This story is something of an experiment. Most of my writing is in the fantasy or science fiction genre, but such stories often include elements from other genres, and being able to effectively write differently is a useful skill for improving the overall competency of my writing and making the stories feel more real to my readers. With that thought in mind, I used the excuse of Halloween this year to try writing a different kind of story.
For one thing, it’s in the first person. I’m not averse to writing in the first person, but I do prefer third person for most writing. For another, it’s a soft science fiction story with strong elements of adventure and undertones of horror. Of course, my version of horror is fairly mild, compared to true horror stories, so don’t go into this expecting Stephen King level horror.
Yes, there are zombies. Yes, there are vampires. There are venomous spiders, ancient ruins, creepy jungles, and terrible plagues. I hope that you enjoy Zombies.
Violent, slavering, and exceedingly hungry, the grotesque forms of the zombies closed in upon me, with their gnashing, rotten teeth, eyes sloughing too low in their sockets, and overstretched jointed from frayed ligaments. These zombies were in better shape than most, thanks to the desert climate that had rendered their skin like leather and preserved them from the worst of the ravages of decomposition, but they were also older than most zombies I’d encountered, by several millennia. So beset upon by ghastly creatures, with them nearly upon me, I contemplated my situation. Hm. You know? Hm. Sometimes, hm is simply the most eloquent response to be made under the circumstances. Being surrounded by a few dozen ancient zombies, without any manner of magic sword, enchanted amulet, shotgun, or nuclear weapon at my disposal, having been run ragged through the city for the past hour, was one of those times. So I said “hm,” and the noise was totally lost amidst the massive silence of the broken, desolate remains of what had once been a great city.
One of the zombies, bolder, or perhaps hungrier, than the rest, lunged towards me, and I stumbled backwards in the sand, precipitating a surging mass of zombies all attempting to converge upon me at once, tripping over and fighting with each other in their haste to reach me and my succulent, not-rotten flesh. As I fell, a shadow passed overhead, and a slim, almost emaciated figure crashed into the ground in front of me, pale folds of something that looked like skin settling about him like a cape. The zombies shied instinctively from the figure, making angry gestures and daring each other to approach more closely, but eventually they scrambled off, moving awkwardly under fungal guidance, while the figure turned towards me.
“You are well, Sir?” the figure, whose name was Fizarterxes, asked with a clipped, highly educated accent, while the leathery, flesh-colored folds of his wings settled tightly around him. There was just the faintest of hisses marring his speech.
I accepted his icy hand and allowed him to help me to my feet. “As well as can be expected, thanks,” I replied. “Your timing was uncanny, as always.”
“When one has lived more than three thousand years, one finds oneself capable of predicting the outcome of certain occurrences with a startling degree of accuracy,” Fizarterxes replied. I liked to call him Fiz, although never to his face.
“Right…” Turning from him, I shaded my eyes against the aggressive desert sunlight, staring in the direction in which the zombies had fled. “How long until they come back?”
Looking around, Fiz sighed. “I remember when this was a city bedecked with the splendor of kings…Alas, those days are long since past. We had best keep moving; the zombies were startled by my arrival, but it will not deter them for long. Three thousand year old zombies tend to be especially peckish.”
Fiz was surely the only person in the world who would ever refer to slavering zombies looking to feast upon human flesh as “peckish.” Questionable choice in adjectives aside, his point was correct, and I led the way down the other side of the sand dune with a stumbling, jogging, falling motion, while Fiz simply leapt out from the top and glided to the bottom. It really wasn’t fair, but he had offered to make me a vampire, if that was really what I desired; I had declined for reasons which were sometimes difficult to keep in mind.
I had not been around when the city was bedecked with the splendor of kings, and I found myself wondering why I had insisted on chasing down rumors of zombies to some ancient city, half-buried in the sand. It made me wish that I could go back in time so that I would be around to warn my foolhardy self not to engage in such foolhardy and perilous activities. There were plenty of safer modes of employment which would have paid significantly better: janitor, for instance, or perhaps fast food line cook. They also would have been less dusty; there’s a reason that in most desert cultures it’s not considered impolite to pick your nose in public.
At the bottom of the dune, hewn stone blocks were just barely visible, forming the top of some manner of entrance. The interior was a vague shadow. I glanced at Fiz, who nodded slightly, so I pulled out my headlamp and slithered along the dune into the ancient structure, entering it in a dramatic, and quite messy, cascade of sand. Given the narrow entrance, at least Fiz’s arrival was only slightly more elegant than mine. I took a moment to dump an entire dune’s worth of sand from my boots before reaching up and powering on my headlamp. Fiz, of course, could see in the dark, which was another point in favor of vampires.
With the light on, I could see cartouches filled with hieroglyphics adorning tall pillars and walls. We were in what appeared to be a sort of antechamber to a larger facility of sorts. My knowledge of Egyptian hieroglyphs was fairly comprehensive, although I had only memorized a few sufficiently well to recognize them without at least referencing my notebook. One in particular was notably missing from the antechamber’s cartouches.
“I don’t see any mention of zombies,” I remarked to Fiz.
“Nor do I,” Fiz agreed. “From what I can tell, this was just the opposite of traditional Egyptian holy sites. And these forms…they’re distorted, different from what I remember of my time in Egypt. If I had to guess, this might be a site from before the arrival of zombies in in Nile valley.”
“Finally.” I glanced around the room again; there was only one passage leading deeper into the structure, so I followed it, Fiz just behind me. Perhaps that was somewhat backwards, given his condition; he would be far more likely to survive any possible dangers than I was. He could fly – well, glide – catch a bullet from the air, throw a car across a highway, survive a fall from a twenty story building, and inject paralytic venom on demand, not to mention recover from any poison, toxin, venom, or disease known to exist. The paralytic venom for which they and their fangs are so well known? It’s basically the water from the fountain of youth, if such a thing had ever actually existed. Or perhaps the water from the Holy Grail, if you prefer that legend. Of course, the venom has the unfortunate side effect of making a person into an immortal vampire, but tradeoffs are tradeoffs.
