Kantubek Syndrome, they called it. The big K-S. The Zombie Virus. Although Livia thought that “zombie” was a little too on-the-nose - and besides, the scientists had stressed, it wasn’t a virus. It was much closer to a bacterium. Bacteria, virus, who gives a shit anymore?
The story was typical. Patient zero: some idiot walked right into a deserted Soviet-era bioweapons lab and started digging around in old storage containers. Then he went home. The next day, he killed and partially ate his roommate. After attacking two more people on the street, he was gunned down by police. Everyone speculated that drugs were to blame. Heroin? Bath salts? A bad batch of desomorphine? But then one of the police officers, and a bystander who witnessed the attacks, succumbed to the infection. They, in turn, killed three more people and infected eight. After three days, the small local hospital was completely overrun. After four, the entire town was put under military-enforced quarantine. It hadn’t worked.
* * *
Livia opened her eyes, slowly. How long had she been out? A matter of seconds, probably. She was slumped against a wall in some sort of corridor, the broken fluorescent light fixture still swinging above her.
Right. She remembered. The basement hallway in her low-rise apartment building. She was making a run for the parking garage when an explosion - natural gas, probably - dislodged the light fixture, which had hit her right in the forehead. Fuck was that painful. She raised her hand to her head; touched it gently. Her fingers came away bloody.
Oh shit. They can smell blood.
Livia stood up unsteadily. She still had to get out of here. Away from those fucking zombies. The things were fast and it would not take long for them to figure out the stairs.
Down the corridor, a left turn, to a metal door with a “PARKING” sign. She peered through the small window. The good news: most of the lights were still on. The bad news: she wasn’t alone. She could see four zombies, which meant there were probably at least twice that many. For a moment Livia wondered what they had been eating down here to survive this long. But she didn’t really want to know.
She pulled the car keys out of her pocket and positioned her finger on the unlock button. Her other hand gripped the door handle. Both hands were shaking. Okay, deep breaths. Open the door, go through the door, close the door. Then three rows over, six parking spaces down.
Livia repeated it to herself again. Through the door. Three rows over. Six spaces down. Click the unlock, get into the car, lock doors, go.
A scream echoed through the hallway behind Livia, galvanizing her. Either a zombie, or some other survivor being attacked. Time to go. She opened the door carefully, and let it close as quietly as she could.
One of the zombies noticed her as she made her way across the garage. It made a grunting noise that sounded almost surprised, and then began to lurch towards her. Livia swore to herself and started running. The chasing zombie screeched and increased speed to catch up. Now the others were looking. They weren’t exactly intelligent, but once they saw prey they were certainly persistent. And now they were closing in.
Livia almost ran into the side of her dark blue SUV as she pressed the button to unlock the door. She got in, slammed the door shut, and relocked it, half a second before one of the zombies jumped onto the hood and started clawing at the windshield.
Don’t look in their eyes! Livia remembered. She wasn’t sure why, exactly. An animal dominance thing, maybe? No sense in risking it. She looked down, focused on getting the key into the ignition, turning it, moving the gear lever into drive. She floored the pedal, and then stepped on the brake. The zombie bounced off the windshield and it went tumbling down from the front of the SUV. Livia hit the gas again, running it over, and drove towards the exit.
She pulled up to the garage door, over the pressure sensor, and nothing happened. Oh no, no, please, you have to open she thought, feeling panic coming on. Livia pulled the little remote out of the glovebox and hit the button repeatedly. Still nothing. Several zombies were converging on her vehicle. Despite the locked doors of her vehicle, she hardly felt safe. Whatever the infection did to the human nervous system, it also allowed for uninhibited use of all one’s muscle strength.
Livia had no choice but to try to crash through the garage door. She had no idea if that would work, but she recalled that the best way to run into something is backwards, to avoid damaging the radiator. She threw the little SUV into reverse and executed a quick turn to face away from the door, clipping another zombie and sending it flying into a support pillar. Forward now, a few tens of meters to give some run-up. Then reverse again. She braced herself and shut her eyes as the vehicle rammed into the garage door, warping the big metal panels enough to break them free of their tracks. She was through.
The momentum of the SUV carried it up the ramp and into the little car park in front of the building. Livia shouted in rage and defiance and triumph and fear all at once. As much as she tried to force herself to think of the zombies as monsters, they still looked human. They still were human, at least part of them. These things she had run over indiscriminately in her escape… they had been someone’s friends, someone’s family… And why weren’t you supposed to look in their eyes?
