Continuing directly from part 1 (here). Also, if you’d like a copy of the whole story for your preferred eReader device (Kindle, Nook, etc.) or a PDF version, just email me at email@example.com.
Residential District, Old Sacramento.
December 10th, 2069
Steve walked across the white carpeted floor of his living room, handed a mug to his guest and sat down, casually sliding his arm along the sofa back to encircle her. The Californian winter wasn’t cold by any standard outside the West Coast, but the two of them used the mildly raw chilliness of the air outdoors as an excuse to sit more cozily together. Bright sun streamed through the banks of windows behind them, falling on rows of bookshelves against the opposite wall.
“I’ve never seen so many books in anyone’s house,” Steve’s guest said. Owning printed volumes was increasingly unusual in a world that valued above all the conservation of limited resources. The woman seated beside Steve automatically associated text with digital media—the idea of experiencing text tactilely, through feeling paper against her fingers, and olfactorily, through the scent of leather binding, was exotic.
An incomplete collection of The Great Books. Red leather-bound Harvard classics. Benét, Freud, Balzac. New editions of books like these were no longer produced. The volumes in Steve’s collection predated the end of the old world.
“Yes, everything about me is interesting,” Steve said, grinning. “Including how I read literature. I’d rather have the actual print editions of books, if I can find them. It’s like holding a physical piece of our intellectual heritage.”
Steve’s guest Abigail looked at him for a moment. “You’re way, way too educated,” she joked. He was a hard man to form a comprehensive idea about. He was charming and likable, and often the things he said would have come off as contrived and pretentious, except he always seemed genuine. He said things like “intellectual heritage” without putting on an air. He was thoughtful, generous and supportive, but he was also a cynical, arrogant asshole. Not alternately, either—he was somehow all of that at the same time. All his contradictions made him a difficult riddle to solve.
“I feel safe,” Abbie said, shifting a little closer to Steve, “holed up here with a Bag Man.” She smiled impishly. She was teasing him. She knew he didn’t care for the slang “bag men,” a common term for Sacramento Bureau of Public Health agents. Steve laughed.
“Trust me, you don’t want to bring the conversation around to my work,” he said. Truth be told, he was the one who didn’t want to talk about his work. But neither did he want to alter the mood in the room by shutting the subject down too directly. Abbie wasn’t so easily dissuaded.
“I actually kind of do,” she said, putting her mug down on the glass end-table after taking taking a sip of the piping tea. She turned back to Steve. “I don’t really know anything about VHV, which is awful of me. I should know more. Especially about the modern form.” She looked at him expectantly. It was his turn to speak.
“You have a definite morbid streak,” he said, furrowing his brow, but smiling. “I also play the violin. Do you want to talk about that instead? I’m kind of great at it.”
“Indulge me,” Abbie said. “Isn’t it your professional opinion that people should know more about the virus?” She was teasing, but it was true. “Treat me like a layman, as if I don’t know anything. Like, if the virus is still around, why aren’t there zombies anymore?”
Steve sighed. “Well, there are. But they don’t look or act like they used to. The change is actually pretty simple.” He gave in and started to speak plainly about the subject, as if he were lecturing on VHV to a group of students. “The virus isn’t anything like other viruses. It has physical architecture and physiologic capabilities that normal viruses don’t have. For one thing, it can produce energy like a bacteria. When a living organism is infected, the virus forms bacteria-like colonies inside the host’s cells, and produces its own energy through the breakdown of host tissues. These colonies communicate using a physical network of chemical signals. No one really understands how they manage to do something so complex, but the communicating colonies create a sort of brain. The viral ‘brain’ uses the energy it produces to stimulate nerve tissue and trigger neural action potentials. It can commandeer a body that way. Think of it like this: if you hooked an amputated limb up to an electrode in a lab and shocked it, it would move. Same thing here. You get zombies when the virus uses electric impulses to stimulate dead muscles into moving.” Abbie was listening rapt and wide-eyed. Well, I guess this works, Steve thought. It isn’t quite like watching a horror movie together on a date, but it’s close enough.
