PART FOUR: ADAPTATION & EXPERIMENTATION
“Ten days ago, I had only seven in here. Now…”
JB: I know you’ve told what happened countless times before, but I’d appreciate it if you describe again what you witnessed.
AM: [Nods] Once the drone footage confirmed the Fortress had been hit, Jennifer had requested the rest of Jeff’s body be brought back to the lab so she could check it out. Of course, Henry thought it a waste of time. The expeditionary team hadn’t even left and he’d already decided what had gone down; the Brethreners had been attacked by raiders, Jeff had been bitten by a zeb attracted to the fighting, and must have tried to make his way to Beeston to raise the alarm before the infection ate his mind. What else was there to know? But Jen and I both were keen to get as clear a picture as possible. So, while I was preparing to go out with Sergeant Rule and the rest of the team, she had Horace Pickles29 retrieve Jeff’s body from Golgotha.
AM: That was my nickname for it. Greek transliteration from the Aramaic, meaning “Place of the Skull”. Where Jeff’s corpse had been dumped with the rest? Our equivalent of the Fortress’ rubbish dump and plague pit?
JB: Oh. The “Pit”.
AM: The Pit. Bit of a misnomer really though – “pit”, I mean. It was more like a small hill the size of one of those Neolithic burial mounds by then. Beeston hadn’t been a going concern as a community in “survival mode” for long, but even early on our boundary stretched for kilometres, and – though we had the Shropshire Union Canal immediately north of the castle acting, to some degree, as a moat against the dead – there was still a lot of ground to watch, requiring regular patrols to take down any wandering zebs who found our fences from building up to dangerous numbers. Unsurprisingly then we’d already notched up a huge number of neutered undead, and the bodies had to go somewhere. A permanent bonfire had been lit some distance from the castle, on waste ground neither used by the Haven nor the farms immediately surrounding it, and to whom we provided protection. Again, to give Henry his due, he’d really thought out how to make the Haven function; ensuring the farmers could still run their farms unhindered and supplying the Haven with food in exchange for much-needed sword arms against unwelcome visitors.
Anyway, the Pit was still within our designated perimeter, so’s to allow dumping of the bodies without fear of zeb attack, but fenced off and far enough out of the way from habitation to safely mitigate the risk of disease… and lessen the stench of decay and burning human flesh. Well, to a point. Though that latter issue quickly became less of a problem. While Henry had at first agreed to the burning of the corpses, he quickly changed his mind after a couple of weeks. See, top ups were required due to the mounting bodies muffling the flames and, while the corpses’ body fat would act as fuel once they got going, the winter rains would dowse the fire on occasion. Henry argued we were using up too much fuel – a valuable resource he felt should be kept for our and the farms’ vehicles and generators. He especially didn’t like that the perpetual pall of smoke rising from the Pit could also be seen for miles round, and would be bound to eventually attract the attention of desperate, if not outright unfriendly, Living.
So it was that, while I was dispatched to the Fortress for the recon mission, Horace went to the Pit to retrieve Jeff’s decapitated corpse. Horace had become the Haven’s cadaver shifter, and, by that point, his role – and him too by virtue of being the poor sap lumbered with it – had already been assigned various monikers; “The Caddy”; “Grave Digger”; “Corpse Hugger”; and, perhaps the most fitting; “Funeral Director”. It was vile work, and no matter how carefully or how much he disinfected himself, Haveners couldn’t help keep a distance from him, as if the very sight of him would be a vector for infection. We thought we had it bad, but the looks Horace got. You could understand it really; the stench over at the Pit was suffocating – awful – even during winter. It hung around there, a poisonous miasma clearly visible in the cold of some mornings. You could even see it from the walls of the summit Ward; this diaphanous shroud orbiting that oozing, fetid mound, as if the Devil himself had used humanity to sculpt his own scornful parody of Saturn’s rings. And there, cutting delicate swirling swathes through that evil mist as he went about his task, tossing the latest patrol’s additions upon the already vast pile, would be Horace; gas-masked, his waist-high waders and check jumper visible under the transparent skin of his full length all-weather plastic mackintosh, made opaque in places by stains of undead goopy rot, the scarlet of his industrial-grade, chemical resistant gloves bound tight to the mac with gaffer tape, and clenched tight about the latest unfortunate to find final rest under Horace’s diligent, if disinterested, ministrations.
Horace didn’t seem to mind the job really. He was what, once upon a time, one would have ungenerously called the village idiot. Not that he was even a native of Beeston, he’d been just another survivor of society’s Apocalyptic shipwrecking, who happened to find himself washed upon the shore of our small island of civilisation. Besides, “idiot” would’ve been too general and simplistic a term to apply to him. It was undeniable he was autistic to a degree, but from what I could tell he was in the “high functioning” category; it only meant he couldn’t handle social interaction well. Horace was painfully shy. His autism didn’t seem to hinder his cognitive ability though – the fact he’d been able to survive out among the undead alone four weeks prior to finding Beeston was testimony to that. He told me once he’d been doing some public sector admin job until the Outbreak, so he could’ve helped Sally with the Haven’s daily operations. I’ve come to believe he realised that the only way he’d find some level of acceptance and respect in the community was to take on the grisliest task everyone else was reluctant to do. Pity it had the opposite effect. What does that say about how far we’d all so quickly fallen in relation to helping the mentally impaired?
