Take This Job…
“I want to start by saying it wasn’t my fault,” Carter said as he stared at the three people staring at him from behind the table. They were his judges. His jury. They could easily be his executioners, too, if he couldn’t talk himself out of this.
The zombie apocalypse was fucked up that way.
“Tell us what happened,” the woman in ragged clothes asked him.
She had a knife stuck in the wood of the tabletop in front of her. The blade was bloody and the handle was coated with sludge. Seemed she mixed her zombie killing with people killing. Nice.
Carter shifted as he forced his stare from her weapon. “I was a night guard at the University of Washington facility,” he started. “Mostly that meant standing at the door and watching faculty scientists scan their key cards to go into the restricted area at two in the morning.”
“Where they made the God damn zombies?” the man to the right of the woman asked. His tone was mild, despite his angry words. His dark brown eyes were filled with rage, too.
The fact that he could just be so calm actually freaked Carter out more than if he’d started screaming and yelling. This way didn’t seem natural.
He tried to maintain his own cool. The alternative wasn’t okay. He just wanted to… run, maybe run screaming, as far away from these people as he could. But that wouldn’t work. After all, he had tried that.
He’d been running for a month. Ever since the outbreak. He had hidden his connection to the lab. Hidden his real identity. But then he hooked up with a girl in a camp and liked her enough to let her go digging through his backpack for something. She’d found his old ID badge, the one he couldn’t bring himself to toss.
And wouldn’t you know it, she’d turned out to be working with the crazy-ass survivors trying to catch and punish those they felt were responsible for the outbreak. Some kind of justice, that was. Round ‘em up and shoot ‘em down.
“Well?” the man who’d been addressing him asked, his tone sharper.
Carter shook his head. “Yeah. I guess they made the zombies there. But I didn’t know it. I never knew it. Not until… not until the end.”
“And how did you figure that out?” the woman asked, still so calm and collected, still staring at him with blank, unreadable eyes. She was probably thirty-five, but looked more like fifty thanks to the outbreak. It made Carter wonder how old he looked now.
“On the night that… it happened, I was sitting at my station, reading my book,” Carter said and he couldn’t help but think back to that moment.
“What book?” asked the third interrogator, a man who up until this point had been silent.
Carter blinked. “Uh, The Shining, actually. Stephen King. Does that make you like me more or less?”
There was no reaction from the panel and the woman waved her hand to make him keep talking.
“About an hour and a half into my shift, there was a bunch of commotion from behind the door and the radios started going nuts.”
“So you went back?” the woman asked.
“Not right away.” He shrugged when her eyebrow arched. Let her judge, she didn’t know what working at that lab was like. “I wasn’t supposed to go back there, I could lose my job. But the louder the radios got, the more obvious it was that something fucked up was going on.”
The woman blinked and leaned forward until she was halfway across the table she was behind. “So you went back?” she repeated, slower and darker.
He nodded. “Yeah. I scanned my keycard and opened the door.”
He squeezed his eyes shut and could see the scene perfectly. At first glance the stark white hallway had seemed normal. The florescent lighting had been bright and intense, with the occasional flicker that drove all the employees nuts. He’d almost walked back out, just so he wouldn’t get in trouble for breaching protocol, but then he’d heard the screaming.
It had been so faint at first that he wasn’t sure it wasn’t in his head. But when it echoed the second time, he realized it wasn’t just his mind playing tricks on him, it was really coming from way down the hallway behind a door. He leaned against the wall and slid toward it, his Taser drawn.
“You didn’t have a gun?” the woman interrupted.
Carter jumped. Had he been talking still, describing everything to these people?
“No,” he whispered, his voice cracking. “They didn’t let campus security carry weapons except for Tasers. Usually we didn’t need more, but I never wanted a gun so much in my life.”
He shivered. Those screams still echoed in his ears. They’d gotten louder the closer he got to the door at the end of the hallway. Blood curdling and awful sounds that couldn’t mean anything but death.
“The door had a card reader on it,” he said, his voice as blank as his emotions were.
After so long, he’d forced himself to flatten those bad feelings away. It was a survival instinct because the second he started to feel, the world was going to collapse.
“You had a card,” the angry man said, his face so red that Carter wondered if he was having a heart attack.
“Yeah, but when I scanned it, it didn’t work,” he whispered.
He’d tried it over and over, but the response was always an angry buzz and a red light on the reader that meant he wasn’t authorized for anything beyond that door.
Again, he had thought about running away. He couldn’t be blamed for getting out now. After all, he’d tried to get in, to see what was going on and why someone was screaming. That was his job, right? No one could fault him if he booked it and maybe called 911… though what he would report was a little vague. Screaming on campus probably wouldn’t bring anyone running too fast.
But then the screaming had come again and this time it had been a female voice that made the sound. Fuck if the gentlemanly lessons taught by his grandma and single mother didn’t set it.
He pounded on the door with his fist.
“My name is Carter Hicks, I’m the security guard for the facility,” he called out and prayed the door wasn’t so thick that no one could hear him. “My card doesn’t have access to the back, so I can’t come to help you. Please, if you need help, try to open the door.”
