“Zookeeper foible #1: Tendency to not equate fur and scale with fracture and scar.”
― Wendy Beck, 9th Life
The descender shuddered as it hit the atmosphere, the plasweb cabinets rattled annoyingly and Harlan could easily imagine them erupting and forcefully ejecting their contents into the circular interior of the craft. The fact was that this descender just wasn’t as well maintained as it should be. The plasweb interior was dirty, the info screen had a film over it, and it was obvious by the rattling that the gyros hadn’t been tuned in quite some time. He knew they should have spent the extra money to go to a different planet; no one goes to the Zombie Zoo anymore, but he really wanted to spend the extra cash on new plasweb suits. Harley seemed blissfully unaware of the lack of maintenance, and that was certainly a blessing in disguise, for as much as Harlan would have loved a compatriot to commiserate with, when Harley got stuck on an idea it was hard to get her to think about logical solutions to the problem, and soon enough they weren’t talking about descender maintenance anymore, they were talking about alternate governance of the nineteen systems.
Instead he kept quiet and watched her, kneeling on the floor of the cab, decked out in her shining resolution blue plasweb suit, and getting in some playtime with her voidrat Pogo. She got upset earlier when Harlan told her that they would have to stow Pogo in the cabin once they left the descender to explore. She was afraid he’d get lonely. Harlan wasn’t sure that voidrats felt ‘lonely’, but he made it a point to never argue the intangible with his clone-mate. He told her he worried that Pogo would get sick in the atmosphere, and that did the trick. The rattling ceased as the descender slowed, they were almost planetside.
“C’mon hon. We’re almost there. Say goodbyes.”
“Oh. Okay! G’bye Pogo! Give mamma kisses!” She held the hairless creature up and rubbed the transparent face shield of her helmet against its wet nose. The rodent seemed to like it, and Harley squealed at the exchange of affection. Once Pogo was stowed and locked in with a thousand air kisses to keep him company, Harley faced her clone-mate with a smile.
“Okay, hon. First explorer Harley Margram reporting for duty.” She marched over to him mischievously, but trying to play it straight.
“Well Explorer Margram, let me pull up the infograph. How long until we’re landed?”
They both turned to face the door of the descender, next to it was the viewscreen which displayed speed of descent, weather readings, and how long it would be until they were touching soil.
“Right…now.” Harley said cheerfully, miming the act of finger snapping. The descender rocked slightly as it touched down.
Harlan pulled up the infograph on planet Z-280, also known as the Zombie Zoo; he made sure the audio was off so he could read at his leisure. With a hiss and a deep mechanical thud the circular cabin pressurized, Harlan’s ears popped as his suit adjusted. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed Harley shaking her head. He put his hand on her shoulder, his hard plasweb fingers clunked against her hard plasweb covered shoulders, and after a short delay his suit relayed the feeling of touch. He could feel her through the suit’s nerve relay; he could feel the muscles in her neck moving as she worked her jaw, trying to pop her ears.
Though, he did wish that they’d had enough to buy the entangled nerve relays, the ones that transmitted sense instantly. When he tested it in the shop the feelings were sharp, crisp, and very life-like. His sense of touch, while there, was delayed slightly and felt dim, as if he were covered in a rough cloth. Not bad, though, considering. Harley beamed up at him, having finally equalized her inner ear, and cocked an eyebrow.
“Got it. So, tell me about the Zombie Zoo.”
The door to the descender folded outward, the lights in the cab switched off as outside air and light buffeted the travelers. Harlan was told by the broker that it would be in their best interests to disable the scent relay, so he did that on both his and Harley’s plaswebs, and he was glad he did because the air felt thick. Substantive. The sky was the color of phlegm shot through with black blood, a haze obscured the horizon, and he couldn’t quite tell where the sun was. Their suits began feeding them information about what they were looking at, the composition of the atmosphere, landmarks, pathways, waypoints; but still, it took the couple almost a full minute to understand what they were looking at. Harlan’s first impression was that of a field of seaweed deep under the ocean. Huge tattered leaves that swayed to some occult ocean current. Harley’s first thought was of a conquered army, defeated and haunted by defeat.
