All is well in the world. The sun is shining, your flesh decaying well, your children even got their first worms yesterday! Then your neighbor starts turning into a human. Before you know it, the Living Apocalypse is upon us!
Zoe was a second lieutenant – she always laughed when she thought about it – with the Air Force and working for the CDC in Atlanta. It wasn’t glamorous work but it paid the bills and, more importantly, counted towards her mandatory service. It was only fair, she thought: the military did pay for med school, after all. She always knew she wanted to be a doctor and often had the grades and gumption to prove it; her brothers always joked that she ate too many brains. In her early 30s, she was of average build, lacked her right eyeball (what many regarded as quite the beauty mark), and would often have to re-attach her jaw at the most embarrassing of moments – which she thought was immensely annoying, but Alex from IT, who had taken quite a liking to her, found it adorable.
He thinks he’s so smooth and so discreet, she thought and rolled her eye. In any case, she had no time for boys – or men, for that matter – not until she got out of the CDC. There was plenty of time to spawn some corpselings down the line. After she started her own practice, maybe. In med school, she always loved working with children. Inducing Infant Necrosis and Neonatal Enworming, she remembered, were great labs. Younglings were sometimes spawned without worms – which carried not only a social stigma, but could also negatively affect fungal growth, and (in rare cases) actually induce vital signs. Without maggots (A. Diptera) and run-of-the-mill earthworms (O. Lumbricina), the delicate balance of undeath would be upset. Of these two, the earthworm is much more important, she recalled her lectures, as the maggot eventually leaves the body once it turns into a fly. You know, she thought, maybe she should hang out with Alex and his friends this weekend: he’s pretty cute. But her daydreaming was rudely interrupted as the rarely-used office phone rang.
“Zoe? I need you. Can you hop into my office..”
“Sure thing, sir.”
It was her boss, Graveyard Jim. He rarely called her up. She quickly shuffled her way to the elevator and went to the 5th floor (she was on the 3rd), wondering what this could be about. No context, she thought. Weird. As she entered the moldy office, three of the four TV screens on the wall were turned on. She quickly scanned the monitors “WH,” “FBI,” “HOPKINS” the labels read.
“Zoe, I’d like to introduce you to Lurker Allan” Jim pointed to the screen labeled “WH” and continued “our White House liaison”
“This is Shambler Olivia” he pointed to the screen labeled “FBI”
“And this is Dr. Rabid Victor, from Johns Hopkins”
“Everyone, this is Chewer Zoe. You’ve all seen her file, so she’s cleared.”
He turned back to her “Zoe, you’ve studied mitochondrial regeneration and wrote your thesis on the potential long-term effects of cellular autophagy, correct? We tried to get in touch with your adviser, a Dr. Puker Peter, but we can’t find him.. and we’re on the clock here.”
Her jaw dropped (quite literally) and she struggled to pop it back into place as she looked at the screens, trying to figure out what was going on.
“Y.. yes” she stuttered
Her boss continued “Okay, so here’s the bottom line: about 4 hours ago, a male, mid-50s, walked into an emergency room in downtown Chicago at… ah… Lakeshore Hospital.” he continued rifling through the papers on his desk
“His chart, after a brief examination, reads, and I quote: mild vital signs, mild pulse, reflex response abnormal. The next update, 2 hours later: vital signs continue to increase, heartbeat visible through rib-cage, missing finger (birthmark) has started regenerating.”
“What next? Did –” Zoe blurted out
“Like I said” Victor interrupted “these are all signs of life. I’m telling you, we could have an epidemic on our hands. LIFE.”
“Dr. Rabid, let’s get a hold of ourselves, that’s ludicrous” Jim attempted to calm down the assemblage
“We don’t know yet but, – it could be something” Zoe chose her words carefully “I’d have to see a biopsy.” she sat down on her boss’ couch “If the cell membranes are regenerating.. if we see red and white blood cells.. well, we’ve never seen that outside of a lab before”
Chicago had been a hot zone for 3 weeks now and Dr. Chewer Zoe had become, through no fault of her own, the preeminent authority on life: the most dangerous pathogen in recorded history. As it turns out, Dr. Puker Peter had been in Chicago when Patient Zero was first admitted; days later, Chicago went black. Nowadays, if you had friends or family in the city, you assumed the worst: they were alive. Zoe had been hard at work with a crack team of scientists trying to reverse the effects of life, but nothing seemed to work. The FBI had moved them, just a few days prior, to a maximum security black site somewhere in Utah. Dr. Comehuesos Alejandro, a brilliant necroscientist – originally from Mexico City, but having done most of his work in the States – gently nudged her as she tried to parse some sequencing data
“You’ve been staring in that sequencer all day” he laughed “Let’s grab a bite, I think there’s some brains left over from lunch”
Zoe smiled, her eyeball still glued to the eyepiece “In a sec, Alejandro, I think.. I think I see something” she tugged on his lab coat “take a look at this”
Alejandro was a tall man, and his complexion was dark green. A few ribs poked through his tight skin, and he’d often run his fingers over them when deep in thought. He had two kids and a wife in LA. Two healthy boys that would always play childish pranks on one another; the favorite was stealing each other’s femurs and stumbling early morning before school looking for them. He couldn’t handle the thought of life taking them away from him. He’d seen a living man before, and so did Zoe. A colleague from the CDC, one of Zoe’s friends: completely covered in disgusting oily pink skin, his eyes darting back and forth like a madman, hyper-sensitive to pain and temperature. Prognosis: early stages of life. They never talked about him.
“There’s a pattern” he gasped “Holy shit, Zoe, there’s a pattern! Is this what you wanted to show me?”
“So I’m not crazy!” she yelped, her jaw popping out
Maybe they could come up with an antidote. If anything, this was the first step.
Nothing worked. Not the antidote, not the quarantines, not the bombs. Chicago, New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Dallas: everyone was alive. Zoe and Alejandro were still in Utah, but the black site was all but abandoned. After D.C. fell, the orders stopped coming. They soon began an affair, but survival remained paramount. They occasionally went out to scavenge brains, worms, maggots (which needed to constantly be replenished in their bunker), and sometimes even rotten flesh – quite a delicacy. They avoided the living at all costs. One day, it was Alejandro’s turn to scavenge and he returned with a freshly killed rabbit. For optimal flavor and nutritious value, the brains need to be left out in the sun for a few days, but the hunger was overwhelming. At lunch, they split the rabbit brains into two metal containers serving as makeshift plates.
“Fresh, but it’ll have to do” Alejandro said, as he started ravenously slurping his portion of the brains.
“What do you think life is like?” he asked, in a moment of deep introspection.
“I don’t know” Zoe said, her eye meeting his, “but it’s probably better than these brains”