The highway proved to be impassable with cars broken down, wrecked, or just abandoned in desperate attempts to flee the city. But the smaller roads were relatively clear. Livia drove West, towards the city where she hoped to find the rest of her family. The two-lane road cut through a forest, which is where she saw the sign spraypainted with “NO INFECTION” and an arrow to a dirt path. The GPS was still working so she checked her position, but saw no indication of the trail. Running low on fuel, she decided to risk it, in case there was someone who had - or knew where to find - supplies.
Livia pulled off the road and headed down the path, putting her vehicle into four-wheel drive just in case. A few hundred meters in, an old gate topped with barbed wire blocked her way. A walkie-talkie was duct taped to one of the posts. She stopped, scanned the area, then got out and hesitantly approached the walkie-talkie.
She pressed the talk button. “Hello? Is anyone there?” Released the button, then quickly pressed it again and said “Uh, over.”
A crackle of static, and then an old man’s voice: “Any zombies nearby? Over.”
“Um - “ Livia looked around again, just in case. “No, I don’t see any.”
“When was your last contact with them? Over.”
“Two or three hours ago, I guess? I ran them over with my car. They didn’t touch me or anything. Over.”
“How many people with you? Over.”
“It’s just me. Please, I need… gas, and food. I’m trying to get to my family.”
There was a pause for several seconds, and Livia was about to ask again when the man responded. “Alright. I’m coming to the gate to let you in. I will be there in three minutes. Keep a lookout, and if you see anything coming, call me immediately, and then drive away. Over and out.”
Three minutes later, as promised, the old man came walking up the laneway. He carried a shotgun, and had a hatchet strapped to his hip. He looked outdoorsy. Lots of plaid flannel. He stopped on the other side of the gate and looked hard at Livia.
“You see anything?” he asked.
“No, no sign of… zombies.” The word still felt strange and absurd to say out loud.
“Hmph. Alright.” The man pulled a key out of his pocket and opened the padlock. “Leave your car here. If you did hit a zombie, there might be blood. The blood might still infect us. Get whatever supplies you have and follow me.”
“I don’t really have anything, just a.. a first aid kit in the back.”
“Leave it, then. Got plenty of that stuff. Come on.”
The old man locked the gate behind them and started walking.
“What’s your name? I’m Livia.”
She got the feeling that this guy wasn’t much for conversation, and they continued in silence until they got to a small wood cabin, with a storage shed and a little generator next to it. There was an outhouse a few tens of meters back into the woods, and - thank god - a rugged-looking Jeep parked next to a big cylindrical fuel tank and pump.
Inside, George heated up some canned soup on the fire. After eating they sat on a couple of ancient dusty chairs while Livia halfheartedly attempted to make some awkward small talk. There was only one thing to really talk about, these days, and it wasn’t really a pleasant subject.
“You ever killed anyone?” George asked, staring into the fireplace.
Livia was taken aback. “No, I… no.”
“I mean the zombies.”
“Well, I don’t know. Just the two from today, maybe. I’ve been hiding, but I ran out of food so I had to leave so I thought I’d try to get to my parents’ place and see if they’re still… okay. I just need gas, and some food, and I don’t want to drive at night.” Livia realized she had rambled way off-topic, and went quiet.
“So never up close.”
“You know why you don’t look in their eyes?”
He paused. “You don’t see it until you have to kill one of them right up close. They say… the last report I heard… whatever sort of sickness this is, it doesn’t turn you into a monster. Not all of you.”
George fell silent again. After a few seconds Livia asked “What do you mean?”
“I don’t know much about how brains work, but I guess it’s like you’re trapped. You turn into a zombie, but you’re still in there. Just not in control.”
“But what about the eyes.”
“Like I said, you only see it when you’re right up close. You can tell, if you look. You can tell there’s still someone. Not just a monster or some kind of animal. You can see their fear. Their pain. Their sorrow. And when you kill them… their relief.”
It was nearly a minute before Livia could even respond. “I didn’t know. Oh christ, I didn’t know. Have you…?”
George got up and poked the fire, causing a mass of sparks to come out which were sucked up into the chimney. “Three times, so far. It’s not something you ever want to do unless you absolutely have to, trust me.”
He sighed and turned back around to face Livia, fireplace poker still in hand. “And so I am, honestly, sorry about this. Look at your arm.”
Livia looked down. Her hand had begun to twitch involuntarily.