The screaming went on from inside, raising in pitch before it abruptly cut off. Carter backed away from the door, his heart pounding and his hands shaking. He was about to turn on his heel and run like a bitch when the door flew open and a man in a bloody lab coat came racing toward him.
Carter recognized him. The dude’s name was Dr. Robert Bamber and he was always a jackass when he came through the lobby for card scan. He never looked at Carter, never had a hair out of place, always had his nose turned up.
The panel before him shifted, sending each other meaningful looks as they muttered to each other, their only recognizable word “Bamber”.
“What does that mean?” Carter asked. “Why is that important?”
“So he ran out,” the third man on the panel said, clearly in no mood to share information. “Then what?”
“He was totally incoherent, just babbling like a moron. He shoved me toward the open door and then bolted.”
Carter shook his head. He’d slammed into the edge of the door so hard it had left a bruise down his leg that lasted for weeks afterward. That had been the least of his problems, of course, but still…
“You didn’t follow him?” Angry Man snapped.
Carter stared at him. “Why would I? He was out the door and I knew there were three other people in the back who had scanned in during my shift that night. I had to check on them.”
The woman leading the panel tilted her head, her dark brown eyes focusing on him in a different way. She shrugged.
“So you kept going,” she encouraged.
He nodded. “Yeah. The door hadn’t closed when it hit me, so I was able to enter the restricted area.”
Unlike the front hallway with its lies of normalcy, the lab area had been awash in blood. Pools of it were scattered around the floor, streaks of it marred the white walls and were mixed with a black substance he hadn’t known about at the time.
Now it was different.
He’d never been in this area before, so it took a moment for him to get his bearings. The first part of the restricted room was a maze of desks, lab tables and computers, cut through by a pathway that led to the back rooms.
The screams had been droning on for so long, but now it was curiously quiet in the lab. The lights buzzed, but otherwise it was quiet.
“Hello?” he called out, moving through the tables toward the doors in the back. They had glass windows to see into the labs beyond. He peeked into the first and saw broken glass beakers, spilled chemicals and a smoking burner. The next room was dark and for a moment he thought it was empty, too.
But as his eyes adjusted to the dimness, he saw legs sticking out from behind a glass tabletop.
“Shit!” he burst out and ran past the window to the door. The handle was broken, dangling by wires that ran the locks. When he shoved, it slammed open against the wall. He staggered inside and dropped to his knees.
The legs belonged to another doctor he knew from his security duties, Dr. Casey. Unlike Bamber, he always had a smile on his face, always said hello. Now he lay on his back, his face mangled and slashed. One eye was gone, but the other stared blankly at the ceiling.
He was dead.
“Dead dead or undead?” Angry Man interrupted.
Carter blinked, yanked back into reality. He stared at his accusers and felt angry about their coldness. They didn’t care about the pain that accompanied his memories. They judged him without ever knowing his fear, his troubles. In another life, he had worked for the lab, the lab was evil, hence he was evil. A simplistic explanation for something far more complicated.
“At the time,” he managed through clenched teeth, “I didn’t know there was such a thing as undead. This was ground zero. Zombies were something I read about in fantasy books and saw in movies, not looked for in the real world.”
Of course that had all changed. He’d sat there with the body for a full minute, just staring and feeling so bad about this man. He’d suffered before he died, there was no doubt. He hadn’t deserved that.
And then, miraculously, he moved. Groaned.
“Dr. Casey,” he breathed, grabbing for his hand as relief rushed through him. “It’s okay. You’ve been injured, but you’ll be okay.”
He didn’t know if that was true, but whatever. It was better to encourage. He reached for his radio with his free hand, but before he could do anything further Dr. Casey grabbed his arm with the hand that had been lying listlessly at his side.
“Sir?” Carter panted, his breath shortened by fear at the sudden movement and the strength of the fingers curling around his forearm.
For a moment, the man looked at him with a flicker of recognition, but then it was gone. His eyes went blank and ugly as he opened his bloody mouth and let out a primal roar that was more fitting of an animal than a person.
Out of instinct, Carter yanked away from the doctor, but Dr. Casey dug his fingers hard into Carter’s flesh, demonstrating far more strength than a half-dead person had any right to possess.
“Hey!” Carter snapped and tugged, but Dr. Casey pulled harder and Carter fell half-way against the injured doctor who opened his mouth and snapped his teeth at Carter’s fingers, just inches from his mouth.
“Fuck!” Carter yelled and kicked the injured man in the side.
Dr. Casey grunted, but that was his only reaction. There was no look of pain, not even a flash of anger.
“Let go, asshole,” Carter insisted and twisted his arm.
To his horror, Dr. Casey didn’t turn his arm with him and three of his fingers snapped off. Off, as in broke off and left bloody stumps behind even as the dead fingers remained clinging to his arm.
He glared at his interrogators. “So that’s when I figured out something fucked up was happening.”
“What did you do?” the woman asked softly.
“I got up and ran, but it was too late. I wasn’t even out the door when the other two started toward me. They were as battered as Dr. Casey. The woman, Dr. Wong, was missing a leg. Her arm had been chewed. The other man was Dr. Lisle and he didn’t have… didn’t have…”
The male interrogator yawned. “What?”
