Chapter One: Brave New World
What's that old saying? Same stuff, different day?
It's a phrase used to describe the daily grind of our lives. You get up, eat breakfast, shower, get dressed, go to work, go home, eat dinner, watch a little TV, hit the sack. If anyone ever asks you how things are going, you answer "same stuff, different day."
It's amazing how that phrase could apply so well to a world where all the old routines are gone. Not just gone, but tied up, dragged into the woods, shot in the back of the head, the remains burned and the ashes scattered to the four winds.
Yet as Jake Marlow looked upon the hordes of the undead, he was both amazed and terrified that this sight was one he was getting all too used to.
The animated corpses reached for him, though he was a good 50 feet above ground, on the roof of the Daily Tribune, a newspaper which covered the comings and goings of the South Shore. Despite the futility of their attempts, they moaned, hunger ravaging their very souls, if the undead could be said to possess such things. Their hideous, pathetic wails echoed off the tall pine trees which surrounded the office, trees which Jake often looked at outside his window on busy days. Whenever he was feeling stressed out, all he had to do was gaze upon those trees and he always felt at peace.
Two months ago, when he and his fellow reporters decided to stay put and wait for the Army or the police to rescue them, those wails made it impossible to sleep. No matter how they tried to shut them out, that constant, monotonous sound crept in to the core of their being, strangling any hope or joy.
But after only 60 days, these wails, like the presence of the undead, were just another part of the former editor-in-chief's daily routine.
His eyes roamed the zombies, flesh-eating ghouls without intelligence, yet driven by an insatiable desire to consume the flesh of the living. Rotted skin and flesh hung off weathered bone, evidence of advanced decay. Others merely sported the wounds which had infected them, most of which were on the neck area. No one was sure why the undead went for that spot on the human body more than any other. Maybe the flesh there just tasted sweeter.
The creatures numbered in the hundreds, filling the parking lot, the street on which the office was located, and the parking lot beside it. They all wore the clothes which labeled their place in society. Mailmen, cops, Catholic school students, convenience store workers, landscapers, plumbers, nurses. The plague wasn't picky about who it claimed, that much was certain. As Jake scanned the crowd, he saw the misshapen form of Sandra Colstein. When the creatures first started showing up, she, in a panic, had tried to make a run for her car.
It had taken her three hours and twenty seven minutes to die. Jake remembered. He had kept track.
Now, he barely recognized her. The light in her eyes was gone, as were the pupils. Blood matted the red argyle sweater she had worn to work that day, and most of the inside of her throat, abdomen and left arm could be seen. Her intestines spilled out like spaghetti, dragging on the asphalt lot as she slowly shuffled around, no direction, no purpose behind that shambling gait.
The only way to kill a zombie is to smash in the head, destroying the brain. It's not as hard as it sounds, but by the same token, it's not as easy either. Just depends on how well you keep your wits about you. A gun works best, but if you find yourself suffering from a severe lack of firearms, a bat, crowbar, or even a handy old rock will do the trick. After Sandra had died, after she came back as one of those things, it took all his fellow survivors to stop Jake from running out into the parking lot and killing her himself. Better she die than achieve that twisted version of immortality, he said. Not a bad quote. Would have made for a dynamite story.
She looked up at Jake and snarled, a deep predatory growl, then began to moan. It was like the undead indicator they had found fresh meat. Once one found prey they would moan or growl. Soon the call would be heard by others and repeated, over and over again. For such mindless creatures, it was an effective way of communicating.
So routine had this scene become that Jake didn't even look up as he heard the sound of a door opening. The undead possessed few skills, opening locked doors being on the list of can't do. He turned to see assistant editor Sara Kern walk onto the roof.
The two had been married for many years, and renewed their vows three months ago. Good timing too, since the plague began a couple weeks after that. Sara sat down on the edge of the roof beside her husband, taking his hand into hers. He barely seemed to notice.
"Any luck?" he asked, although by the dejected look on her face he already knew the answer.
She shook her head. "All we get is that damn automated message telling us to lock the doors and wait for help. I doubt the police are still around."