We had been searching for a pre-zombie Egyptian site for ages, and to have finally found one…perhaps we could finally find the clues we needed to locate the next link in the chain of events, one step closer to the source, the origin of the zombie fungus. And if we could find that, then perhaps we could find some ancient knowledge that might lead us to a cure. The Egyptians had dealt with the zombie fungus for thousands of years, but from what we had thus far been able to find, they had only poorly understood what was happening.
It was a controversial theory, as most new theories tend to be; the establishment is never particularly keen on someone coming along and telling them that their fundamental assumptions upon which they made all of their fortunes and fame are probably dead wrong, all puns intended. All of the prominent scholars agreed that the Egyptians had discovered and domesticated the zombie fungus, and in so doing enabled its spread throughout the world, their mummification processes helping to preserve the fungus to the present day. When archeologists began irresponsibly digging up mummies, they had inadvertently released more potent, Egyptian zombie spores into the world again. Zombies had never gone entirely away, of course, but they had been limited to a few, confined pockets of the undeveloped world, safe from being something that more civilized places had to concern themselves about outside of bad horror films. Not so since the Egyptian zombie spores had reemerged.
With the reemergence of more potent, survivable spores from ancient Egyptian sites, a significant amount of modern scientific prowess had been diverted to attempting to understanding and defeating the zombie fungus. It is now known that a fungus infection takes over the brainstem and gradually assumes control of the nervous system, in most cases resulting in death, but occasionally resulting in something that looks like a human being, but has the mind of a fungus. Since most fungi don’t possess anything that remotely resembles a mind, much less the simulacrum of intelligence afforded by the human cerebral cortex, this naturally leads the heretofore human physical form to revert to its ordinary, animalistic existence, in which it is driven by a need to eat, mate, and kill other humans. Since they don’t recognize other zombies as humans, that leaves normal, non-infected humans, such as myself, as the primary targets. The fungus also has a distinct tendency to want to propagate itself, which occurs primarily through biting. Hence, again, the zombie desire to chew on humans.
We encountered a junction after walking a few dozen paces through a straight hallway lined with urns. Examination of the craftsmanship of the urns clearly confirmed our suspicions that this was an older site than the more recognizable Egyptian ruins. Surprisingly, that also meant that the usual animal-headed gods were absent from the urns’ imagery. I wondered if perhaps the animal-headed gods hadn’t been gods at all. Maybe we had been misinterpreting; they could somehow be representations of zombies. They were, after all, animalistic, and the zombie fungus was not confined to human hosts. Other animals can be infected, although the fungus doesn’t propagate as effectively in reptiles, and hardly at all in insects. Mammals, which as a rule have larger brains (although I know plenty of exceptions amongst my supposed peers), are the most susceptible.
“Which way?” I asked, shining my light into the darkness of three possible corridor choices extending from the junction. I was pleased that I had been acting as a glorified grave robber, sorry, field archeologist, for sufficiently long that I didn’t have the suppress the urge to whisper. Of course, Fiz would hear me regardless of what volume I employed; he would probably be able to hear me whispering inside the ruins while standing outside of them.
Fiz considered, his pale skin seeming almost translucent in the harsh, LED light of my headlamp. It had a red light setting, to avoid ruining my night vision, but I had no interest in exploring an ancient Egyptian ruin, surrounded by hungry zombies, in brooding, red illumination. Despite popular belief, Fiz did not sparkle, shine, radiate, turn invisible, or turn into a bat, under any circumstances, illuminated or otherwise. Nor does he drink, suck, or otherwise consume human or animal blood. “Left.”
I looked at him. “You’re totally just guessing.” Walking around to look as far as I could down each of the possible corridors, I could detect no difference between them, aside from the obvious differences in direction of travel. “Fine. I think we should go right.”
The vampire shrugged, his pale face unrevealing. “Possibly.”
I fixed him with a look for a minute longer, though he was as inscrutable as ever. Though he often strikes me as being faintly British, he was around long before the British aristocracy even flirted with the idea of emerging from the untamed Celtic wilderness, and had supposedly first learned courtly manners in the Assyrian Empire. Regardless, he had been maintaining his composure for a very, very long time. I headed down the left-hand corridor.
We had barely walked a half dozen more paces when we were brought up short by a carefully, if roughly, hewn slab of stone in the form of a door.
“I don’t suppose they gave you a magic key, last time you were here? That you’ve been diligently safeguarding ever since?” I asked Fiz.
Fiz frowned at me. “As I stated, I have never been here before.” He bent to examine the stones around the door, and after a moment, reached his hand into a shadowed portion of the doorframe, where it appeared that a stone had fallen free. I almost warned him against doing something so reckless – who knew what manner of creeping, crawling creatures might be lurking in there – but then I remembered that there could be a brown widow spider in there, and its bite wouldn’t bother Fiz in the slightest. After a moment of unseen, questing fingers, there was a grinding sound, and the door rolled aside; a faint breeze tickled over us as the pressures between the chamber and the corridor equalized. “However, I am familiar with the style of construction.”
Rolling my eyes, I gestured expansively. “After you, then, globetrotter.”
“As you wish.” Fiz stooped slightly, and stepped into the chamber. I followed a step behind, and instantly inhaled sharply at what was within, followed by a prolonged and powerful fit of sneezing out the volume of dust I had just inhaled.
It was the chamber for which we had been searching, full of records, stacks upon stacks of them. The chamber was from before the Egyptians had invented papyrus-based papers, so everything was written on fired clay tablets. That meant that there was less information present that it appeared at first glance from the size of the chamber, but certainly did not mitigate the significance of the discovery. Plus, writing in clay tablets was more likely to be legible than ink on papyrus after the passage of thousands of years, regardless of how carefully protected the chamber might have been by the standards of the time. I hurried to the center of the room, where a low, stone table was still present, with a few stacks of tablets, and a very peculiar urn.
Unlike the other urns that we encountered in the first corridor, this one appeared almost like a barrel, and it did not even appear to be Egyptian in form. For one thing, it was made of a darker clay than was found near the Nile. For another, it was very squat at the bottom, with a peculiarly long, narrow neck leading up to a mouth, which had been secured with a particularly bulky cover of some material with which I was not immediately familiar. The whole assembly, urn and stopper, had been wrapped in what appeared to be steel bands.