Arrayed before them was a vast meadow of corpses, standing upright, dressed in filthy rotting clothes and staring blankly ahead.
Harley stepped down first, her hard boots ringing metallically on the ramp, Harlan followed. He pushed the infographic to the side so he could really take stock of what he was seeing. He had no reference for this. Of course he had heard of the plague that swept through the human colonies back in 2487, but that date was so far removed from present day that it all felt like a fairy story. As he stepped down onto the soft muddy ground and stared into the rotting face of some apparently human-like creature, he realized that he knew very little about what happened so long ago.
“Talk to me, Harlan.”
Harlan looked after his wife, she was moving slowly, brushing past the creatures, giving them a slight push to move them aside. They’d stumble aside for her, then sort of totter back into the space they once inhabited. Harlan and Harley had a rule for their vacations, their explorations, and that was to always go in fresh. Don’t plan and don’t study. Learn what there is to learn by being there. Generally that meant talking to locals and wandering the terrain. Harlan poked one of the creatures, it felt soft and wet and had a sickening give. He didn’t think talking to the locals would do very much good here. Harlan cleared his throat and pulled the infograph back over; he skimmed the entry and followed after Harley. The creatures continued to stare entranced at the descender which was powering down with an audible hum.
“Well, these fellows are ex-humans.” He read aloud for Harley’s benefit. “They are the last remnants and main antagonists of the Hopping Necrophage of 2487. A plague that succeeded in decimating a good 45% of the human colonies, including Earth.”
“Cripes.” Harley muttered, standing transfixed in front of an ex-human that was just about her height. It was wearing a thick flannel coat with a fur collar. The collar was matted down with a slick black substance; the coat was torn and threadbare and caked with mud, or something like mud. Its face was ruined, its eyes were dull brass, and its teeth were ancient tombstones. She stood right in front of it, her eyes locked on his. It’s.
“They stand in monument and in testimony to horror and the horrific.” The creatures stood mute as Harley stared and Harlan read.
“Our suits render us effectively invisible to them. They react first to olfactory stimuli, and then through thermal stimuli. They can detect body heat.”
“They were like us once?”
Harlan shuddered as he moved through the field, brushing past the ex-humans, scanning the horizon.
“Ah, look. They have a replica ancient Earth farmhouse over there.” He sharpened the image and then sent it over to Harley with the coordinates.
“It’s one of a number of ‘habitats’, a kind of living diorama. They include that farm house, a period Earth metro block, a shopping mall, a space-station, a con-apt level, and an old Earth amusement park. Amazing. Ah, bugger. They’ve all been discontinued about ten years ago. The structures are still here, though.”
Harley hadn’t moved, she was now examining the creature to her left, a female. It was clad in a ratty t-shirt and denim pants, blackened with grime. It had long black hair that hung limp and tangled, wet, across its shoulders. She couldn’t quite reconcile what she was seeing, here before her was a thing of the grave, ancient and dreadful. This one, the woman, wasn’t as damaged as the rest; its skin was white, much darker than Harley’s plasweb, and gruesome in the weird light of the planet. This thing was a puzzle, an extinction enigma that wrought despair centuries ago. Now it stood before her, placid. Its skin was beautiful in a way, it looked hard like stone, but when the creature opened its mouth the skin stretched tight; Harley could see its weakness then. Like a worn out sheet of rubber. She imagined that she could just pop its jaw off, just reach out and pull and it would come off in her hand. She wouldn’t even have to engage the carbon muscles of the plasweb to do it.
“It appears that scientists still don’t know how this nasty virus got started. The prevalent theory at the time was that it was some kind of hybrid animal/botanical infection. A plant virus that could infect humans. It spread like wildfire, the largest amount of deaths happened within that first year.”
“I guess no one wants to come here anymore. That’s sad.” Harley reached out a hand and ran her fingers down the creature’s face; the thing didn’t seem to notice. Harley traced its jaw line, down its chin, in a second the nerve translators kicked in and Harley could feel what she was touching, albeit distantly. It was a shame they hadn’t held out and bought the newer model plaswebs, the extra second the nerve relays took to kick in ruined all illusion of reality. She knew the suit was interfacing with her nervous system. She knew that it was collecting data from the world outside the suit and pushing it through those relays, telling her what she was feeling, what she was seeing. It was artificial.