In truth, and maybe it was in compensation for his mental deficiencies, Horace had a keen insight, an intuition about things. Keener than ours, as it turned out.
JB: I guess we’ll come to that soon enough. So Horace retrieved the corpse the same time as your expedition to the Fortress?
AM: Sorry, yes that’s right. Then Jen gave the reassembled cadaver a complete exam that same evening. Once done, she was eager to tell me her findings, but… what with our discoveries at the Fortress that night, my outstanding questions about what had happened there, the photos I’d taken for her to review when I got back the following morning…
JB: …The bombshells Henry dropped…
AM: …That too, and the report for Docklands I was keen to get out, so it was the following day – two days after we learned about the attack on the Fortress – when Jen was finally able to drag me back to the lab around noon to show me what she’d discovered about Jeff.
Horace was with us too when…
JB: Go on.
AM: Part of me likes to think of it as Jeff’s second warning to us. Even if one doesn’t believe in that kind of thing, it seems appropriate, right somehow, that it was his corpse we saw… Well…
My time at Beeston still gives me nightmares. Nothing unusual I know in this post-reanimation world. But of those events that replay in my dreams… that one runs often. Of course, in the re-runs, I’m helpless to stop what happens.
JB: Dr. Edwards’ debrief report of 11th March 20-- to Docklands said you found the body lying in the Haven’s Morgue?
AM: Yes, if you could call it that. More some glorified garage out back of the lab that we were letting the winter cold do the job of slowing the already decelerated rotting of our subjects. Any undead exams we did there, to avoid cross-contamination of any tests we were conducting back in the lab.
Jeff’s body lay, just as Jen had left it after her examination; chest-down on one of the church’s old foldaway tables that we used. The cadaver was naked, as you’d expect one to be for a post-mortem exam. Jennifer had left it there. No one had returned to the morgue before us, the body had been left undisturbed in that interval. So it had had time to…
JB: You commented in your own de-brief report you initially thought it had somehow healed itself.
AM: Yeah, well, you can hardly not jump to that conclusion when you watch as, not only the head stares and snaps its jaws at you (it was still active remember – it hadn’t been neutralised yet), but the body – the body which the head had been separated from not forty-eight hours before – suddenly twitches back to life, its hands grasp the table edge and push it up into a crouch.
Our brief, jaw-dropping shock turned to collective screams when that happened.
JB: There were no restraints tying the body down?
AM: No. Jen hadn’t thought to do so. We’d examined neutralised undead countless times before on that table, all either headless or with the brain trauma necessary to kill them again. Restraints were required only for still active and mobile specimens that we might need to examine. And yet, suddenly that lunchtime Jen and I are witnessing a new and terrifying impossibility, added to the first terrifying impossibility of undeath itself.
JB: Jeff Salmon’s undead corpse healing itself…
AM: …and climbing off the table to indulge in a heavy breakfast of human steak tartare. At last we both thought to reach for our weapons, but Jen changed her mind and grabbed my sword arm. A second later I realised why.
JB: What stopped you neutering it?
AM: The head. Jeff’s head, still gazing at us, still snapping away, eager to feed its insatiable hunger… it still lay on the exam table. Time had slowed as we watched what had happened, but I guess in reality only maybe… I don’t know… ten to fifteen seconds had passed between our entering the room and the body now crouching upon the table, struggling to rise and climb off it, only to find that the skull containing the tainted brain controlling it was stubbornly refusing to rise with it. The only things connecting the two were stringy strands of blue-black goop, the same goop that riddles the system of every undead shambler that ever walked the earth. There they were, unmistakeable, glistening bridges around thirty centimetres long, each of varying thickness, between the two stumps of severed neck, stretching taut and trembling like plucked guitar strings as the corpse strained to follow it’s prone brain’s orders.
It must have realised it was in trouble. The corpse hesitated, began trying to understand what the problem was. I swear the ghost of puzzlement crossed Jeff’s undead face. Once we realised we weren’t in any immediate danger, Jen had the presence of mind to reach for her phone and video the remaining seconds of the event.
With its left hand the body reached out to us, then stepped down to the floor on our side of the table, the connecting goop bridges stretching, straining.
It was Horace who guessed what was coming, I remember that distinctly. ‘Any second now…’ he murmured, almost like a prompt for Jen to keeping filming. She circled, steering clear of the corpse, her eyes fixed on her phone screen, trying to capture the best view of the head and body. The connecting strands of goop had pulled the head clear of the rest that had held it place, and it had begun to slide a gory trail along the table top behind the body. The eyes rolled, struggling to keep us in sight, even as the now fully standing body flailed for us.
You’ve seen the footage, right?
JB: Of course, it’s famous.
AM: Freaky isn’t it?
JB: Yes. Strangely funny too, in a twisted way. Sorry.
AM: No, no, you’re exactly right. It was a simultaneously terrifying and comically absurd sight. I completely understand why so many internet vids parodied it, once it went public. “Jeff’s R.A.R.E. Shuffle”; “The De-cap Dance”; “The Beeston Be-Head Bop”… [Shrugs] Gallows humour.
JB: It trivialises the first recorded R.A.R.E.