“So that’s what a zombie was,” Steve went on. “A dead body, reanimated by the virus to spread infection. They would bite and scratch to infect, not to eat. They didn’t need to eat. The bodies were dead, and the virus itself used tissue decomposition for energy. So they killed following a reproductive drive to spread the virus into new hosts.”
“That is so horrible,” Abbie said, a chilled shiver running through her. Steve moved a little closer, shifting his arm off the back of the couch onto her shoulders.
“So that’s what the infected were like, but now they are different. The virus has evolved over all these years. Before, it attacked the entire body, killing it and reanimating it for its own use. But we got too good at recognizing infection and dealing with the undead. Now, in order to succeed at propagating itself, the virus has to avoid detection. It no longer kills the whole body. It only attacks the brain in a very targeted way. It takes over like a parasite—the body meanwhile looks totally normal, and the infected are such good mimics that they also act totally normal. They blend in with the crowd, so that nobody knows they’re there. They can spread the virus without being recognized and destroyed.”
Abbie shook her head in disbelief. “I knew that part, obviously. I mean, I knew that was what VHV is like now, but I didn’t know all those details about how it actually works. But now I’m confused. You said the virus evolved to be more successful. If the Sleepers” Abbie used the popular slang for the infected, “just went about their business, pretending to be normal all the time, they could keep spreading the virus secretly for years. Wouldn’t that be the most successful way? Why do they turn violent? Why do they start killing—isn’t drawing attention like that the last thing they want?” Steve maintained his usual debonair demeanor and didn’t let on how uncomfortable he was becoming, continuing to talk about this. He wanted to change the topic. But he knew Abbie was curious and focused enough that she wouldn’t move on to anything else until he had answered her questions.
Steve said, “Do you want to have kids?”
“No,” Abbie said, tilting her head, obviously wondering where this was going.
“Okay. Do you want to have sex?”
Abbie laughed. “Is that a come on?” She asked.
“It’s an analogy,” Steve said, grinning. “Sex, of course, evolved as our biological means of reproduction. It is ingrained in the tiniest parts of our morphology, in the nucleic acid that forms the genome itself. Call it a burden of our history, if you want. A molecular fossil or a behavioral relic. But the fact is, you personally not wanting to have kids does fuck all to change your sex-drive, because sex-drive isn’t attached to personality or reason. It’s older than those cognitive developments and can supersede them. It’s the same with the Sleepers. We’ve already been over how killing, for the zombies, had nothing to do with feeding. It was a reproductive impulse to spread the infection. It was analogous to the sex-drive in a normal biological entity. So as Sleepers deteriorate further and further under the modern virus, they start to succumb to that drive that is a vestige of the evolutionary background of VHV. We’re not talking about self-aware, reasoning beings, here. We’re talking about viral pseudo-brains that are barely above reptile. They can’t resist an urge like that when it starts to surface.”
Abbie shook her head again, processing everything Steve had told her. He was silent for a while, waiting for her to speak. “Well, that covers it,” she said. “Thanks for explaining this—I know you didn’t particularly want to.”
Steve moved his hand from her shoulder up to touch her hair. “So, a couple minutes ago you thought I was coming onto you. But you didn’t say if that was unwelcome or not.”
Residential District, Old Sacramento
December 10th, 2069
Lilian held her AR rifle close to her body out of habit, finger off of the trigger, arms relaxed. She was pulled gently to one side as the truck made a quick left turn. Looking up, she stared at the pale young man in body-armor seated across from her over the opposite wheel-well, buckled in by crisscrossing straps.
“Big day, huh?” Lilly said to the young man. She smiled at him. His anxious frown didn’t dissipate. She asked, “Your name is Bryan, right?”
Bryan nodded. “Big day, ma’am,” he confirmed. He looked ready to cry or puke (or both.) We haven’t even seen anything yet, she thought. He isn’t cut out for this work. The Bureau’s attrition rate has been climbing steadily for the past decade. Statistically, this guy will probably resign in less than a year.