“This doesn’t make any sense,” I said, walking around to look at the urn from all sides, my interest in the tablets temporarily waylaid by the anomaly at hand. “No civilization of this time period had the capability to work with iron, much less to produce such a quantity of steel as is present in the bands on this urn. Could it be a later addition to the chamber?”
After a moment, Fiz shook his head. “I don’t think so. The bands appear to have been integrated into the clay itself, before it had been set and fired. Besides, there is no indication to suggest that anyone has been inside this particularly building since the rise of the primary Egyptian Empire.”
“Can you reading this writing?” I asked, pointing towards the faintly painted characters visible along the rim and covering the stopper. “I’m not familiar with them.”
“They seem faintly familiar…” Fiz mused, bending to examine them more closely. His pale fingers brushed dust from the surface, and the whole urn shivered slightly.
“Did you see that?” I demanded, leaping backwards from the table and fumbling for a weapon, although I wasn’t certain what good a handgun would do against a vibrating urn.
“And also felt it,” Fiz remarked, taking a more restrained, cautious step backwards. “If I didn’t know better, I would say there is something alive in this urn.”
“Alive?” I repeated. “After more than three thousand years? Unlikely.” Fiz frowned at me, and I flushed. “Sorry. I suppose it could be a contemporary of yours.”
“Amusing,” Fiz observed, in a voice that was decidedly unamused. “I think the writing may be ancient Mayan.”
“Any chance we could cut down on the number of apparent impossibilities, rather than increasing them?” I asked, peering more closely at the urn, too. “It doesn’t look like any Mayan writing I’ve ever seen.”
Fiz nodded. “Hardly surprising. This was not the script they used for official business, which of course is all that’s left for modern scholars to find. However, I caught a few glimpses of this writing before the collapse of their empire. It was used by scholars, primarily; the writing was more efficient, compact, and useful than any other script of the era. It was probably the first system of letters to be based on sounds, rather than on meanings.”
“But can you read it?” I asked. I realized that I had snapped at him, and took a deep breath, followed immediately by another fit of sneezing. The shivering of the urn had unnerved me more than I cared to admit.
Fiz shook his head. “Unlikely. I only ever saw a few samples.” He moved a few tablets around on the table. “It appears that our Egyptian predecessors also were unable to interpret it. These tablets contain their efforts at translation, as well as records of what they were doing with the urn.”
Together, we began to stumble our way through the Egyptian translations, both of us casting occasionally wary glances at the urn. We caught it shivering once more, but other than that, it was as quiescent as any other millennia-old urn would be. Both of us made frequent references to my notebook, which contained translations for some of the more obscure hieroglyphs, which Fiz did not remember, and I had probably never encountered before. These older versions were in some ways more obvious, but in other ways more crude and inaccurate. Further complicating matters was the relative lack of standardization; many symbols had multiple variations, sometimes with the same meaning, sometimes with different meanings entirely. It was a good thing that zombies didn’t have very good senses, so it was very unlikely they would follow us into this ruin. We had time to devote to our analysis.
If the text, and associated urn, were really Mayan in origin, then perhaps that would offer the explanation for how the zombie fungus had made its way to Egypt. Despite the assertions of modern scholars, it didn’t make sense that the zombie fungus could have originally evolved in ancient Egypt. Although it had not always been as desert-like as it now was, it hadn’t exactly been a tropical paradise, which was the environment in which more modern zombie fungal strains thrived. Most scholars explained the anomaly of the fungus only continuing to exist in such tropical regions with convergent evolution, since obviously the ancient Egyptians could not have had contact with the jungles of South America, but that seemed unsatisfactory to me, and the counter-evidence was apparently sitting, and occasionally shivering, right before us. I was convinced that there must be a link, some way that the fungus had been transmitted from a more tropical environment, discovered by voyaging Egyptians obtained from someone else. Whether that was the Indians, or the South Americans, or even some tribe from the present day Congo, I wasn’t sure, but the urn gave a pretty strong indication of Mayan involvement.
One thing was abundantly clear: the Egyptians hadn’t fully understood the zombie fungus with which they had been working. That meant, almost certainly, that there had been at some point a culture that had understood it better than they had. Perhaps the Mayans, or perhaps the Mayans had gotten it from someone else, but the next link in the chain was becoming clearer. If we could find the records and knowledge of that culture, perhaps we could find some hint or clue to guide our modern, scientific efforts, and finally find a way to stop the zombie fungus’s spread.
“Consensus?” I asked, when Fiz set aside the final tablet.
Fiz tapped the urn, an action which elicited another shudder that had nothing to do with the force he had applied to the urn with his tapping. “First, the ancient Egyptians weren’t very good at reading Mayan, either. Not surprisingly, considering how utterly unlike hieroglyphics that language was. Apparently, they didn’t get this directly from the Mayans. According to the records here, the urn was purchased from a trader coming from what is modern-day India. The Mayan writing, according to the Egyptian translation efforts, is essentially a warning label, saying not to open the urn. There must be more, since the urn was clearly intended to be opened, but the Egyptians clearly had no idea what else it might have been saying, and I fear I do not, either. More interesting, however, are the notes they made about what they found when they did open the urn.”
I shone my light quickly around the room, distressingly unable to dispel all of the shadows simultaneously, no matter how quickly I moved the headlamp. “How creepy is this going to be?”
“Significantly,” Fiz replied. He paused, letting the moment linger. I was about to prompt him when he finally took pity upon me and continued his explanation. “It seems that the Egyptians were pursuing immortality. The trader told them that the urn contained a secret potion that would allow ‘life after death,’ or something of that nature. When they opened the urn, they found a living brain and spinal column, intact, covered by a slightly fuzzy, bioluminescent fungus. Experiments conducted on deceased slaves found that the fungus could be used to reanimate their bodies, although the official description was that they results were ‘mindless, like animals, although it is doubtful that this is a significant change from the slaves’ original existence.’ When their pharaoh was dying, they harvested some of the fungus and had the pharaoh ingest it, transforming the pharaoh into a zombie. Since the pharaoh was supposed to be a god, when he became a zombie they found themselves in something of an awkward position. The pharaoh apparently was provided with a steady stream of slaves to turn into zombies, but of course this never made him able to effectively rule. The priests eventually developed the process of mummification to kill him. Mummification wasn’t to preserve the pharaohs for the afterlife. It was to keep them from coming back.”