AM: [Shakes his head] Don’t agree. It’s a typically human response in the face of enemy terror. We’ve been doing that since… what? That editor made a short film during World War Two parodying the Nazis, having their marching soldiers goose step back and forth to dance music? Laughing at them took away some of their mystique, their power. Laughter reminds us our enemy aren’t all that.
JB: But footage showing the neutralised undead could come back again…
AM: Only if the brain hadn’t been properly destroyed, remember. You’re saying that as if Jen’s recording stands up there with the Zapruder Film, Armstrong stepping out onto the moon or something. The thing to remember is, putting aside the initial, “Holy fuck, say what?” reaction we all got from it, we suddenly had new and vital data about our enemy’s capabilities. There’s no doubt that knowledge saved lives, and has since offered explanations why some survivor outposts and smaller hold-outs round the world suddenly went dark. That and the BH itself.
Anyhow, the creature made a final lurch at us. That got my heart pumping again. It stepped away from the table, dragging Jeff’s head with it, the skull slipping off the wooden surface, only to – and against all expectation – dangle from those taut strands of goop at the corpse’s back, bouncing like some hairy bowling ball against the buttocks. The zombie reached for us, completely blind now, lumbering forward while Horace and I parted, me going left, him going right.
‘Right about… now,’ Horace declared, his words conveying a confidence I didn’t feel. They certainly prompted the zeb, hearing him, and likely catching sight of him, to turn and make for him instead. That seemed to break the biological spell powering Jeff’s corpse.
As it turned for Horace, Jen and I watched those stretched strands of connective goop finally reach their breaking point. The first thread snapped with a wet crack, the goop shrinking back each way to its respective trunks, flinging biohazard shrapnel toward us and the ceiling like flecks of stained tobacco juice. Jen and I flinched away from it just as another connective snap followed the first. The inverted head turned its gaze up, aware there was a new problem, even as the thicker, central core strands stretched longer, unable to take the additional weight they bore. The following… ten seconds-odd were a cascade effect of strand after goopy strand snapping. The head appeared to cry out in soundless dismay as it lost control, first of its legs, then its body. The zeb fell to its knees, slumped backward onto its bum, its arms falling – useless now – to its sides. The torso shuddered as still more strands failed, then tottered forward. That was all that was needed for final connection. It went, and Jeff’s head hit the linoleum and rolled away as the torso slumped, as if prostrating itself in worship at Horace’s feet, to lay still.
The whole event from our entrance to the zeb’s hitting the floor lasted… what… sixty, eighty seconds? We spent at least that time again simply standing and watching the corpse, waiting for it to do something else Nature said it shouldn’t. But it remained supine; the only movement in the garage came from Jeff’s head, ineffectually snapping for us a couple of feet away.
‘Bloody hell!’ I remember shouting finally. ‘Bloody hell!’
It was a good thing we were wearing full PPE30.
AM: [Nods] Both Jen’s and my visors were spattered with spots of connective goop. Me? I kid you not; I had to have a sit down. Seriously, at that point, after what I’d just witnessed, I thought things couldn’t get worse than that. Little did we know, we hadn’t seen anything yet. But Jen? She kept on videoing, putting her phone lens up close to the severed neck of the body, studying the strands’ remains, giving a commentary. Ever the professional.
JB: So just what had happened to Jeff Salmon’s corpse?
AM: Just as we categorized it, just as it came to be known; a Re-Assembly Re-animation Event. That was the best way we could describe it in our preliminary report, and it stuck. Which brings us back to you mentioning my initial thought that Jeff’s cadaver had healed itself. Of course, it was still a corpse; all healing capability you’d normally find within healthy living tissue had ceased at the time of his death. And yet… a limited form of selective healing can be said to have taken place in the time Jen had left the head and body alone and joined together.
JB: The goop.
AM: The goop. While there’s no recorded evidence of it prior to Beeston, I’m certain others had seen signs of its capabilities before we did. The proof of our own eyes, and which Jen had captured on her phone, made it clear the goop’s capabilities went far beyond what we yet understood. Excuse the pun, but in Jen’s commentary you hear her already making the connections. In our analyses to that point we’d already noticed it possessed some unusual properties. How it flowed like blood from fresh wounds inflicted upon a zombie, only to congeal at a vastly more rapid rate than uncontaminated human blood. How such areas of congealing never became hardened and scabrous, instead retaining a sticky, gelatinous, and highly elastic consistency. Jen and I both had previously assumed it was to aid the infection process, as of course the tissue was still highly contaminated. We’d even commented how stretched and stringy it became when extracting samples for study. That La Plaga, which the goop harboured, used the bloodstream to carry and spread its infection throughout the host was no surprise. And again, no surprise too that like any virus it attacked host cells, morphing them into replicator factories of yet more virus, using the host body’s biology for its own ends.
As we understood it from our studies prior to Jeff climbing off the table, and from data fed to us from epidemiology summaries of the virus broadcast from Docklands, La Plaga killed the host body whilst maintaining the integrity of the motor cortex and basal ganglia – the “reptilian brain”, whilst at the same time mutating their function so they could operate anaerobically; free of oxygen dependency. This latest development however swiftly made us realise infection and reanimation no longer appeared to be La Plaga’s endgame. There was clearly more to the goop than just active virus, exploded factory cells, plasma and decaying flesh. We had fresh samples of it from the trunks of Jeff’s head and neck under microscopes just as soon as our hands were steady enough to gather them. And then we saw confirmation of the change going on. Maybe that’s not the right word. Perhaps, “adaptation” is more fitting.