“A face,” he murmured. “He didn’t have a face.”
Just a bloody hole where his nose had once been, a place where his eye had popped free and dangled while the other socket was empty.
Carter had run, slamming doors behind him, trying to turn on his radio and screaming into it for help because there had been an outbreak. But no one had answered.
“Except-” he cut off.
The woman straightened up. “Except?”
He swallowed. “There was a crackle and a voice I didn’t know said ‘code 11, code 11. We have lost containment. Wipe out the lab.’”
He sighed. “When I got outside, I saw guys running toward me. They had machine guns. I ran toward them, like an idiot, and they started firing. At me. Barely missed, too, and I guess they would have killed me if the zombies hadn’t burst out the door. I didn’t stick around to see what happened next, but you’ve probably guessed that their containment strategy failed.”
“And that’s it?” the less angry male interrogator asked, folding his hands on the table in front of him.
He nodded. “Yeah. I headed to my apartment and watched the world end, just like everyone else. I kept waiting for them to come to my door, to end me… but they never came. And eventually I figured out there was no ‘they’ left.”
“Except for you,” Angry Man corrected. “You were a ‘they’, weren’t you?”
Carter clenched his fists. “I wasn’t a fucking ‘they’. I was a student security guard paid ten bucks and hour and given a thousand dollars off my tuition to sit at a desk and watch people scan badges fifteen hours a week. I didn’t know what they were doing in the lab, I didn’t know anything.”
The man sniffed and the woman pushed to her feet. “Step outside, Mr. Hicks. We’ll need to deliberate.”
He opened his mouth to protest, to offer more defense of what he was and what he’d done in that B.Z. time period. But she lifted a hand and silenced him.
With a scowl, he let the guard at the door push him into the hall and sat down to wait.
It wasn’t long. Within an hour, the door opened and the woman motioned him inside. He moved forward, his heart throbbing, sweat beading at his neck and rolling down his back as he returned to the seat where he’d told his story and stared at his ‘jury’.
“Mr. Hicks,” the woman began. “You were a part of a mechanism of collusion and inhumane testing that resulted in the zombie outbreak on the University of Washington campus.”
“What?” he cried out, pushing to his feet.
She pushed to hers, too. “But-” she continued with a raised voice. “We cannot find that you had knowledge of this fact, nor did you directly involve yourself in the activities of your superiors. So your punishment is as follows: You will be cast out of our colony, with a minimum of protection and food.”
He blinked. “What?”
She cocked her head. “The maximum punishment was death, Mr. Hicks.”
“And this isn’t a death sentence?” he asked with a grunt of derision. He had been out there. Put him out there with a minimum of anything and he was screwed.
She smiled, a thin and empty expression. “You seem like a resourceful person, Mr. Hicks. I’m sure you’ll make your way. This case is concluded. Please escort the prisoner to be prepared for exile.”
The guard at the door caught his elbow and dragged him toward the door. Carter continued to stare at the three-person panel, smiling as he was hauled off to what might be his death.
“You know,” he called out as they pulled him out the door. “I think I prefer taking my chances with the zombies, after all. I know where they stand.”
Angry Man snickered and the other one didn’t even look up from his paperwork, but Carter was pleased that the woman showed a flicker of something akin to remorse as the door shut. He shook off the guard’s hand and followed him down a corridor and toward a door that was barred and marked with red paint, “DO NOT OPEN, ZOMBIES OUTSIDE.”
He sighed. The big hospital where they now stood had become a gateway to the camp beyond, but now he was out of the virtual paradise within its walls and the scattering of survivors in the courtyard.
The guard handed him a pistol and six bullets and a backpack.
“What’s in here?” Carter asked.
The man wouldn’t look directly at him. “Four protein bars and six more bullets. Good luck.”
Then he opened the door and motioned Carter outside. Into the dark. Where it was raining. And the zombies were hiding, waiting for fresh meat.
The door clanged shut behind him and as Carter loaded the pistol, swearing under his breath the whole time, he wondered what in the world could happen next.
He drew a breath and got ready to run into the night, but the door behind him opened again. In the flickering light, the woman from the panel stood there, shivering at the rainy cold.
“Mr. Hicks,” she said.
He glared at her briefly before making a quick visual pass around the parameter. No zombies yet, maybe they couldn’t smell him in the rain. “What?”
“Here,” she said, tossing him a set of keys.
He stared at them as he caught them.
“There’s a pick-up parked around the West side of the parameter. It’s full of gas. Take it. Oh, and next time, lose the lab ID.”
She didn’t say anything else, just slammed the door shut. This time he heard the heavy lock slide into place. He grinned as he ran West toward the truck.
“On the road again,” he sang under his breath as he fired off shots at the approaching zombies and got ready for another round of life on the run.
And counted his lucky stars they hadn’t figured out he was Doctor Carter Hicks, secret head of the University of Washington’s project with the U.S. government about mind control of prisoners of war via a virus.
Pre-Order Club Monstrosity (April 30, 2013)
Copyright Jesse Petersen 2012
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