I swallowed rather noisily as I processed this information. It was much the same conclusion I had come to, although significantly more detailed, and, well, graphic. My grasp of the language had allowed me to grasp the main points of the material, but not the intimate details about zombie godkings and the Egyptians effectively creating an entire religion to explain why they needed to imprison their dead rulers, and store their organs in separate jars. “So…there’s a living, ancient Mayan brain, and the original, most potent form of the zombie fungus, in that urn right now?”
“Precisely,” Fiz replied. “I suggest that we refrain from opening it to confirm. Opening it the first time released enough spores to populate all of Egypt with the zombie fungus, despite the dry climate.”
Typically, the zombie fungus was best delivered through direct contact between an existing zombie and a new host, usually through biting, but the fungus could also be delivered via air or water. Those methods were only useful after the death of the host zombie and over short range, when the spores were released. And, apparently, if the fungus was blooming. It was fortunate that Fiz and I had not needed to kill any zombies to get into the ruins, so I had been safe from such indirect contraction, though the proliferation of the undead had made me definitely not safe from direct contraction, and chewing. I had thought the chewing would be worse than the zombification, but I was no longer convinced. “No argument here,” I hastily agreed. “I have a feeling I’m not going to like what we find in the Mayan temples.”
Perhaps I would ultimately prove correct about being less than fond of the Mayan temples. More immediately, I was even less fond of the journey to reach them. Fiz and I took a flight to Brazil, and then took a combination of trains and busses to even get close to the part of the Amazon where the Mayans had once dwelt. Once we had outfitted ourselves with suitable jungle gear, and I had become thoroughly paranoid about the disparate venomous snakes, spiders, and other creatures and even plants that would be trying to kill me, we set out on foot into the jungle. It is a common misconception that jungles are wonderful, verdant places perfectly suited for life. Well, that’s not strictly true. They are ideally suited for life, just not human life. Without suitable clothing, and more knowledge than I had time to accumulate, that Amazon rainforest could quickly prove more dangerous to me than the zombies.
After three nights, I revised my assessment. It wasn’t the snakes, spiders, giant ants, prehistoric millipedes, creepy bats, or poisonous frogs that got to me; it was the zombies. They shuffled in their clumsy way into our camp under cover of darkness, sloughing decrepit flesh in the hot, moist air. Fortunately, Fiz did not require sleep. Exploding from his statuesque crouch before the embers of our fire, he tore off two zombie heads, smashed them into the skulls of another two, and then flared his wings, hissing loudly. The zombies scrambling backwards, but unlike the zombies in the Egyptian city, they didn’t flee entirely, instead encircling our camp and making occasional forays towards the center, as if to see if they could catch Fiz and me off guard, although zombies were not capable of such complex thought processes. As if I would have been able to sleep with dozens of zombies surrounding the camp. I kept a white-knuckled grip on my machete almost constantly from then onwards.
Our only respite, such as it was, was that zombies don’t thermoregulate particularly well, which is why they are more inclined to attack at night, and another reason why their prevalence in ancient Egyptian cities is so perplexing. Such mysteries of evolution aside, their tendency to overheat meant that they would mostly leave us alone during the hot, humid jungle days. Unfortunately, that meant that we had to travel during the hot, humid jungle days, which almost invariably included a torrential downpour around midafternoon or late afternoon, since the trees literally created their own rainfall, with a little help from dust that had been blown over the Amazon from the desert that we had recently left behind on the other side of the world. In other words, when we weren’t fighting for our lives against zombies, we were fighting for our lives against mosquitoes, lightning, and trench foot.
“Why,” I asked, as I hacked through a zombie’s head and shoved it in the way of its clumsy companions, “do there seem to be more zombies the closer we get to the temples.” My machete blade was by this point permanently stained with zombie blood, a distressingly human shade of red, so I didn’t even bother to wipe it off. There was always another zombie. I used to blade more to hack through zombie limbs than I did tree limbs.
Fiz moved like a miniature tornado. He seized a zombie by the chest, and flung it bodily into several of its companions with such force that they all fell apart at the joints in a particularly ghastly end, even for someone with as little sympathy for zombies as I possessed. “I don’t know,” he replied, not even having the grace to sound winded. There was an audible crack as his shin collided with a zombie’s rotten ribcage, actually driving straight through the thing’s chest and out the other side. “Some of these zombies appear to be remarkably old, and they all seem stronger than zombies ought to be. I suspect that a slightly different strain of fungus is at work here, probably akin to whatever we would have found in that urn, had we opened. The modern fungus must be somewhat less…potent.”
“I’m increasingly glad that we didn’t,” I growled, although I knew that I had to be careful to enunciate. The damp cloth over my face helped to prevent zombie spores from dead zombies getting into my orifices and taking over my brain, but it wasn’t especially comfortable, or an easy medium through which to speak.
Stabbing another approaching zombie through the chest, I yanked up on the blade with all of my strength, shattering ribs and cartilage and dropping the creature. It was actually fortunate that these zombies were so old, since they appeared much less human. Fighting more recent zombies could be disturbing, because they looked like, well, normal people, aside from a slight tendency to drool, and the ungainliness of their motions. They were also more fragile, which made them easier to kill. Zombies could survive many wounds that would cripple or kill a human without considerable effect; they needed to be severely damaged before they’d become inoperative. As cold as it seems to describe them that way, I can think of no better terminology.
Looking around, I shook some of the zombie remains off of my machete. “I think that might be the last of them,” I remarked.
Turning to look at me, Fiz started to say something, but then his eyes widened, and he was moving, a blur of motion across our camp, impossibly fast. I turned to look behind me for whatever had startled him so, and felt a cold hand seize the hand that held the machete as teeth bit into my shoulder. I yelled in panic and yanked away, trying to free me arm. Flesh tore as the zombie bite was dislodged, and I managed to hit it over the head with the machete’s hilt. Then Fiz was there, snapping the zombie’s arm off and smashing its chest with an open palm, sending it collapsing against a tree three paces away. His head swiveled, nostrils flaring for several moments, before he turned to examine my wound.