JB: What kind of adaptation?
AM: Under the microscope, amongst the strands of virus, decay and cell debris we found typical of previous studies, we were seeing what looked like stem cells and strings of synapses. They’d never been there before. That meant an incredible adaptive leap was occurring, as extraordinary as it was diabolical. The goop was using what it knew of the body’s own functions at the cellular, possibly even molecular level, to spontaneously create and repair neurological damage sustained by the host – and at the point of damage. It was already known in the medical world prior to O-Day that the human brain is capable of neuroplasticity – adapting to, if not repairing damage to itself32. So aside from being a carrier of infection, the goop appeared to have discovered that function and adopted it; acting as a form of neural glue to perform its own in situ neuroplasty, squeezing itself into the gaps created by injury in the corpse’s neural network, thereby enabling communications in the damaged network to be re-established, creating a limited capability undead proxy nervous system. And as a human already possesses around 10x1011 neurological connections, giving its nervous system a redundancy level of 10/1…
This knowledge made my blood run cold.
So suddenly, for the second time in mere months, we were facing another paradigm shift in the nature of life and death, and the threat that posed… a threat that had suddenly notched up its lethality by another order of magnitude. We realised immediately our use of bladed weapons against the dead would have to change. Rather than a straightforward stabbing action into the brain which would now only temporarily “knock out” a zeb, we’d have to twist and wiggle the blade about to mess up the organ so much, no amount of synapse-loaded goop could make it function again. Not good, seeing as blades were our primary weapons. Post-neutering decapitation too would have to be mandatory. Fortunately, no change in the use of firearms, axes or hammers was required. Too much irreparable damage was caused with them.
Add to that of course, we had no way to know if this was a recent development, or an ability La Plaga had always possessed. We’d never had cause to reassemble a butchered, neutralised undead body before. The Haven Militia always made sure it did its job braining the zebs they encountered, and, until that day, we assumed a brained zeb stayed dead. This neuroplastical adaptation in the goop was an alarming development. We didn’t know how quickly the goop effected neural pathway repair in its host, nor if it could happen again if the repair was severed. We needed data and we needed it fast. So we picked up Jeff’s head and body, laid them back on the table, joined him up again, and set up a camera to monitor the body, twenty-four-seven.
This time we strapped the bugger down.
After that, we agreed to raise the alarm. Not just to the Haven’s Council, but to Docklands. People had to know ASAP.
JB: But what had Dr Edwards discovered?
JB: Dr Edwards’ still revealed to you her findings about Jeff Salmon’s corpse at that point, didn’t she? You said she’d brought you to the morgue specifically to show you what she’d found.
AM: Sure, but considering the urgency we now felt, we tried to keep it to as much of a “Skip to the end” summary as possible.
JB: Which was…?
AM: Jeff’s entire rear had been bitten. I’m not talking about just his arse now, I mean his entire behind, head to toe. The back of his skull, his neck, the flesh over his shoulder blades, his back, buttocks, thighs, calves, down to the balls of his feet. Everywhere I looked there were zeb bite marks, across the whole spectrum you could receive, from non-threatening, non-puncturing teeth-shaped pressure marks on the skin, through to full blown, agonizing and debilitating killer wounds; chunks of meat ripped out, creating bloodied troughs gouged into the flesh, rife with infection.
Jeff had also sustained a major NUI33; a broken leg. The right tibia bone had split, twisting his lower right leg to the left, at the same time creating an ugly, jagged peak of bone rising under the skin toward the knee. The right fibula behind however left nothing to the imagination; another snap, spearing straight through the rear gastrocnemius muscle and puncturing the skin, exposing it to the air. I’d seen a lot of bodies bearing various levels of injury by that stage, but jutting bone wounds always make my legs rubbery. Anyway, having assessed that wound, Jen had concluded it had occurred while Jeff was still alive.
Now my first assumption was that sometime during the attack, Jeff must have tripped, fallen to the ground, and the ghouls descended upon his back, at which point he’d sustained the injuries before he could get up again. I quickly modified my theory to Jeff maybe having jumped from one of the first floor windows of the farmhouse, sustaining the injury when he hit the cobbles of the courtyard below, only to then be set-upon. Jen just shook her head and told me to look at the bite marks again.
JB: What about the bite marks…?
AM: There were twenty-six separate ones. Jen had counted them, and, judging by the teeth prints, each bite had originated from a different corpse.
JB: Twenty-six… Bloody hell…
AM: Yeah, I see where you’re going. If Jeff was face down on the ground with twenty-six zebs on top of him, each taking a bite, there’s no way he’d get them all off again. Under that combined weight, he’d have been helpless to stop them stripping his body to the bone. But that was the strange thing. They hadn’t.
JB: Someone must have distracted the zebs, lured them away from him.
AM: From fresh, still living and struggling human prey? You’ve seen an undead feeding frenzy, right? [JB nods] Have you seen anyone successfully distract them from their food until it is well and truly consumed? Do you know of any documented time that’s happened?
JB: Point taken.