"Sure they are. I see two of them right there," Jake responded, pointing down.
Sara followed his finger and sure enough, spied two officers, one with half his face missing and the other with one arm torn off at the elbow. Their skin had taken on a gray, pallid tone since they changed, a common enough occurrence in any corpse once the blood stopped circulating. They snarled and tried to reach for the two humans on the roof, but they had no chance of ever getting them.
Zombies are mindless creatures, only capable of climbing stairs or opening a door so long as it isn't shut or locked. Anything beyond that is beyond them.
Sara gave Jake a nudge. "Come inside," she said, getting to her feet. "You're going to drive yourself nuts if you stay up here all day."
"Honey, at this point that'd be the shortest trip on record."
As Jake came back inside, the first thing that hit him was the smell. Not the undead, although their stench was powerful enough to make the hardiest stomach churn like a washing machine. No, this particular smell came from the living.
Lacking any of showers, they had tried their best to keep themselves clean using the bathroom sinks, but recently the water had become polluted, and it this point even drinking it was a risk. At least the toilets were still working. No one even wanted to comprehend what would happen if those became unusable.
There were seven of them, out of the twenty trapped inside. On three separate occasions the dead had been able to force their way inside. They were always able to drive them back, but each time they lost more and more of their number.
Lone zombies were another problem. Whenever the dead got inside, one or two always managed to hide themselves in one of the unused rooms while their brethren were forced back out. This wasn't accomplished through any real intelligence, but when you have a sea of cannibals doing their utmost to consume you, it's hardly time for a head count. After a pair of young lovers had their throats ripped out trying to find a quiet place to make out, Jake made it a rule that no one wandered the building unescorted.
The weapons they had were crude at best. Table legs, broken chairs or chunks of masonry. There were tools in the maintenance room, but that was on the dock, an area swarming with the dead. Twice they had made attempts to secure the room, and twice they left the dock with fewer than when they entered.
"So how's it look out there?" asked reporter Marcus Flat, as if he honestly expected something different.
"Dead," was all Jake would say as he rummaged through the group's food stores. Luckily the vending machines had been restocked shortly before the plague began, but still, living off M&M's and diet soda got old after a while.
He scowled at how little was left. When the dead began congregating outside their doors, the staff of the Daily Tribune thought help would arrive any moment, and consumed the snacks with the same ferocity the dead consumed their friends. It never occurred to them they might have to stay there for awhile. Now, looking at the small pile of chips and candy, he wished they had used at least a little foresight.
"Is this all?" he asked.
"Fraid so," replied Marcus. "We looked everywhere, got a few bags of candy out of the ad department desks, but that's it."
Jake pounded the wall in frustration. "We've got enough for a few days, maybe four," said Sara, trying to sound encouraging. "We could stretch into a week if we try."
"And then what?" Jake said. "We eat each other? I'm think that gimmick's taken."
"Well maybe we should try and make a break for it," suggested Roger Cork, the senior sports editor.
Jake rolled his eyes. "Oh, come on, not that old song. We've been through this, there's too many of them. Even if we got to our cars they'd bury us alive."
"So what are we supposed to do, just wait here and starve to death? I'm surprised we've lasted as long as we have on nachos and Coke," shouted Roger, a large man who if provoked could easily snap Jake in half.
"Well we'll last a whole lot less if we leave," responded Jake. "But fine, if you wanna go so badly, go! I hope you enjoy your new career as an entree."
"Hey, staying here was your idea," joined James Cater, the last remaining photographer in the office, if not the nation. "We shoulda tried to run when we had the chance. We might have made it then!"
"Oh, like Sandra? She just had to leave, and we all saw how well that worked," said Jake, tightening his grip on a thick table leg he used as a weapon. "Why you don't go ask her for some advice on how not to get torn to shreds."
Marcus stepped between the two, trying to settle the argument before teeth were lost. "Guys, guys, calm down. We don't accomplish anything by fighting each other."