“Bad?” I asked, craning my neck to try to see the bite wound. I could feel blood running down my back, and winced when Fiz probed at the injury. “Sure feels bad.”
Fiz shook his head. “The wound itself is superficial,” he said. Obtaining the first aid kit from our gear, he cut free my shirt from around the wound. “This will hurt.” I nodded and clenched my teeth as he washed the wound thoroughly with the strongest antiseptic we had. Then he was binding the wound tightly. That done, he faced me. “As for the other…”
I took a deep breath, fighting my rising panic. “I know.” Zombie spores were typically unaffected by antiseptic, no matter how quickly and thoroughly applied. “How long do you think I have?” The conversion to a zombie took time, and varied significantly depending on how many spores had been transferred, where the bite was located, how quickly the wound was treated, and the conditions of the new host. In carefully controlled hospital settings, doctors would lower a patient’s body temperature and put them into an induced coma, which could make the conversion process take as much as a month. Out in the jungle, I definitely didn’t have that kind of time.
“A week, at most,” Fiz replied, after a long moment. “I’m sorry. I ought to have been more observant, faster.”
“It’s not your fault,” I assured him. It shouldn’t have been surprising, I supposed; what had I expected, deliberately chasing after the origins of the zombie fungus into the heart of zombie territory? “Do me a favor, Fizarterxes. When it…that is, when I’m…not myself, anymore? Kill me. It. What I become.”
Fiz hesitated. “There is another way…” he began, but I forestalled him.
“No. I appreciate the offer, but…no.” It was tempting, so very tempting. One bite from Fiz would solve my zombie problem instantly. It would also make me an immortal vampire. Tradeoffs were tradeoffs…I couldn’t imagine living like Fiz did. Feared by almost everyone, considered a myth by most, seeing ages come and pass, friends and family grow old and die around him, while he living on, unchanging, eternally enduring…better to have a clean end. “Let’s keep going while we can. No more waiting around for day. We’ll push through as fast as we can. Doesn’t really matter if I get bitten again, after all. Who knows? Maybe there’ll be a cure in one of the Mayan temples.” We both knew that was supremely unlikely.
“Walking will only accelerate the progress of your condition,” Fiz observed, “and you only have perhaps two days of motor control remaining, three, perhaps four days of consciousness.”
I shrugged, and immediately regretted it as coagulated blood cracked and pulled at my skin, and I felt new, hot rivers of red blood run down my back. “Oh well. We’ll get as far as we can.”
Fiz paused, and then grabbed my arm. With a twist of his body, he laid me over his shoulders like an oversized sack of dog food. “I shall carry you,” he declared, stooping awkwardly to retrieve my machete, which I had dropped. There was little point, given my position and condition, in attempting to argue with him.
“Who am I to doubt the wisdom of my elders?” I mused, as Fiz began to run. Each step jounced me fiercely, and I wondered how much of this particular abuse my body could take in its present condition. I tried my best to brace myself with my arm against the small of Fiz’s back, but it was only slightly effectual, and became entirely fruitless when I somehow managed to fall asleep.
As if vampires didn’t have enough physical advantages, Fiz did not get tired, nor out of breath, as he ran through the thick jungle. Sometimes his run was more of a fast walk, slowed by the need to hack through vegetation or find ways around obstacles, but it was still faster than either I or the zombies could accomplish, and we saw few of the undead as we continued incessantly. I was vaguely away of the sun rising and setting as my muscles slowly stopped obeying my commands. By the end of what I think was the second day since I had been bitten, I could no longer take care of my own bodily needs. Fiz had to hold the water up for me; he did not feed me. He said something about needing to keep my metabolism slow, to retard the progress of the spores, but I think he simply didn’t have an effective way to feed a man who could barely swallow, much less chew.
After the second day, I slipped in and out of consciousness as the Mayan temple for which we were heading grew to dominate my upside-down view past Fiz’s armpit. The jungle ran right up to the Mayan temples, in some cases directly over them. Climbing up a combination of crumbling stone steps and slimy vines, I’m not sure how Fiz managed not to drop me, but he reached the top. No one knew exactly for what purpose the Mayan temples had been built, but they seemed the only reasonable place to start; there wasn’t enough left of anything else of theirs to be of use to us. At least the zombies were too clumsy to follow us to the top. I wondered how many hundreds of thousands of Mayans had been sacrificed where Fiz now stood, with me draped numbly over his shoulders.
“The Mayans didn’t practice human sacrifice, you know,” Fiz remarked. “You’re thinking of the Aztecs.”
“How do you know what I’m thinking?” I mumbled as distinctly as I could, which wasn’t very. “Vampires aren’t telepathic.”
Fiz smiled hollowly, always a slightly disturbing sight in a vampire, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “No, but I know you well enough to make a reasonable guess.”
“Then…what were the temples…for?” I forced out.
Making his way to the rear of the platform, picking past broken stone and aggressive foliage, I thought that Fiz wasn’t going to reply, but eventually he did. “Even while they existed, the Mayans were mysterious, especially to those of us on the other side of the oceans to whom they were mostly a vague rumor, just like the continent on which they supposedly lived.”
I managed a sigh. “I don’t suppose…you know a way…in?”
Fiz arched a supremely civilized eyebrow, as if to say “You doubt me?” Picking me up again, he turned walked behind the altar, and followed a recessed stairway into the temple itself, liberally hacking away vines and other impediments with my machete as he went. At least the feeling of something wriggling down my back was only very faint, as I had less and less feeling anywhere in my body, and it was probably just sweat, or blood. It couldn’t possibly be some manner of venomous snake, or toxic frog, or deadly giant spider…I wished that I could bash my back against something, but of course I could not move. I could barely even grunt to gain Fiz’s attention anymore.
Aside from being choked with vegetation and spider webs, and all manner of slithering, creeping, crawling creatures, the Mayan temple’s staircase was in remarkably good condition after being abandoned for millennia. The stairs, although slick with moss and simple humidity, still seemed solid beneath Fiz’s boots, and the carvings decorating the walls were still discernible once the encrusting grime of centuries was chipped away.