AM: The strangeness about them didn’t end there.
AM: There was regularity to the bites.
JB: Regu… In what way?
AM: I’d been too distracted by the variation in injuries until Jen pointed it out, but it was obvious when she did. The spacing between each bite was fairly consistent; around eleven to fourteen centimetres, the bite creating two roughly vertical dotted lines extending all the way down Jeff’s body. The pattern was the most noticeable on his back of course, the broadest expanse of tissue over which they could be made, with the position of the left dotted vertical slightly higher than the right by about six or seven centimetres. If you went back and forth between each line with a marker pen, joining up every bite mark down the back, you’d create a regular zig-zag pattern.
AM: Very odd. Picture the scene during the attack on the Fortress; it was as if the attacking horde of zombies had paused to make a orderly line either side of Jeff, bent over him, their heads neatly interlocking as if they were the bony teeth of some gruesome zipper, then dug in, at the same time thoughtfully keeping to their allocated patch of flesh. And then – to cap it all – they stop. I mean… do what? Who’d ever seen the dead do that? We’ve all of us by now watched a horde take down a lone human, whether it’s on video or as an eyewitness, and in every single case the takedown is a free-for-all scrum. Pure, anarchic undead feeding.
And still Jen hadn’t finished. As a vet she’d seen all kinds of wounds on animals, particularly animal-on-animal injuries, like dog fights, fox attacks on small livestock and the like. She said to me that here in Jeff’s case, while yes, the owners of the jaws were once human, the bite marks where the zeb had successfully gained purchase were nonetheless characteristic of animal predator attacks where the beast bit and held on to their prey, in the way a lion grabs the throat of a deer to bring it down and asphyxiate it. The wounds betrayed all the hallmarks of a similar M.O. and victim instinctive-struggle response.
JB: Jeff was being held down by multiple biting zebs? Not eaten?
AM: [Shrugs] We couldn’t confirm that, of course. It was conjecture. Jen could only offer what the evidence indicated, and that’s what it pointed to.
JB: But that didn’t shoot down your theory about what happened to Jeff Salmon. Yet you said Dr. Edwards shook her head at your theory he’d been on the upper floors of the farmhouse.
AM: That’s right. It was Jeff’s leg injury that blew that idea out the water.
AM: I mentioned that the fibula jutted out of the skin. It happened to jut out through a bite wound on the leg. Seeing as the bone hadn’t been gnawed, Jen concluded the bite had been sustained before Jeff jumped… or fell.
JB: But zebs had ended up on the first floor. No matter how they got up there, perhaps there had been more than just the two the recon team neutralised. They set upon Jeff, he escaped them… somehow… and jumped, and they followed him out. Or maybe it was only the two zebs you neutered, one bit him on the leg where the bone would jut out after he jumped, and he was set upon by the others.
AM: [Nods] Yep, yep… I considered those possibilities too. Problem was, I couldn’t imagine Jeff leaving Emily, his daughter, alone up there at the mercy of the two ghouls.
JB: He could have panicked and ran.
AM: Maybe. If he was inside. And upstairs. But if he was, then why was he fully clothed?
JB: Oh, yes… That’s right…
AM: And when I say fully clothed, I mean not just “trousers-and-jumper-thrown-on-over-pyjamas-in-haste-during-an-attack clothed”, but the full monty, as if he was already doing a full day’s work. Underwear, vest, shirt, woolly jumper, coat. Dressed when not under pressure. For the end of winter, early spring. Considering the estimated time of attack, from late at night to the early hours of the morning remember, he’d either be in the farmhouse asleep… or he’d be outside, doing whatever chores were required, or – more likely – pulling guard duty. And his clothes told a story in themselves.
Jen had laid them out on another table. Seeing them – and comparing them to shots Jen had taken as a record of how they’d hung on Jeff’s corpse when Horace brought him in – showed the rear was nigh-on shredded, ripped and bitten open, painted with Jeff’s own blood. Apart from some leaching through of blood from the back after Jen had removed them, it was clear the front of his clothes remained largely undamaged – a characteristic sign of zebs falling upon a victim who’s caught lying face down.
Here’s the thing though; ignoring the points of bleed-through, there were areas, each between twelve to fifteen centimetres wide, where dirty old gore marks tracked –horizontally – in a criss-cross, pinching pattern across the fabric, as if at some point while he was still alive Jeff had been bound tight across his front by thick bloodied straps. There were four such horizontal marks. We asked Horace and he confirmed; those marks weren’t picked up from bodies Jeff’s corpse had lain over on the Pit, they were already on his clothes at the time Horace collected the corpse for disposal. Not that we needed such verification from Horace; Jen simply had to show me again the front of Jeff’s cadaver, and, in the same places where his clothes had displayed those horizontal gore marks, there we could see bruising across his skin.
JB: Curiouser and curiouser. But it didn’t bring you any closer to understanding what had happened at the Fortress, did it?
AM: Not at the time, no. If anything, it only muddied the waters and deepened the mystery. It was only later when I saw… it… Well, that’s when the scales fell from my eyes.
JB: So… going back then, you said now you were going to raise the alarm?
AM: Well… we were. Unfortunately we weren’t finished receiving revelations yet.
