modification will occur. With subsequent generations, we will see a rise of individuals in the population that display a concentration of specific characteristics which were merely scattered variations in the old population. At that point, evolution has occurred. We are then seeing a new, unique species. In this way, the complexity of variations in living organisms arose out of former simplicity, and we have a plethora of types and species from common ancestry. Darwin observed this principle in finches in the Galapagos Islands. There were many different finches with different beaks, each suited to a unique purpose. Today, we define evolution as changes in genetic frequency. If we map the different forms of genes within a population and after a few generations the frequency changes, we have observed evolution.”

Avery blinked slowly, digesting the explanation, which the Surgeon General really did seem to be trying to dumb down for him. After a few seconds, he nodded.

“Are you going to tell me that evolution really has occurred in the Pan Virus?” Avery asked, face hard and shadowed.

Noel Paradise nodded his head. “It has always been occurring,” Paradise said. “We’ve known that since the beginning. The first undead to appear in China, all those years ago, were very different from what we eventually saw on our shores. They were slow, crumbling heaps of putrid flesh, sloughing off limbs as they moved; almost senseless. From the very first days, we, humans, fought the zombies — we selected against the species, so that those which were fittest, surviving to reproduce by infecting humans, became predominant in the population. Traits that made them more effective killers grew more common. They became more and more physically capable of killing us. When they finally reached America, the zombies we saw could easily balance on their feet. They could move faster. They had working eyes and ears. And you know as well as I do what happened from there: we continued to fight them, to select against them, until we had zombies that could run, jump, and coordinate with each other. The final known forms of zombies were catastrophically well adapted to hunting humans, when we finally eradicated the last of them. But what we are dealing with now is something entirely different. It is something much, much worse.”

Avery waited. He was close to physically shaking. Nothing he was hearing about the gradual development of zombies into better killers was new to him, but he was baffled by the sudden revelation that they were now dealing with something “entirely different.”

“The strongest, fastest, most intelligent zombie,” Paradise went on, “was still easily recognizable as a zombie. That was even so in the experience you told me about, where the thing attempted to disguise itself. A zombie is fundamentally dependent on hunting down and attacking humans to reproduce itself, no matter how developed its abilities to hunt become. It has that categorical limitation it can’t get beyond. But what we are seeing now is the rise of a new set of traits, a new mutation. New characteristics reproducing exponentially, shifting the whole makeup of the population in a different direction. The old zombies very well may be extinct. But a new species has descended from them.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Avery snapped. He was losing patience with slow exposition, and demanded a clear answer.

“I have named this new virus Vox Humana,” Paradise said. “Because the infected are not undead. Not at first. They breathe, they can speak. They are indistinguishable from humans, because they are adept mimics, and because, thanks to the virus’ taking over their host’s brain without killing the body, these vectors aren’t subject to the visible decomposition of the old zombies. I can only theorize that these mimics developed from a strain of the Pan Virus that became contagious before the host died. Such a characteristic — being contagious for a long period before the infected could be recognized and shunned or destroyed, so the host could stay inside human settlements, share food, share drinking water, even touch or couple with normal humans — would be unprecedentedly effective at reproducing itself, spreading its traits at a rate not seen since the first wave of the undead crashed into unprepared population centers in the beginning of the Darkness. In the modern day, who knows how many human settlements outside Sacramento have been infiltrated by the Vox Humana Virus and completely overrun? And we will be next, if we don’t move now to curb the spread of the contagion.”

Avery held his head in his hands, leaning forward in his seat. Oh my God. Anyone could be infected. Anyone in a crowd could be a mimic, the human part of them gone, spreading the virus through their friends and families without anyone knowing, until it’s too late.

For a moment, Avery couldn’t speak, then, raising his head, he asked, “What are you doing to address this?”

Paradise cleared his throat. “I am forming a designated agency,” the Surgeon General said, “for the sole purpose of combating this new threat to public health.” Avery nearly scoffed at the euphemism ‘public health,’ but he caught himself. He didn’t want to interrupt Paradise, who continued: “I have ordered several men to report to Lorne Hooker, a young but accomplished Doctor of Public Health who has done extensive work with my office in recent years. I have appointed him as the active leader of the new agency. With his advice and input, I carefully hand-picked the agents who will serve under him. Detective Gannon, I would like you to serve in this agency, as well.” Paradise folded his hands on his desk and waited for a reply.

Avery looked the Surgeon General in the eye — only hesitating for a beat — before saying, “Just tell me where I need to go.”