“The stone isn’t native,” Fiz remarked, running his free hand over some of the carvings. “It’s some kind of granite, probably imported from the North American Rockies, if I had to guess. How the Mayans got their hands on enough of it to encase an entire temple is beyond me. I wonder why they bothered?”
I tried to reply, but managed only a sort of gurgling, choking sound.
“Until we found that urn, there was no evidence to suggest that they had contact with the eastern hemisphere, either,” Fiz observed in response to my unspoken question.
The staircase ended at a simply appointed chamber. A few reliefs of what were probably the Mayan gods decorated the walls, cast in solid steel somehow untarnished and free of rust despite thousands of years of exposure to jungle moisture. Low stone benches surrounded the outside of the room, while a ring and shallow pit at the center suggested some manner of firepit. The remains of a large, heavy, stone, steel-reinforced door littered the floor on the far side of the chamber. It appeared to have been forced open at some point, very aggressively.
When Fiz set me down on the stone bench, propped against the wall, I felt a squeaky, wet squelch on my back that did not come from a burst sweat droplet. Hopefully it was just a symptom of my increasing delirium. The room spun, and I tried to hold onto Fiz, but he had already stood up again, and was pacing around the chamber, apparently seeking to measure it. He traced his fingertips over the domed ceiling until it grew too high for him to reach; eventually it came to a hole at the top where the smoke from the fire had presumably escaped, although it seemed too small for the size of the firepit. Perhaps they had desired a certain amount of smokiness in the room. Fiz rubbed his fingertips together and held them up for me to see. “Soot.” Holding his fingers to his own nose, he sniffed deeply. “It’s intense for being thousands of years old. There must be small molecules involved, or even free elements. Polar groups, too. And it smells faintly of garlic…”
Oftentimes, it’s easy to forget how many degrees Fiz holds; he’s had a very long time to go back to school for more education. I wanted to say something about him being particularly attuned to garlic, but the words would barely even form in my head, much less be forced out of my numb throat. I realized that I could not actually feel if I were still breathing, although I knew logically that I must be.
Again, Fiz seemed to hear my unspoken words. “Despite the myths, vampires are not repelled by garlic, although the sulfurous odor is certainly stronger to us. Zombies, however, are repelled by strong garlic smells.” Glancing at the broken door, I thought Fiz seemed nervous, and I did not want to know or imagine what could make a three thousand year old vampire nervous. “But all of the experiments with sulfur have been unsuccessful…”
Fiz walked cautiously towards the broken door, looking at the steel components and peering into the musty darkness beyond. Nothing stirred, for which I was grateful. I tried to follow Fiz with my eyes, since I could no longer turn my own head, or even keep it upright. “Tellurium,” he said. This made no sense to me, but very little was making sense to me any longer. I clung to consciousness as Fiz rifled through my pockets for my headlamp. That didn’t make sense, either; vampires could see perfectly fine in the dark.
When Fiz directed the headlamp through the doorway, I felt that there was something about the darkness beyond that made my skin crawl. Senses older than sentience seemed to be warning me that going through there was a very, very bad idea.
“Tellurium,” Fiz repeated. “It smells like sulfur, which is the strongest component of the garlic scent, except that it’s far stronger. Burns at some 1300 Kelvin, if I recall correctly.” He looked back at me, and I tried to give him some manner of reassuring smile, although if I managed to make my facial muscles respond at all it likely looked more like a stroke victim’s grimace. Then he stepped through the doorway, sweeping around as he did so with my headlamp. There seemed to be something thick about the darkness, so it seemed like the light didn’t force it back the way it should have, as if this darkness were bolder than the rest, but it was enough to show that the chamber glittered slightly in the light, as if the walls were coated in greyish-white crystals. Perhaps the resistant darkness was actually in my mind. A faintly glowing trail was left behind where my headlamp had shown, fading quickly back to darkness. Something crunched, and Fiz turned the light down towards the ground.
The floor of the chamber was littered with moldering bones and corpses in various states of decay. Fiz picked his way through the field of death and carefully pried some of the crystals from the wall, depositing them in a vial, before returning to the bench where I was seated.
“That entire chamber is sheathed in tellurium,” Fiz explained. “I have no idea how the Mayans were able to extract it in such large, and pure, quantities. But I think we now know the purpose of the Mayan temples.” I tried to reply that I had no idea what he was talking about, but could not. The light seemed to be fading quickly. “They were prisons,” Fiz continued. “They Mayans built these temples to imprison zombies. Whether they built the infrastructure to help defend themselves against naturally occurring zombies, or if they built them after zombie experiments went wrong, I cannot say, but this temple, at least, was built for the express purpose of imprisoning zombies. I have no reason to believe the other temples are any different.”
Vaguely, I felt hard shoulders under me, and I realized that Fiz was carrying me again. We were climbing down from the temple, based on the jolting of his shoulders against my mostly numb abdomen.
“Science is considerably more advanced now than it was during Mayan times. Their use of tellurium finally gives us a place to start.” I could hear Fiz speaking again, as if from a very great distance, although it seemed like it should be much closer. “Something about the element clearly interferes with the zombie fungus. If I had to guess, that’s probably where the negative associations between so-called supernatural entities and garlic originally came from. Inhaling a tiny fraction of a gram of tellurium will give you ‘garlic breath’ that lasts for weeks. Of course, it will also make you permanently infertile… We may be able to synthesize a sort of chemotherapy based on tellurium to treat those infected with the fungus.”
It seemed to me that this should seem important to me, but it seemed decidedly less so. What was I doing, riding on a vampire’s shoulders? Vampires were dangerous, and certainly couldn’t be trusted. They could actually kill me…and this one smelled strongly of garlic. For that matter, I smelled strongly of garlic. It made me want to tear off my clothes, tear off my own skin. That voice, that voice was speaking to me again.
“It won’t be pleasant, and the consequences aren’t ideal, but most things are toxic, really. Chemotherapy is extremely toxic; it’s basically just a matter of seeing if you or the cancer is going to die first. I fear this will be much the same.” The twisted abomination carrying me sighed. “It seemed better than a death sentence.”