It had been while Horace tightened the last of the straps on Jeff’s corpse that he said something in that deadpan, detached way of his. Jen and I’d been outlining how we’d have to review zeb neutering tactics from now on. His words slipped by us at the time (that and his comment while Jeff had tried to nab us, of course), but after Jen’s report about Jeff’s body, something about his words prompted me to ask him to repeat what he’d said. When he did, that gave us even more pause about the situation.
JB: What did he say?
AM: ‘So that explains it.’
JB: Explained… what?
AM: Our exact thoughts at the time.
‘What do you mean, Horace?’ Jen asked. Horace elaborated – matter of fact-like – calm as anything, and completely devoid of the emotional weight of what he was implying.
For around a fortnight now he’d been complaining to the patrol leaders their teams weren’t braining the zebs properly. A couple of days after dumping them, he’d find an occasional corpse, “alive” and struggling under the literal deadweight of other bodies lain on top of it. The zeb – Horace explained – appeared dead when dumped; the skull damaged, or one of the eyes pierced, or a blade puncture wound entering under the jaw, each injury appearing to have done the job neutralising the zeb. Only there it would be, before Horace’s eyes, struggling to climb from the Pit and reaching out for a chance to crawl under Horace’s see-through Mack to get all cosy with him.
Of course, Horace had assumed the patrols were getting sloppy, while they ignored him, presuming the village idiot was just seeing things and freaking out. Staring at Jeff’s prone and strapped down body, it was now evident the goop, adapting as it was, had been in fact fixing the damaged areas in the brains of some of the zebs. I realised it was simply blind luck that in each case that had occurred, the reactivated undead had been trapped under their compatriots, so they couldn’t escape and wreak havoc among the farms – or the Haven itself.
Horace then gave us the sucker-punch. Not only had he seen this before, he’d worked out the goop could do more. Our puzzled expressions at how he could possibly know this quickly turned to alarm when he clarified with just three words:
‘I’ve been experimenting.’
That’s what he said. ‘I’ve been experimenting.’ He followed through by asking did we want to see?
JB: Damn straight you did!
AM: As soon as we got our PPE back on, he led us over toward the Pit, his gait an urgent trot, his chat an equal rushing of verbal navigation down a churning stream of confused dodging, back and forth through a rapids of confession and apology, explanation and elaboration. He said he’d wondered whether this was a local phenomena, assuming it wasn’t but – not hearing any news from outside through the Haven rumour mill or the patrols – thinking he’d keep schtum unless and until he learnt more. He said sorry for not showing us sooner, stressing that he had… kind of… raised an alarm with the patrol leaders that there was an issue. He professed admiration of Jen and I, watching as we made our meagre observational achievements with barely any resources… and then he confessed to no small amount of jealousy too. He’d wanted to help, see, wanted to show not just us, but the Haven, that The Plague Doctor could contribute too. Which was why, when he discovered a body on the pit a fortnight before…
…God! He’d already known of the danger for two whole weeks…
…When he discovered a body on the pit, slashed up, its skull sliced apart, the severed piece slid some way down the cranium, exposing the cross-section of damaged brain within and yet, despite that, the organ still functioning… When he saw that, he knew it was his chance to shine… [shakes his head]
Anyway, Horace led us through the security gate to the pit. His workshop – that’s what he called it – was another fifty yards down from the Pit, and Jen and I passed the mass grave, our treads wary, footfalls distinctly muted, our eyes locked on the mound of rotting flesh, knowing now what might happen there at any moment. And – Sod’s Law – didn’t something?
Just as we trod our closest approach, there came a high-pitched wheeze, a fresh wave of putrid stench washed over us, and a small section of the mound appeared to rise slightly for a moment, then fall again, as if the pit’s occupants had collectively taken a giant’s breath. Horace read our minds.
‘Don’t worry,’ he called as we gagged at the foul reek. ‘I already checked for Revivers today-’
AM: It’s what he’d dubbed the cadavers that did a Jeff Salmon on him.
‘That’s just decomposition,’ he elaborated. ‘Pockets of built up gas escaping from beneath, making the bodies settle.’ Of course we knew that, we were scientists after all. Didn’t stop giving us the willies though.
And then Horace said, again in that deadpan way of his; ‘Everything that moves…’ and he pointed, like this toward his workshop [AM points] ‘…Everything that moves is in here…’
JB: “Everything”…? Not just one or two?
AM: Oh no. Seeing the same question, the dread on our faces, Horace giggled a little (unnerving it was to hear that, coming from him). Then, as we’d just reached the workshop, he unlocked the padlock to the door. We soon understood why he needed it.
I assume when Horace referred to “his workshop”, in the past that it had been just that – only that. A place for him to store and maintain all the gear he used to do his gruesome job. Not any more.
In the two seeks since he’d spotted his first Reviver, he’d put a lot of extra hours into the place. All that time the lookouts watching from the Castle keep would’ve had no idea what he was doing – watching as his diminutive figure disappeared into the shadows of a small barn the size of one of those post-war Hawksley prefab bungalows you used to see around the country the latter half of last century. It never occurred to those lookouts to ask why he was carrying all the extra planking and gear inside, what it was all for. Horace was The Plague Doctor after all. He disposed of our little corner of the Zombie Apocalypse’s biohazards, and whatever else he got up to inside his dreary workshop therefore didn’t warrant further consideration. Its exterior certainly gave that impression; the cracked, drab uniform grey of its concrete walls was lichen-speckled a rusty-lemon, its rear walls and roof encrusted with fronds of encroaching vine, the paint of its window frames cracked and curled, the wood beneath rotted soft, rattling the windows they barely held in place. How could anyone know that during the last fortnight, the workshop had become Horace’s lab?