Lorne Hooker

Central Government Administrations Building, New Sacramento

6:00 AM, July 30th, 2045

Hooker looked around the spacious, sparsely furnished room. Apart from the long conference table in the center of the white linoleum floor, rows of black metal folding chairs, and several open, glowing laptops, the temporary command center of the fledgling Sacramento Bureau of Public Health was just an empty basement room of the Administrations Building, It had been hastily prepared for the immediate coordination and briefing of Hooker’s new agents. The twelve men and women seated along the sides of the table were drawn from various backgrounds. There were physicians, military personnel, and police investigators. They had been pulled out of their former service and indefinitely reassigned. Whatever they had been before, they were now BPH agents first and foremost. Each one of them would have to enhance the skills they already possessed, and gain the skills of their new colleagues, so they all blended together into the heightened, new average BPH agents needed to represent. Because they were fighting a new war — merely recognizing the enemy was an ability they would have to develop, and the blurry front lines were drawn inside the human brain.

The faces at the table were tense, frozen like corpses in rigor. They all waited for their new leader to speak.

“I don’t have to tell any of you what our purpose is, here,” Hooker began, scanning across the people in the room. “We are now the first and last line of defense for our city, against a danger we didn’t know existed until just a few days ago. But that danger will inexorably eradicate every human being in Sacramento, if we aren’t successful in engaging it, understanding it, and containing it.”

“Where do we start?” asked Claudia Reynolds, a diagnostic physician seated at the table.

“First,” Hooker said, “we will identify and quarantine all the close associates of known vectors. Anyone that we’ve already identified as a VHV carrier very likely spread the virus among those closest to them, and we can best contain that damage by securing those people and locking them down for observation, at least until we can be sure they are not carriers, themselves. Second, we must continue to study the confirmed vectors we already have, continuing to characterize VHV and understand it better.”

Claudia nodded. Hooker glanced around the table again, seeing the troubled expressions of his new agents who didn’t have the benefit of medical backgrounds. “It is important that we all first get up to speed on the actual nature of VHV,” he said. “It is descended from the Pan Virus, and, during the Darkness, as the Pan virus was bringing global civilization down, you better fucking believe it was the most urgently, intensely studied thing in all of medicine. So we have a considerable body of knowledge about it.” He cleared his throat. “The usual course of infection started with mild flu-like symptoms that were easily ignored. After several days, the symptoms worsened rapidly and the patient began wasting away. This occurred because the virus triggered malformation of essential proteins in the body, similar to a prion disease. The patient inevitably died. Immediately after death, viral colonies began forming in the brain, communicating with each other through chemical signals. These colonies harvested energy from the decomposition of the host body, and used that energy to trigger action-potentials in the nerve tissue of the dead brain. In that way, they could control the corpse like a marionette on strings. When the colonies matured inside the corpse’s brain, the body would ‘reanimate.’ The zombies had only one purpose: scratching and biting humans, to spread the virus to other hosts and continue the expansion of the species.”

Hooker grimaced. He spoke with clinical detachment, but no one who had lived through the Darkness could talk about the Pan virus without agonizing memories of horror and loss. “The next evolutionary step of the virus, VHV, shares many of these original traits, but with a drastic leap forward in effectiveness at spreading infection. The mutation in the Pan Virus that led to Vox Humana is simple: the virus now takes over the human brain without killing the host body beforehand. Viral colonies form in the brain, crowding out the host’s memories, personality and individual volition, and seizing control of the nervous tissue like a parasite. In this way, it ‘kills’ the human, and what’s left is a zombie — but it is a smart zombie, an adept mimic, and it can move unrecognized among other humans. It is invisible. It is untouchable.”

Avery Gannon, the police detective seated at the end of the table, spoke up, “But if these new zombies can spread infection undetected, then why do they kill at all? Killing is what leads to their identification. If they didn’t murder people, they could spread the virus in total secret until there were no humans left.”

Hooker nodded. “That’s true. They would be more efficient if they didn’t devolve into killers. But remember that, for the old zombies, reproduction depended on killing humans. That reproductive impulse is still present in the genetic heritage of modern VHV, and, when that primitive drive starts to surface in vectors, they are powerless to resist it. We aren’t talking about thinking, reasoning beings. They are mindless. Never fall into the trap of anthropomorphizing them, simply because they look human. They wear human faces like masks, but they are driven by pure instinct. When the deep, primal instinct to kill develops, they follow that instinct. It is as simple as that.”

There was a murmur around the table, while Hooker turned away from his agents and looked through files on the laptop in front of him. With no further delay, the newly-instituted BPH fell into reviewing records, compiling a list of friends and family of known vectors to be rounded up and quarantined for observation.