The jouncing stopped sometime later, and I realized that I had been set down. The dreaded vampire stooped down in front of me, and I recoiled instinctively…except that it wasn’t really me that did the recoiling. What was happening to me? Wait, this was Fiz, my friend…why was I afraid of him? What was…the zombie fungus. I forced my eyes open.
“You…promised,” I somehow managed to croak, and then I lost consciousness.
Light. There was light around me. That was different; before there had been only blackness. And images…a hunger, an abiding hunger that had nothing to do with needing to eat…what had been going on? But now there was light. That seemed good, didn’t it? It seemed frightening. Why would there be light? The world was dark. My eyelids fluttered painfully, rebelling against my control of them, but I managed to open my eyes.
With my eyes open, I could see that there was light, but there was also darkness. Bars of darkness were extended across the light, and a looming shadow of darkness sat beside me. It reached towards me, and I recoiled. I tried to bat the reaching claw of darkness away, but my arms would not obey me. I struggled, but no amount of struggle could convince my muscles to respond to my commands. It closed my eyes and waited for the claw of darkness to rend me asunder, but it traced gently along my cheek, instead. Its touch burned me, and I moaned. I could moan. Had I always been able to moan? The claw withdrew.
Then then claw was there again, grasping my chin, forcing my mouth open. Another claw of darkness approached, and poured some foul-smelling poison down my throat. I gagged and choked and tried to spit it back out, but the darkness plugged by nose and held my jaw shut was a grip that brooked no argument from my recalcitrant body. Eventually, I had no choice but to swallow the disgusting substance, the vile poison, lest I suffocate. The darkness loomed from all sides then, and reclaimed me in full.
I had toes. It was a strange thing, to realize I had toes. It was stranger still to realize that I could move them, after a fashion; not much, but they did respond slightly to my commands. Apparently, I also had legs, because I could feel them, vague shapes that somehow connected me to my toes. They were covered with a tight, constraining substance that was…that was skin. Yes, I had skin. Skin on my legs, and on my toes. Such strange sensations.
I had fingers too, I realized. They were also covered in that material called skin, and they were connected to me by more legs. No, not legs. My fingers were connected to me by not-legs, which were also covered in skin. How did I know these things? Not-legs did not seem to be the right word…arms. Yes, that was the words. The not-legs that connected me to my fingers were supposed to be called arms. Why should that be? Why could I not call them whatever I chose to call them? But they were clearly supposed to be called arms.
Something was wrong with my eyes, though. I could not see, though there seemed to be light coming in, vague and filtered, slightly pinkish. It was like there was skin stretched across my eyes, but that couldn’t be right. Why would there be skin across my eyes? It wasn’t supposed to grow like that. Oh, this skin was different. It was like a flap of skin, covering the eye. I could move it, couldn’t I? I concentrated, and opened my eyes. The skin was removed, but there was still only light.
“Ah, good, you’re awake.” That voice was familiar, although I could not quite identify to whom it belonged or why it should be familiar. “I think I’ve purged the last of the fungus from your system, but your body is very weak. It will take you some time before you can move about on your own again.” The voice hesitated, and then I felt hands that were not my own tucking something, like a second, much rough skin, around me. It was rough against my real skin, and I wondered why I should want this not-skin. “You need to rest. We will talk more when you wake next.”
I tried to say something, but my tongue flopped loosely in my mouth, and my throat would not respond. The voice’s suggestion that I rest seemed suddenly very appealing, so I allowed my eyes to drift shut again, dimming the light once more, and I soon fell asleep.
When I awoke next, I felt much, well, not stronger, but more aware. I knew what all my body parts were, for one thing. I also knew that I was naked, and lying in something that perhaps could have been called a bed, but felt more like a very poorly made, splintery cot. There was light all around, but when I opened my eyes, there was still only light. I blinked several times, and tried to rub my eyes, but nothing changed the view, or lack thereof. Nor did looking around, or shaking my head vigorously, produce any impact.
“Fiz? Fiz, are you there?” I called. “Fiz, what’s going on? Fiz?”
A firm grip seized my shoulder, settling me back down into the uncomfortable cot-structure. “I am here,” Fiz answered, his hissing voice calm and reassuring. “You’re in an Amazonian village. How much do you remember of the past two months?”
“Two…two months?” I asked.
“Not very much, I take it,” Fiz observed. “Allow me to summarize. We ventured into the Amazon in search of hints about the origins of the zombie fungus. Along the way to one of the temples, you were bitten by a zombie. I carried you to the temple, where I discovered that the Mayans had used tellurium to help imprison and defeat zombies. I gathered as much tellurium as I could carry, and then took us back through the jungle. By then, you were rather far along in your…transition. So I sought shelter in a local village. They didn’t want to let me in with a zombie, but I convinced them I was a god by allowing them to stab me with a spear and then not dying. After that, they were very accommodating. I made large quantities of tellurium stew, and fed it to you in as large of concentrations as it seemed I could without killing you. It took almost a month to eradicate the zombie fungus, and the rest of the time to bring you back from the brink, as it were.”
I processed this slowly, and Fiz seemed content to allow me to do so. “Fiz. Fiz, I can’t see.” I had been trying not to consider that fact, or hoping that Fiz would tell me that it was temporary, but the panic was beginning to set in. How could I function, without being able to see? I was helpless, totally helpless. Not to mention useless. “Fiz, I can’t see! What can’t I see?”
Without being able to see his expression, I couldn’t tell for sure, but Fiz’s voice sounded infinitely sad. “I’m sorry. It’s a side effect of the amount of tellurium I gave you…you will never be able to see again.”
Lying back on the uncomfortable cot, I stared up at what I assumed to be the ceiling, but for all that my senses conveyed to me it might as well have been the infinite ceiling of the cosmos. Fiz put a hand on my shoulder, but I pulled away. I wanted nothing so much, in that moment, as to curl up, alone with my secret shame, and go back to sleep, praying that I might awaken in the morning with my sight miraculously restored. I couldn’t be permanently blind. I simply couldn’t. My body would heal itself in time, wouldn’t it? Fiz tried to say something, but I turned away from his voice. It was his fault; he had done this to me. The rational part of my mind acknowledged the immaturity, the foolishness, of that perspective, blaming the man who had saved me from becoming a zombie for my blindness, but the rational part of my brain had little sway in that moment.