Gazing on the decrepit place up close, standing as it was just a few notches above dereliction, the wooden planking now discernible covering the inside of the windows, we understood that Horace’s science lab must now also be a prison. I remember thinking, “I can guess what that’s keeping in”. Jen’s face revealed she guessed the same.
We didn’t know the half of it.
Horace opened the door and waved us inside, switching on a clockwork storm lantern he kept by the door and hanging it from a ceiling hook. The swinging lantern flung waves of blue LED light into the gloom, shadows looming and shrinking at its limits, hindering our ability to see the rest of the workshop well until it settled. As expected, the section of the building we entered, and closest to the door, was Horace’s workshop and equipment store. Upon a worktop pitted and scored by decades of use, a disassembled chainsaw sat, part-way through a clean-up. A cluster of farmhands’ hay hooks of various sizes that Horace used to grab and drag the bodies pierced the face of an old dartboard, the shadows of their claws hiding its mutilated chequered pattern. Plastic macks, goggles and assorted PPE hung upon an out of place vintage mahogany coat and hat stand by the door. Around us, shelf upon shelf was stacked full with industrial-grade bottles of bleach, disinfectant, solvents, as well as small cans of petrol, presumably for the hedge trimmer sitting in the corner, and the beaten-up quad bike Horace had parked outside. Anything and everything he required to haul and offload the neutered dead took up that side – that third – of his workshop.
As for the rest of the building, Horace had cordoned it off top to bottom with chicken wire, coating it with and extra layer of misted polythene. In the centre of the cordon, an improvised wooden gate – again padlocked – blocked the only way through. A hand-written note on A4 paper Sellotaped upon it warned in block capitals:
DANGER!! KEEP OUT!!
Not that we needed to read the warning.
We could hear the danger on the other side of that fragile barrier. And even if there’d been silence, the only too familiar reek of corruption would’ve given away what lay beyond. “Lay”… now that’s an entirely wrong description. What Horace had brought inside and experimented upon beyond that barrier was certainly not laying quiet. He paused a moment at the door to his lab, the padlock key receiving nervous strokes from his fingers.
‘I want you to understand,’ he said, ’Once I saw what was happening, I needed to know how far it went… It’s not ‘cos I…’ His words of apology trailed away, realising perhaps, now that his work would have an audience, sure, the magnitude – the danger – his discovery may entail, but also how it may look to the uninitiated.
He unlocked the door, opened it, and brought more light.
AM: Horace was right to be worried about how his work would look to an outsider.
Were it not for the genus of meat we saw hanging there, you could’ve described the place as an improvised slaughterhouse. As it was, and I know the cliché has been long since over-used, it would be the kind of slaughterhouse you’d find in Dante’s Inferno.
From the roof beams, Horace had fixed a criss-cross network of railings, which stretched the length of the barn, and from these hung dozens – literally dozens – of butcher’s hooks. Heaven only knows where Horace had found them, but… Lord, he’d been making good use of them the past two weeks. Barely a hook hung empty and glittering clean. From the rest dangled the bodies of Revivers. There must have been about twenty-five, twenty-six of them, all naked, all at varying levels of completeness, damage and decay; from the smallest bulgings of heads, gravity urgently pressing their faces out into the plastic of the dangling bags holding them, to semi complete or even whole bodies. These corpses were held aloft by two hooks apiece, each metal barb piercing the skin and muscle at their back, penetrating deep under their thoracic vertebrae, giving the eerie impression there in the barricaded gloom they were levitating; their toes – those that still had them – a furious, blurred flapping at the ten centimetres of air between them and the linoleum floor, keeping them aloft.
Horace had done what he could to make the zebs safe; gagging them, binding their arms at their backs and legs with zip cords, two to three cords a time. For those missing an arm, he’d strapped the remaining limb tightly to its body with rope, while those only retaining a single leg had it bent back at the knee to stop it thrashing about and held in check with one butcher’s hook buried between the tibia and fibula bones, the hook connected by steel wire to another, again buried deep into another thoracic vertebrate high in its back.
Ghastly as that sight was, those were the Revivers Horace hadn’t experimented upon. Yet. They hung toward the rear of the barn, leering, moon-pale faces of a ghoulish audience attending a barber surgeon’s theatre demonstration of some grim on-going work in progress, an undead installation from Damien Hirst, had he completely slipped the bonds of sanity. And it was a kind of theatre.
Horace had cleared an open space before the door through which we’d just come, into which he’d put a number of the church hall’s foldaway tables, all splayed out in a fan arrangement, and each bearing an undead load in varying stages of dissection and reassembly. Good Lord… what he’d done. What he’d achieved!