“Hey, look at me,” Lilly said as the young man closed his eyes and tucked his chin down against his chest. His gaze shot back up, and when his eyes met hers she was reminded of a deer that had once frozen in the beams of her headlights. It was a cliché, but it was accurate.
“We all have a first day,” she told him gently. “You need to get out of your head. Anyway, this could be—and probably is—a false alarm.” Bryan nodded and managed to smile. There were two other men in the truck besides Lilly and her neighbor, strapped into their seats. They talked casually to each other, not paying any attention to the nervous new recruit.
Lilly didn’t say anything else. The man would be able to handle it or he wouldn’t. She couldn’t prime him to stay with the Bureau if it wasn’t in his constitution—nor would she want to. She wondered privately if the rising attrition rate was proportional to the rising survivability in the task-force. The SAC BPH was starting to get the hang of the job, so more of them lived long enough to realize they had to quit before they lost their sanity.
Lillian and her team had been scrambled after a report came through the Diagnostics Department that two residents in the downtown area had failed to appear for vetting two months in a row. They were a married couple with no history of delinquency. Occasional failure to appear for VHV screening wasn’t all that rare in the general population, but because this couple had previously been highly responsible showing up for scheduled vetting, their sudden delinquency raised red flags when Diagnostic techs noticed it in the computerized records. Hence, the Bag Men were dispatched to check on the couple—Thomas and Jennifer Carlyle. Census records showed they also had a six year old daughter, much too young to legally require regular vetting.
They have a child, Lilly thought. They have very good reason to be responsible about getting screened. So where have they been? She felt the truck come to a stop. She unbuckled herself in one motion, and her team did the same, including the new recruit. He moved efficiently to his feet by rote, remembering his drilling—but Lilly could still plainly see mental turmoil in his eyes. Lilly opened the back doors of the armored truck and hopped out onto the asphalt—getting her first look at the little single-story house they were investigating. The sun was high in the sky, and the shades were all drawn over the windows. That wasn’t so strange in itself—but Lilly could easily imagine how that fact would play on the new guy’s anxiety.
She led the way towards the door. Only one team member walked with her—the other three, including the female agent who had been driving, hung back in the street. They were ready to move if Lilly signaled them, but unless she determined they were needed, there was no cause to look like a raiding party storming the house. Lilly climbed the front steps, crossed the porch and gave the door a loud knock. There was no answer, and she knocked again.
“Break it down,” she said to the agent beside her, but before he could comply, the door opened. A woman stood in front of them, wearing a light sundress. She looked perplexed at the sight of two armed, armored soldiers on her doorstep, but she said nothing.
“Sorry to bother you, ma’am,” Lilly said immediately. “Are you Mrs. Jennifer Carlyle?”
“Yes,” she said, scrunching her brow. Monosyllabic, Lillian thought. She was already evaluating the woman in front of her. There was no single, definite sign that would tell her if this individual was a VHV carrier or not. She would need to collect all possible data from her observations to either reach certainty that she was clean, or certainty that she had turned.
“My name is Lillian Morgenstern,” she said. “I’m with the BPH, and we are here to check up on you and your husband.” Lilly smiled. She made it seem like a courtesy visit.
“We’re fine,” Mrs. Carlyle said somewhat sharply. There was a lot of animosity towards the Bureau in general. It was something agents had to learn to deal with—no one wanted to see what would happen to the world if they stopped doing their job, but still no one forgave them for doing it. So Mrs. Carlyle’s obvious discomfort and terseness, seeing two agents from the Bureau appear on her doorstep, wasn’t unexpected.
“Our records show that both of you have missed the vet, two months in a row,” Lilly said, trying to sound apologetic for noticing. “Is there a reason for that?” Even as she spoke, Lilly was scanning the woman up and down. She examined her clothes. She examined her posture and movements. She sniffed the air subtly, trying to get a sense of the state of her personal hygiene. Her clothes were clean. Her movements seemed normal. But she had a slight sour body odor, as if she hadn’t been bathing regularly. Her hair looked greasy, corroborating that assumption. She had a barely perceptible disfluency in her speech—that could be telling, since advanced VHV infection implied brain-damage. But with no reference, it was impossible to say the disfluency wasn’t a normal part of the woman’s speech patterns. Lilly needed to get her talking more. If she could rope her into speaking longer sentences she might display more significant aphasia.