It seemed that even the three thousand year old vampire could not determine what the right words to say to me in that condition were, for I heard him quietly leave the room a few minutes later, doubtless thinking that I had fallen asleep again, though I continued to lay away long after he left, alternately closing and opening my eyes, and marveling in revulsion at the lack of difference between the two. I discovered in the process that though my eyes would no longer allow me to see, there was nothing about the tellurium poisoning that prevented me from crying.
Beneath my fingertips, the wood was warm, as if it had been bathing in the sunlight for hours, though I knew this part of the house to be consistently cool and dry. It often seemed that wood possessed a certain internal warmth, irrespective of the ambient temperature. Intellectually, this was because of the thermal conductive properties of the molecules involved, but I liked to think it was because the wood had once been alive, stretching aspirationally towards the sunlight. I followed the grain of the wood in its whirls and ripples, still discernible beneath the varnish, as the steps descended beneath my bare feet. It was better to go barefoot, I’d found; it made navigation much easier, and safer. I had fallen down these stairs more than once in the early days.
From the foot of the stairs, I followed the scents of breakfast wafting from the kitchen. Even after three years, it was strange to me that I had no image for the rooms in which I had been living that entire time. Fiz had no shortage of money, or property – he had been around when both were invented – and he had generously taken me in when we returned from the Amazon. I navigated by a mental map of touches and sounds and scents until I reached the dining room table, where I lowered myself carefully into my accustomed chair.
“Good morning,” I said to the whiteness around me. Most people I could hear: their breathing, the rustling of their clothes from their little movements of life. Not Fiz. So I spoke, knowing that I might be speaking to the air, but the computer in my room had informed me that this was the appropriate time for breakfast, and Fiz was nothing if not punctual. I could also smell the food aromas wafting from the plate at my setting, which indicated that Fiz had already laid out the meal.
“Good morning,” Fiz’s voice replied from the other end of the table. “I trust you slept well?”
“Well enough,” I replied. My fingers quested for my silverware, and found them right where they were supposed to be. Routine and consistency were keys to mitigate the effects of my blindness, which grew frustrating at times, but it was better than being rendered completely impotent.
Though I could not see him, I could imagine Fiz frowning concernedly at me. He seemed to hold himself personally responsible for my condition, which while technically true, did not seem entirely fair. He had done what he had to do, and though I would not say so on my darker days, being blind was a far sight better than being dead. “The dreams, again?”
I nodded. “Yes.” It was rare that I didn’t have the dreams, though they did not come as frequently as they had at first. Dreams of zombies, of a hunger that had nothing to do with filling my stomach, of yearning to chew on human beings, of terror at the sight of an evil vampire looming over me, forcing poison that stank of garlic down my throat. When they grew too terrible for too long, I had medicine I could take to help me sleep soundly, but I tried not to take it too often. It was sometimes difficult to resist, but no matter how dark my nightmares became, it was only in them that I could see.
“I’m sorry.” There was the clinking of utensils on porcelain, and I knew that Fiz was eating breakfast today. He didn’t always; vampires did not need to eat, strictly speaking, and normal food tended to taste bland to them, but sometimes he would eat with me so that I would feel more comfortable. “Did you have a chance to listen to the recording?”
Cheering. There had been so much cheering in the recording, just as there had been at all of the conferences Fiz and I had attended in the years since we had returned from the Amazon. I didn’t like cheering; it was too loud, made it impossible to determine what else might be going on around me. It was a little like being put in a room that is so bright that you can’t make anything out. Still, I had listened to the recording. The speeches had been nothing extraordinary, but I knew that wasn’t the important part. “I did. So I guess you managed to pull it off? Good for you. Good for you…”
“We managed to ‘pull it off,’ as you say,” Fiz corrected. “It was our discovery, together, that led now to a cure for the zombie fungus. I only wish that we had been able to act more quickly, to save more lives. So many dead…”
I had listened to the news reports. The tellurium-based chemotherapy had been effective in treating 97.6% of those infected with the zombie fungus, with varying levels of side effects depending on the dosages requires to eradicate the fungus, but only if they had been infected for less than two weeks. Efforts to eradicate the fungus in older zombies had resulted in the death of the host as well as the fungus; it was simply too integrated into the nervous system at that point. No one had known quite what to do with the zombies that could not be cured, so ultimately it had come down to the same choice the Mayans made. Uncured zombies were imprisoned in facilities lined with tellurium crystals, under heavy guard. Many claimed that this was a mercy, that one day a cure might be found, but only a few truly believed that to be the truth of the matter. More realistically, this was simply the only politically expedient option to slowly eradicate all of the remaining zombies. Everyone just wanted the nightmare to be over; the fungus had decimated the world’s population, and left very few parts of the world unscarred.
“It’s done, then.” I breathed a sigh of relief; I had not realized until that moment how nervous the ongoing zombie epidemic had made me. Not until I stepped back from the edge did I realize just how close I had come to falling.
Fiz’s silverware was set down slowly, and I braced myself; something unpleasant was about to be said. “Not quite, I’m afraid,” Fiz replied. “Several samples of the zombie fungus have been retained for ‘research purposes.’ I heard several researchers expressing interest in working with the fungus to investigate life-extending medicines, neurotherapy, and other ‘advances.’ I tried to dissuade them, but vampires are not particularly well-regarded, and even my name could not overcome that stigma enough for them to listen to words they did not wish to hear. I’m sorry.”
I realized that my hand had clenched around the hilt of my knife, and I forced the fingers to relax from the metal and placed it on the table, only slightly harder than was needed to hide the trembling in my fingers. Fiz’s words faded out, and I could hear the sounds. They weren’t real sounds, just mental sounds. They were the sounds of zombies, and they were coming for me.
Thank you for reading Zombies. If you enjoyed the story, please consider leaving a review in the comments section below.
Story written by Lloyd Earickson. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real persons, places, or events is strictly in the mind of the author. Any real or historical places and references are used fictitiously.
Copyright 2019, IGC Publishing