Over the far left table dangled the head of a middle-aged man. From the matted mass of grey hair at the peak of his crown a dirty brown line traced a diagonal trail across his face, disappearing below where his right ear would have been, had not everything above that line been sliced clean away. Horace however had recovered the missing piece, had once more made the undead’s skull whole… only to slowly, carefully prise the two pieces of hewed head apart again. There was the matching shell of skull, still containing its own section of brain, hanging from bolts a metre away, to which it, in fact both pieces of skull, were fixed in place within a sliding rack arrangement, stopping them slipping free, binding them to a revived un-life. Evidence of success was only too apparent in the lone eye sitting within the sliver of skull, which rolled to lock upon us, its lids narrowing with obvious intent, the same move matched perfectly by its twin sitting in the other section of skull nearby, the joint expression of near-lascivious hunger made possible by the web of connective blue-black goop stretched taught between the two pieces.
His repair job on the head had been just the start. From the neck of the larger headpiece, more thick, knotted cords of elastic goop trailed down into the headless, limbless trunk of the undead man’s upper body, laid upon the table. It struggled, arching its back and wriggling as best it could against the straps holding it down.
That was just the beginning of Horace’s… investigations.
Above the next table in the fan, Horace had repeated a skull / brain repair, only, unlike the first time, he’d moved on; for this trial binding two separate heads together where each missed its complementing section; the right head had a piece of its left side hewn away, the left head, a section from its right side. Bound crudely but tightly to join the paired crania, the goop within the conjoined brains had done its work, reactivating not just both heads, but, via another slimy conduit dangling from the left head’s neck, another torso. Here too, Horace had made another experimental step. This torso belonged to neither head, it being that of a black woman. The limbs Horace had hacked away, but had kept her severed arms bound in place only a few centimetres from the shoulders to which they’d once been joined. There again, crossing the gap, we could see the same goop linking wound to wound, torso to arms, carrying the orders from the duo of undead minds above into the arms’ hands which thrashed and slapped about, flexing their fingers, clawing at the plastic covers of the tables…
JB: Bloody hell!
AM: I could describe what was on the other tables in the fan. But I think you get the picture that as Horace discovered more, he hacked and tweaked with each new experiment to the point that no actual thing lay on the far right table, but some thing did hang above it.
Suspended within another of those improvised frames constructed from the butchered limbs of a foldaway table, the head of a little girl gave us a longing gaze, her lips locked in a fixed grin, unable to snap her jaws due to the leather thongs bound tight round her skull, the bolts screwed into her cranium keeping it fixed in place, and with it, the truncated neck beneath, which fed, as ever, its oily fronds of that ubiquitous toxic, blue-black goop down – not into a torso, that would be too sane – but onto and round and wriggling within the exposed ball joint of a lone woman’s leg. Again the upper half of the limb was bolted firmly in place to avoid slippage, and here too the bolts for the head sat within a crude rack arrangement, allowing Horace to lift the skull higher, and stretch the connective goop further from its only limb, testing its elasticity.
All the while, the whole frame holding that undead monopod swung to and fro from its ceiling hooks as the thing kicked its single limb back and forth in a fruitless effort to walk toward us, its prey…
JB: Fuck me…
AM: It was the same wherever we looked, bound, dismembered as they were, everything moved in a ravenous frenzy.
From all his lessons learned, Horace had applied them to his magnum opus, which lay on not one, but two tables, directly in front of us.
Three conjoined head parts powered the butchered remains of two bodies; one headless torso lain directly below the other, the four hacked away and re-joined arms (all from different bodies) squirming, quivering with un-life. The webs of goop linked all; the heads to the neck of the first body – a man’s; the arms, while from an ugly gap in the flesh where the genitalia and anus had been, a glistening trunk of goop emerged, snaking from the exposed cross-section of spinal cord, into the gristle-filled neck of the second headless torso, this one of a woman. The whole damned creation wriggled against its bonds; a testimony to the triumph of Horace’s intellectual leap Jen and I had not yet made.
Watching it all, I felt that moment as if any and all remaining goodness had been scooped out of my world. I felt dizzy by it, sick at heart.
Horace only explained himself.
‘As you see,’ he said, ‘I’ve discovered the neuro-synaptic communicative properties of the goop work, not just in animating a lone host, but across multiple hosts.’ He reached for something resembling the right technical term. ‘It’s… trans-subject.’ He pointed at the grisly, four-armed creature he’d made wriggling there on the tables. ’See that? That’s body parts from nine separate subjects right there. I’m sure if I hooked up another torso beneath the second there, it would… H-have you seen that film, Human Centipede?’
JB: Jesus H Christ…
AM: Well… yeah. But to be fair to Horace, he’d made the connections – no pun intended – neither Jen nor I had yet. Which made his next words the more urgent for us all.
JB: Which were…?
AM: ‘Consequently, this makes our problem so much… worse…’
JB: That’s one of the top ten understatements of the twenty-first century.
AM: Then some. Now he’d shared his great secret, Horace had more to tell us. ‘Then of course,’ he said, ‘there’s the matter of frequency.’
AM: ‘At first, Revivers were intermittent,’ he told us. ‘Ten days ago, I had only seven in here. Now…’ He waved a hand at the ranks of hanging undead before us, then added, ‘I’d say the reviving process is… accelerating.’
Jen’s assessment was, typically, to the point; ‘If you’re right… then we are fucked. We are totally fucked.’
Horace abruptly halted, alarmed puzzlement spreading on his face.
‘Wait…’ he said. ‘I’m missing one.’