Avery Gannon

Kaiser Permanente Point West Medical Offices, Old Sacramento

2:15 PM, August 10th, 2045

Under the direction of Lorne Hooker, the BPH moved with blinding efficiency — a whirring machine greased with blood. Avery was appalled at some of the things he watched himself doing, with the objective of restraining VHV. But, in light of horrors he had seen, he couldn’t deny that it was all, every bit of it, necessary. At times, he remembered that he had actually become instrumental in the survival of mankind. Instead of making him proud, that thought coalesced around him like a hardening shell of ladled steel. It burned, but it thickened his skin, making him impervious to the frightened, hateful glances he was beginning to receive on the streets of Sacramento when he wore his BPH badge.

The public was becoming aware that this agency that existed solely to protect them from a grave threat did so in ways that were sometimes terrifying. Already, after mere weeks of existence, their reputation was becoming dark. Innocent people could be taken against their will and held for testing. Some were taken away and not heard from again.

In the moments of doubt and guilt, Avery’s mind was like a wrestling-ring, where a shadow he was scared of becoming wrestled with a shining, exiled sense of purpose; neither could overpower the other, and he suspected each would hold its own in a permanent stalemate until the day he died.

In his capacity as a BPH agent, one of the first people Avery had been sent to collect was Amanda Morrill, the woman whose life he had saved, the day her infected brother snapped and stabbed her. Avery knew that Lorne Hooker, forced by circumstances to be pitiless, was still a compassionate human being below it all. As such, he had probably sent Avery specifically, out of all his agents, to collect Amanda because it would be less traumatic for her than being taken from her home by a total stranger.

“Hello, Amanda,” Avery said as she slid open the glass door of her apartment, blinking at him.

She gave a tentative smile, but it decayed quickly as she scanned the two agents beside Avery, both dressed in the rudimentary BPH uniform.

Custom outfits didn’t exist yet, and the uniforms they wore were cobbled together from standard Military equipment. Their camo-pattern NBC smocks had black patches stitched on the shoulders, with BPH written in red lettering. They wore black rubber overboots and elbow-length black rubber gloves. The two silent figures on either side of Avery cradled Sig MPX submachine guns in their hands. Avery wasn’t wearing his MCU-2/P protective mask — a tinted polymer bubble around the face with a large filter cartridge on the left side of the mouth — but the other two agents were wearing theirs. Avery had almost asked them to take the masks off before he knocked on the door, so they wouldn’t look like gun-toting aliens or insect-men, but he didn’t. He could take responsibility for his own breach of protocol, but he wouldn’t drag the others into it.

“Detective Gannon,” Amanda said. “What are you doing here?” She probably didn’t know very much yet about the BPH or about the Vox Humana Virus, so Avery didn’t get into details, and didn’t bother to correct her for using his former title, ‘Detective.’

“We need to conduct a follow-up, related to what happened to your brother,” Avery said, smiling apologetically, as though it were just routine, annoying thing.

He rode with her in the back of the armored vehicle as they traveled across the city. He sat with her while she was processed at the medical facility the BPH had taken over as a base of operations. They laughed and joked while technicians drew blood, and they laughed and joked as they waited for results. Avery knew she had lived in the same small apartment as a VHV carrier. He knew she had shared food with him. Shared a bathroom. He knew she had fallen to the floor next to her brother’s dead body, splashing into the spreading pool of his blood. He was not surprised by the result, but a yawning pit still opened in his stomach when he heard that she had tested positive for infection.

Amanda didn’t understand why she was hurried away into a sterile, white isolation cell, or why Avery suddenly could only speak with her from the other side of thick glass. As the hours turned into days, she moved from dazed and shocked at her captivity, to enraged, to pleading.

“How can you hold me like this?” she said on the seventh day, straining to speak measuredly and calmly. Avery was checking in on her, and he saw that technicians in Hazmat coveralls had just delivered her lunch.

Amanda wasn’t touching the antiseptic tray or the antiseptic foodstuffs.

“You have no right to do this. You have to let me call someone. Even felons get that much.”

“I’m so sorry about all this, but it’s just for a little longer,” Avery said. The weak, shitty words scorched his throat like a hot iron ball as he spat them out.

“Fuck you, Gannon,” Amanda screamed, days of anxiety and frustration bubbling over in a flash of rage. “Fuck you.” She pounded the glass and screamed until she was exhausted, and sat on her low cot. Avery winced at the sight of her.