James responded by knocking Marcus flat. "Oh go to Hell, Mr. Positive! I hear one more worked about 'keeping our spirits high' I'm gonna feed you to those things myself!"
Now it was Roger's turn to step in the way. "You wanna try it, pal, you gotta go through me."
Brandishing a section of pipe, James eagerly took a step towards the same man he had given a toast to at his wedding. "Gladly fat man."
Sara could only watch, tears streaming down her face. She wanted to scream, to do something to stop this fight, but she was scared stiff.
It seemed she wouldn't have to. A soft moan cut through the air, not much above a whisper. A slight scratching sound, like a cat trying to open a door, followed it. All eyes went to one of a closet. The door was padlocked and a heavy desk sat in its way. No one ever slept near it, thought Jake had assured them that what was inside was staying inside.
"Hell," whispered Roger. "He's awake."
The person in question was Chris Macabee, a photographer turned victim. Three days ago he had been bitten by a small zombie child that had snuck inside after the last break-in. The wound was small, but afer only a few hours Chris began to show signs of infection. His pulse was rapid, and he sweated, though it was late November. After the second day he became delirious and barely had the energy to breathe. A vote was taken, and the decision was made to barricade their friend in the closet.
The only thing they hadn't settled on was what to do with him.
The group stood outside the door, weapons at the ready, tensed as though ready to fight. The only problem was not one of them wanted to move.
"We should just leave him. He's our friend, we can't just kill him," said Marcus.
"He's already dead," said James. "We'd be doing him a favor by bashing his head in."
Suddenly there was a banging on the door, so hard the thin wooden barrier shook on its hinges. While they possessed no superhuman strength, zombies had a ferocity unmatched by beast or man. When they smelled food, only death, true death, would stop them.
Jake eyed the door nervously. "It's not gonna hold for long. We gotta put him down."
The others, save Marcus, nodded quickly. Even if the door did hold, the prospect of sleeping in the same building as one of those things was not a sunny one.
They quickly moved the desk blocking the door. The banging increased, as if the recently-deceased Chris knew his meals were getting closer. Table legs and pipes at the ready, the group stood before the door, Sara's shaking hand on the knob.
She looked to the others, making sure they were ready, and seeing their trembling hands and nervous eyes, could clearly see they were not. For that matter, neither was she. But it had to be done. Their years of friendship with Chris couldn't be considered now. This was about survival.
Gritting her teeth, Sara pulled open the door, and with a howl, Chris Macabee rushed out, bowling over the others and tackling James to the ground. The photographer tried to hold the zombie back with his pipe as the creature's jaws snapped shut again and again, desperate for food. The first to his feet, Roger grabbed the undead and threw him off James, slamming him into wall.
Chris slumped to the ground but was quickly on his feet, snarling, blood foaming at his mouth. With a snarl of his own, Roger swung with a piece of wood, but his aim was off, the weapon shattering as it collided with Chris' shoulder. He seemed to smile at his friend's ineffectual assault, then lunged at him, sinking his teeth deep into Roger's shoulder.
The larger man screamed in agony as hot blood ran soaked his shirt. Suddenly Chris's body grew still, and he slumped to the ground. Jake stood over him, the thick table leg in his hand, one whole side covered in coagulated blood.
The others looked on in horror as Roger pressed one hand to his wound in an attempt to stem the bleeding. Sara hurried over with a first aid kit taken from the break room and applied some antiseptic, but they all knew it was futile. Bites from the undead were highly toxic, and if the best doctors in the world were unable to prevent the disease from spreading, what hope did a person with no medical knowledge and bargain basement equipment have?
Jake watched as his wife did her best to patch up the wound. Marcus turned away, tears in his eyes. Though an eternal optimist, he knew he was watching yet another friend die. James could only shake his head, not wanting to believe what was happening. Roger had saved his life, and this was his reward? To suffer the same fate as Chris, the same fate they were all going to suffer?
Roger looked up at his friends, and tried his best to smile. "It's all right, guys. Wounds not too deep. Betcha I'll be all better by morning."
Jake could only nod in agreement as he planned the most painless way to end his friend's life.