VHV stood for Vox Humana Virus—the evocative name of the modern plague indicating that the infected kept their human voices. They could keep talking to you like normal, so you might never know anything was wrong. But just because they had human voices, it didn’t mean they were perfect mimics when it came to using them. Abnormalities in vocal cadence and inflection were always useful cues for Lilly, sensitive and experienced, to follow. If she pressed, she could often railroad mimics into displaying a deeper inability to express or understand speech.
“Is your husband around today for us to talk to?” Lilly asked. “It’s protocol. Just need to see him, confirm he’s all right.” Lilly kept smiling calmly. The agent beside her said nothing. Quietly chewing gum, his face was impassive behind dark sunglasses.
“He’s not home,” Mrs. Carlyle said.
Lilly goaded her to keep talking. “Where is he right now? We could go check on him wherever he is, and save you the trouble of having us visit again.” The woman in the sundress thought laboriously about how to answer. The hairs on Lilly’s neck were starting to stand—her instincts kicking in.
“He’s at work,” Mrs. Carlyle pronounced carefully, a barely perceptible slurring in her words. “He won’t be home until later. You can’t go see him at work because he’s busy.”
‘Because he’s busy?’ Lilly thought. That’s weak.
Lillian nodded to the silent agent beside her. He moved quickly, drawing a high-voltage stun-gun from a holster at his side, but the Sleeper moved faster. With inhuman speed and strength, she slapped the agent across the side of his head and hooked her fingers behind his outer ear—ripping the appendage clean off in the same movement. The man screamed and fell sideways, hitting the porch and sliding down the front steps.
Lilly reacted almost instantly, training her AR rifle on the woman’s central body-mass and shooting three times in a neat triangle pattern, aiming for both lungs and the aorta. Mrs. Carlyle flopped backwards from the doorway, rolling bloodily across the entryway tiles. The other three Bag Men rushed up from the street, moving to lock Carlyle down before the the virus rebooted her. Lilly had killed the body, but it would only be a beat or two before the viral ‘brain’ recovered from the shock and got her right back on her feet. The female agent who had driven the truck hunkered down beside the man who had lost his ear, while the other two men dashed into the house, whipping out plastic flex-tie restraints and binding Carlyle’s wrists and ankles. She started to thrash only moments after they were secured: she undulated hellishly on the floor like a huge maggot, slathering blood over the light grey tiles from the gaping exit-wounds in her upper back.
The female agent appeared in the doorway, carrying a body-bag she had just retrieved from the truck.
“We’ve got this, Cora,” Lilly said, taking the body-bag. “Stay with Adrian.” She nodded to the groaning man, lying at the bottom of the stairs clutching the side of his head. Blood oozed between his fingers. “Call the EMTs,” Lilly instructed quickly. She reached into her vest pocket. “And give him this.” She handed Cora a fentanyl lollipop, opioid painkiller, for the wounded agent to suck on. She turned to the thrashing thing on the floor. Laying out the body bag, she unzipped the front and instructed the two men to heave Carlyle in.
“Avoid the blood,” she said. Bag Man uniforms included calf-high rubber muck boots, rubber gloves and elastic sleeve closures to mitigate exposure to bio-hazards, but it still paid to be cautious. The two men forced the wriggling mass into the body-bag while Lilly watched over them, providing cover in case of attack from the other rooms. When they had the Sleeper inside, Lilly zipped the bag closed. Under the nylon fabric was a liner of 3D printed ballistic-strength plastic mesh, engineered to be stronger than steel chain-mail. Once the bag was closed, Carlyle wasn’t getting out. They left her struggling helplessly on the tiles, waiting to be collected for incineration.