In the world outside, her privacy was utterly forfeit; agents were pouring over every aspect of her life, picking apart her communications, hunting for anyone she had been in contact with, eaten with, slept with. It was perversely ironic how fortunate her stabbing turned out to be. She had spent the past couple of weeks at home, quietly convalescing, rather than being out and about, exposing the public at large to VHV.

On the tenth day of her captivity, Avery checked in on her and saw that the captive woman had become very different. She looked serene. Her face was blank, devoid of expression, like someone in a deep sleep. Except her eyes were open, staring ahead, fixated on the blank wall across her cell. Her breathing was light and even.

“Hi, Amanda,” Avery said into the intercom, his voice buzzing from speakers inside the room. Suddenly aware of him, Amanda turned towards the glass and smiled. The blankness left her face instantly; like a switch had turned from off to on the moment she realized she was being observed.

“Hi,” she said, looking at him through the glass.

Avery’s throat clenched. He knew that Amanda was gone. The thing sitting on the low cot was wearing her dead face like a mask. If he walked into that cell alone, it would try to kill him. He didn’t say anything else to it; walking out of the room, he went to find Director Hooker and report that Amanda Morrill had turned. She was now a valuable asset to the BPH: a pristine, captive Sleeper. Much-needed material for further study.

Lorne Hooker

Capitol Building, New Sacramento

12:37 PM, August 18th, 2045

Lorne Hooker sat in a low, hard chair, intricately sculpted, like all the others in the wide, airy room, by 3D printing. The ceiling above him was a massive, sweeping lattice, admitting dappled sunlight like a canopy of leaves. The construction of the building and the open, basin-like floor gave the impression of an organic glen in a thick forest, cool, shady, ringed around by pillars like tree-trunks. But the artificial forest glen was not peaceful or quiet. Hooker was in his second hour of being grilled with questions by the men and women of Sacramento Congress. Inevitably, as the agency gained traction and organized itself, the creeping public fear of the BPH spread into Governmental distrust and resistance of something they didn’t understand. The BPH was officially under Congressional investigation for abuses of power, for violating the rights guaranteed to citizens under the Constitution of the Republic of Sacramento.

Surgeon General Paradise had already testified before Congress, giving a dire description of VHV, punctuated with slides and videos, walking the elected officials step by step through the research he had conducted after Avery Gannon spoke with him; the research that had confirmed the evolution of the virus into a new species; the research that led him to create an agency to address the clear and imminent danger it posed. He showed them photos of mutilated bodies: victims of Sleepers. He showed them recordings of human brain tissue being attacked and overrun by foreign matter — infection observed through stereo-microscopy. He showed them a time-lapse video of a decomposing body — “The subject was killed in a police shooting,” he said. “He murdered his entire family, in a ranch house in Old Sacramento. He was sitting quietly when police kicked in his door, after receiving a call that neighbors had noticed blood splattered on a window and smelled a terrible stench emanating from the house.” There was a murmur among the officials; all eyes were locked on the video projected on the wall behind Noel Paradise. The time-stamp in the bottom left corner was scrolling along, showing that days of footage had passed. The body was turning purple, just beginning to bloat.

“This was before we knew about VHV and no one imagined for a moment this killer may have been undead,” Paradise went on. “But after we began reassessing recent murders in light of the Gannon Profile, screening for possible vectors of infection, we collected this subject’s body, among others, from police station morgues. Due to its prompt refrigeration, the development of viral colonies in the brain had been retarded. This is why the infected corpse had not reanimated. But after we took possession of it, we experimented by leaving it to decay normally at room temperature.” Paradise turned towards the video behind him, done speaking. From there, the video spoke for itself. The decaying body on the screen began to move. It sat up awkwardly, the motion looking extremely fast in the time-lapse recording. It scrambled to its feet and began to pace around the room, knocking mindlessly on the walls. It tottered drunkenly, but still the time-lapse made it look unnaturally fast, like an actor in an old silent film. No one spoke in the Capitol building; they all watched in mute terror. It was the first zombie they had seen in years. And they all knew, days before this footage was taken, it had been unrecognizable. It had been a normal looking man. He had blended in with the crowd, until the moment he snapped and murdered his family in their beds.

Still like an old silent movie, a uniformed BPH agent moved quickly into view, stepping through a door out of frame. The agent cooly aimed a submachine gun as the zombie turned around and shuffled towards her; she fired a burst of shots, accurately spraying bullets into its head and face. Dark, congealed blood splattered against the walls behind it, and the thing collapsed, again totally still on the floor.