“Perhaps it’s for the best. Those who are infected contract a high and lethal fever; once contracted death is imminent within 48 hours, though actual incubation periods seem to vary case by case. As soon as clinical death is registered, the virus reanimates the corpse, the ex-human. When the ex-human is reanimated it seeks to infect as many humans as possible. The virus is transmitted by a bite from an ex-human. Ah, of course. I remember that much. A grisly and efficient method of reproduction, and to what end it seems we gratefully will never know; it appears as if the only way to truly disable an ex-human is to destroy the brain. Tsk. Dreadful.” Harlan paused for a moment of reflection on the horrors of the past. He couldn’t fully recall how the day was won, so he pulled up that entry and started skimming the feed. He heard the pop of a plasweb hasp unclasping.
“Oh, but look, hon.” He sent the entry over to Harley. “It was because of this virus that cloning technology was refined and made viable. Cloning saved the day.” He smiled, reading. “We wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for these poor creatures.”
“I want to touch one. I want to feel it with my hand.” Harley muttered over his com. Harlan snorted, still smiling, still reading. Touch away my dear, was his immediate thought, they were safe in their plasweb suits, invisible, strong, invulnerable. Then he remembered the sound of the hasp unclasping and a weighted dread poured through him like ice. When Harley says, I want that; I want that voidrat, I want that neuo-organ, I want to go there, I want to touch one; she means, I’m getting that. I’m getting that voidrat, I’m getting that neuo-organ, I’m going there, I’m going to touch one. Harlan yelled something incomprehensible and spun around. The suddenness of it sent his plasweb into a manic mode of data culling. His heartbeat rose, the web registered the spurt of adrenaline and tightened its exoskeleton and muscle relays. It made him strong, it made him fast. Just not fast enough.
Harley had pulled off her glove and felt her sweat cool in the thick air. It was grimy and sticky. She was looking at her hand, watching how the greenish light played off of her skin, how the little hairs on her arm caught the light and seemed dappled with dew. Her viewscreen went red and before she could dismiss it she saw what it was trying to tell her. The male ex-human in front of her was slowly moving its head to look at her arm. Its eyes grew large and even though she could discern no pupils she knew that it had seen her, her arm must have appeared before it as if by magic.
It lunged at her, its entire body uncoiling like a bullwhip. Its teeth snapped in the air, millimeters away from where her hand once was. Her plasweb jerked its carbon fiber muscles and pulled her hand clumsily away from the danger. Harley yelped, still not entirely sure of what was happening. She heard a guttural howl from over her shoulder, from where Harlan was standing and she turned to find him, worried that he was also being attacked. She saw him, and his face was malformed with terror.
As soon as she began to feel the pain in her arm, her plasweb intercepted the signals and dampened the feeling to a mere whisper, a suggestion, giving her a clear head with which to assesses the situation. Latched onto her forearm was the female creature, biting through her flesh, hot thick blood starting to puddle around its lips as it worked its jaw muscles and began tearing into her muscle. Harley screamed.
Harlan’s senses went piecemeal. He saw in flashes, heard in stuttered fragments. He surged forward screaming, he shoved the male ex-human away and it careened into a wall of creatures, knocking a handful to the ground. He grabbed the head of the female ex-human and squeezed, felt it burst in his hand, its body fell limp and he grabbed Harley, screaming Harley, and dashed toward the descender. Every creature had seen them and a moan that roared like a vast wave erupted in a ripple all across the planet. The creatures moved as one toward the couple, a vast constricting muscle reaching toward two motes of dust. Harlan pushed through them, felt them break across his plasweb, felt their weight as they tried to pull him into the mud, tried to pull Harley away from him. He launched himself into the descender and ordered it to power on and take them up. A few of the creatures scrabbled in through the folding door. One got halfway through when the edges sealed and sheared the thing in half. Black liquid exploded across the wall like a blooming flower, but even severed, the thing continued to live.