“We need to clear the rest of the building,” Lillian told her team. “The husband and the little girl are probably still here.” She had been peering into the dark house beyond the entryway as she spoke. She turned back and looked at her two agents. One, experienced and ready to proceed. The other, the nervous young man she had talked with in the truck. Bryan had performed the task of shoving the bloody, thrashing body of Mrs. Carlyle into the bag on auto-pilot, his face frozen in agony and horror. Now he was trembling, looking like he couldn’t take another step forward into the dark.
“Hey,” Lilly said, moving towards him and gesturing for him to look at her face. “Maybe you’re having second thoughts about your career path,” she began. “That’s fine. I don’t care if you quit tomorrow, if you feel like you’re not the right man for this job. But the fact is, you’re the man who’s here right now, so we need you to do the job you’re trained for.”
Bryan nodded abruptly. She could count on him for at least the next five minutes as they cautiously cleared the other rooms in the little house.
Moving methodically through the building, they cleared one room after the other. Proceeding in formation, they maintained overlapping lines-of-sight and crossfire, keeping each other safe from ambush out of dark corners or the spaces behind doors as they opened them and stepped into each room. The living-room was dark and empty, requiring them to switch on the flashlights mounted on their rifles. The bathroom was empty. Lilly opened the next door and stared into the darkness of what seemed to be a small, carpeted office. There was a desk with a lamp and desktop computer, a tall cabinet and an inflatable exercise ball. Sweeping the beam of her flashlight across the cramped space, she saw a mangled dead body and a grisly pool of dried gore saturating the carpet.
“There’s the husband,” Lilly said quietly. “His wife must have killed him.” The body looked swollen and slightly purple. “He’s been dead for about a week. The fact that he’s not undead yet means that the viral colonies in his body are still maturing. He could reanimate literally any second, so we need to hurry up and bag him.” Lilly backed out of the room. “But first, we need to find the little girl…”
But she didn’t have any hope left for a good ending.
They found her in the bedroom. A faint smell drew them there. They couldn’t find any trace of a body at first apart from the odor, but soon they homed in on a large antique hope chest at the end of the bed. They broke the lock and opened it. A wave of pungent reek knocked them back like a strong wind. Inside the deep chest were the decomposing remains of a little girl in a sleeping gown. Bryan spun around and vomited in the hallway outside. Lilly hung her head and said nothing for a few moments.
“What…the hell is this…” Bryan managed to gasp finally, wiping his mouth and choking back tears.
“This doesn’t make sense for a Sleeper,” Lilly said. “They aren’t sentimental. They wouldn’t do anything special like this with a body. No, the woman did this when she was still human.”
Bryan stepped back into the room, careful not to look into the hope chest again.
“What the fuck are you saying?” he demanded, looking at her accusingly—as if it was partly her fault that something so atrocious was possible in the world, simply because she understood it.
“This had to have been her last human act,” Lilly went on. “She knew she was infected. She was already in the process of turning. Her brain wasn’t working right, anymore. She couldn’t think straight. But she knew she had to save her daughter from what was going to happen next. She locked her in the hope chest to suffocate. It was the only way she could see to save her. Of course there were a million other options. But she couldn’t think anymore.”
Bryan strode out of the room. “I’m not doing this,” he called as he hurried away. That was his whole letter of resignation.
The odds said he would resign in less than a year, Lilly thought. She closed the lid of the hope chest, not looking into it again.
An old quote she had heard once, that had been carved somewhere long ago in the pit of human suffering, came back into her mind. If there is a God, he will have to beg my forgiveness.
She turned away. I don’t know who said that, but they spoke for all of us.
Thanks for reading. Stay tuned for more!
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- Bag Men (Volume I)
- Bag Men: Waste (Volume II)
- Bag Men: Trinity (Volume III)
- Bag Men: Vanguard (Volume IV)
- Bag Men: Radioactive (Volume V)
- Bag Men: Origin (Volume VI)
- Bag Men: Hydra (Volume VII)
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