The footage ended. Congress was silent.

Now that Lorne Hooker was on the floor to testify, Congress was again noisy. Earlier, when they first addressed the Surgeon General and didn’t yet understand what they were dealing with, they had spoken tersely and angrily. But they now spoke with barely-restrained desperation and fear. Their rapid-fire questions focused on Hooker’s handling of his position as BPH Director; they asked him repeatedly, in a thousand different ways, if he understood how completely he was ignoring the rights of citizens in his operations. Monitoring peoples’ communications without legal cause or authorization; detaining citizens indefinitely without charges; disposing of cremated remains without allowing families any access to their dead loved ones. Again and again, Hooker reaffirmed that he understood that much of his agency activity was unconstitutional, but, given everything they had just seen about VHV, there was no alternative to the hard, decisive protocols the BPH was following in containing outbreak.

Finally, at the end of his patience, Director Hooker spoke plainly, ignoring some Congressman’s flaccid question and breaking into a definitive statement of his purpose.

“You are confusing the level of our ethics as an agency,” Hooker said, his voice falling into a deeper register. He was done defending his actions with short, palatable answers and was now on the offensive against the ignorance and denial of facts that was making Congress timid and ineffectual, unable to see what had to be done. “The BPH is highly ethical. But on a level which can appear at odds with other forms of ethics. Formerly, I was a practicing physician. The Hippocratic Oath was the basis of my ethics. As a doctor, I made careful decisions concerning the well-being of my patients. I was focused first and foremost on the welfare of the individual. I have agents who were formerly police officers; they, too, operated on a level of ethics that concerned itself first and foremost with the individual. ‘To Protect and Serve.’”

Congress was stricken quiet, listening. Hooker’s voice carried across the floor as he continued: “I also have agents who are former Military; they were accustomed to serving the Republic at large. They made oaths to defend our basic principles as a people, fighting enemies to our Constitution inside or outside our city-state whenever they appeared. On that level of ethics, the BPH could be seen as an enemy. But do not confuse the level of our ethics. We do not protect and serve the individual. We are not sworn to defend the Republic. We exist for one purpose, only: to defend mankind itself, against a threat which would eradicate the last remnants of our species. If that purpose leads us to run roughshod over the rights of an individual or violate the founding principles of our Republic, then we will do so unhesitatingly. By now you must understand what is at stake. The BPH does not exist to improve the lives of the people of Sacramento. It does not exist to protect our freedoms. It exists to stop the extinction of the human race. We are the last guards against complete and utter oblivion.”

Hooker’s speech was met with stoney silence.

This being the blackest moment of the Republic, he hadn’t expected applause. But he saw in the aghast faces of the legislative body of Sacramento that they understood, that they were terrified, and that they would do what had to be done.

Though he didn’t know it at that moment, when Hooker was dismissed and left the Capitol, not charged with any crime, Congress was already gearing up to draft an Amendment to the Constitution of the Republic.

Soon enough, the Amendment would be finished and put to vote. It would pass unanimously, a show of support driven by dread, giving the Sacramento Bureau of Public Health absolute authority in all matters relating to the Vox Humana Virus. Hooker’s agency had become law unto itself; with unlimited power to secure information, and to apply force against citizens at its discretion. Bills were drafted and voted into law, securing the permanent allocation of funds for the agency, and before the flurry of desperate proposals was over, virtually the total resources of the Republic had been placed at the BPH’s disposal. Whatever they needed to do their work, they would have. Whatever they needed to do, they could do, unquestioned and un-reprimanded. The President himself was not above the law the way Hooker was. The Director of the BPH had become the ultimate arbiter of what was necessary to protect the human race.

A new epoch had begun. Sacramento could never be the same again.

Avery Gannon

Residential District, Old Sacramento

7:00 PM, August 20th, 2045

Sitting in his living room, Avery and Walter sat in warm silence, each lost in his own thoughts. Steve sat in a large lounge chair across the room, a book on his lap, mouth moving silently, conjugating Latin verbs. Amo, amas, amat. Avery could easily read Steve’s lips, soberly reciting. Amo, amas, amat. And still no sound.

“You know what?” Avery said finally, rousing from his thoughts. His husband and son lazily turned their gazes towards him, eyes shining in the light thrown from the nickeled table lamp.

“What?” Steve said, after a moment of waiting for Avery to finish.

“I think it’s been a weird couple days,” Avery said. “And what we should do, is go get ice cream. That’s just what I think.”

Steve grinned.

Walter nodded with ironic gravity. “I believe you’re right,” he said.

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