The cabin lights flickered on and the three ex-humans in the cab lurched and fell to the floor as the descender pressurized and shot up into the air. The plasweb’s gyros kept Harlan up, and he quickly interfaced with the descender and unlocked all of the interior compartments. Harlan saw his premonition realized as the shuddering cabinets flew open and spread their contents across the cab. Clothing, mini torches, mini tools, extinguishers, boxed and canned food, sheaves of paper, Pogo; fare both standard and personal careened through the air. The ex-humans were pelted, knocked off guard and off balance. In the tumult Harley set upon them. He stabbed with rigid fingers, driving them into soft flesh. Once, twice, three times. Each one hissed and growled and grabbed at him and each one fell silent with a rattle and groan. One, two, three. Then he looked at Harley. Alarms were blaring in the cab and they probably had been since they began the ascent. A red strobe flicked on and off and Harley was curled in a corner clutching her arm, her screams mingling with the descender’s blaring alarm. He popped his gloves off and fell to his knees next to her; he pulled his helmet off then opened hers up.
Her face was warm, her skin damp with sweat, her breath ragged and hot. He told her no. He told her to hold on and to calm down but she wouldn’t stop shaking. She was crying and apologizing, Pogo was hopping about in the mess, climbing over garbage to get to Harley. He stroked her head, his skin on her skin and he felt his clone-mate slip away, and grow still. Pogo nuzzled against her and Harlan held her as her shivering stopped.
If he was wearing his plasweb helmet, and had the benefit of the system’s heads-up-display, he could have watched her heart dim, stutter and stop.
He, for what felt like a long time, held her and shuddered and cried in both grief and terror. He wanted to deny what was happening. He wanted to go back. Why couldn’t they just go back and change their minds? Not take the trip. Not buy the suits. He wanted to save his mate.
If Harlan was wearing his plasweb helmet, and had the benefit of the system’s heads-up-display, he would have been able to watch as Harley’s still heart began to flutter, and reanimate.
If he was wearing his full suit it would have protected him from Harley as she reanimated. It would have shown him her eyes rolling back into her skull; her mouth falling opening, growing wide and then biting down hard on Harlan’s neck as he held her weeping. It would have dampened the excruciating pain of dull teeth piercing tough skin and muscle.
He screamed and almost blacked out from the pain. He fell limp but Harley caught him and held him close, her mouth covered in his blood, her eyes rolling around in her head. He screamed again as she nuzzled his wound making lurid grunting and sucking noises. He screamed a third time as he hit her as hard as he could. With a bloody pop she fell away from him. He clutched his wound and shoved himself backward until he could feel the opposite wall of the descender. The thing that used to be Harley kicked around on the floor in torpid rage. Harlan grabbed something next to him, a bottle or an extinguisher; he couldn’t really see it, but it was heavy. As the thing that used to be Harley launched itself at him he swung the makeshift club and knocked her away. He pressed his advantage and drove the heavy object into her skull.
He didn’t count how many times he had to hit her before she stopped moving, but when she stopped moving he collapsed on top of her. He could feel blood pooling inside his plasweb suit, his neck was bad and he couldn’t move. He felt so weak. The red lights continued to strobe but he couldn’t hear the alarm anymore. He couldn’t feel the pain anymore either. Not really. He just felt weak, and hungry. The emptiness of blood loss, the emptiness of vitality washed over him. And then an impossible hunger.
He didn’t feel so much weak then, just cold. Cold and hungry. He lay on the floor and felt his eyes fluttering closed, a narcoleptic pall came over him. His eyes closed and he saw a world. An alien landscape behind his eyelids. A blackened red sun smoldered over a yellow field. A breeze tousled a portion of the field and thick stalks rocked back and forth. A skein of glittering violet spores launched from the stalks and up into the sky, carried upon an errant wind. The sky was blue-black and the stars pulsed angrily overhead. He didn’t know if this was a memory or a vision.
Pangs of a deeper hunger forced his eyes open. The descender slowed as it docked with the stellar cruiser. The cabin hissed and thudded as it pressurized. Numbness became hunger. Pollen in an alien sky. The descender doors folded open and the deck crew stepped in. The cabin was bathed in light, and in the sound of screaming.
© Tim Mucci, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Tim Mucci with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
This story was first published in Martinus Publishing's Life of the Dead anthology. Now out of print.