Max Brooks: Original Zombie Story from World War Z Author
An original short story from Max Brooks, bestselling author of World War Z, that follows two vampires in a worldwide battle for resources between the subdead and a human-like race—the vampire version of An Inconvenient Truth .
From Max Brooks, bestselling author of World War Z, an original story about a global war between humans and zombies seen through the eyes of Vampires. Or you can just call it the vampire version of An Inconvenient Truth.
We called them subdead, and to us, they were little more than a joke. They are so slow, and clumsy, and stupid. So stupid. We never considered them a threat. And why would we? They had existed beside us, beneath us rather, flaring up like brushfire since the first humanoids left the trees. Fanum Cocidi, Fiskurhofn, we had all heard the stories. One of us had even claimed to be present at Castra Regina, although we mainly considered him a braggart. Through the ages we had witnessed their bumbling eruptions and humanities' equally bumbling response. They had never been a serious threat, either to us or the solbreeders they devoured. They had always been a joke. And so I laughed again when I heard of a small outbreak in Kampong Raja. Laila had told me about it, on that warm, still night ten years ago.
"This isn't the first time. Not just this year, I mean." Her tone was mildly fascinated, as if discussing any other rare natural phenomenon. "Others have been talking, about Thailand, and Cambodia, maybe as far as Burma." Again, I laughed, and perhaps said something disparaging about humans, probably wondering how long it would take them to clean up the mess. I didn't think about it again until a few months later. The whispers hadn't abated. We were entertaining Anson, a visitor from Australia. He'd come for the 'sport' as he called it, a chance to 'take in the local flavors'. We were both very taken with Anson, he was tall and beauteous and very, very young. He could not remember a time a before voicewires and metal kites. His unburdened eyes glittered with envious vim.
"They've made it to Oz," he said with childlike excitement. We were standing on our balcony, watching the Hari Merdeka fireworks blossom over the Petronas Towers. "Isn't that amazing?" he marveled, and both of us believed he meant the fireworks. "At first I thought they could swim, they can, you know, not in the traditional sense… more like waddling under water. But that's not how they ended up in Queensland. Something about illegal boat people. Nasty business, I hear, all covered up and so forth. I wish I'd had a chance to see some of them! I never have, you know, not, 'in the flesh'."
"Let's go tonight!" Laila chimed in suddenly. I could see that our guest's enthusiasm had infected her. I started to respond about the distance before dawn, before she cut me off with "no, not there. Right here, tonight! I hear there's a new flare up just a few hours away near Jerantut. We may have to trek into the bush a ways, but wont that be half the fun?" I was curious I admit. Months of rumors and a lifetime of stories had taken their toll. I confessed to them, as I confess to myself now, that I did in fact want to see one "in the flesh".
It is easy to forget, when you are one of us, how fast the rest of world can move. So much jungle had vanished, in what seemed the blink of an eye, replaced by motorways, tract housing, and mile after mile of palm oil plantations. "Progress", "Development", only last night, it seemed, Laila and I were haunting the rough, unlit streets of a new tin mining town called Kuala Lumpur. And to think I had followed her from Singapore because our previous home had become too 'civilized'. Now, as our Lexus LSA sped down a river of asphalt and artificial daylight.
"Not this time! Not in this shrunken world we live in. There are… were… more humans than there had ever been! There are… were… travel and trade networks that linked these humans as never before! That's how the plague spread so rapidly and so far! The humans have created a world of historic contradictions."
We were not expecting the police roadblock and the police were not expecting us. They did not ask where we were going, or check our identification, or even point out that we had illegally crammed three riders into a two-seat motorcar. He just waved us away, one white gloved hand pointing down the way we had come, while the other rested shakily on the flap of his holster. I will never forget his scent, or the scent of the other policemen behind him, or of the platoon of soldiers behind them. I had not smelled such concentrated fear since the '69 race riots. (Oh, what a glorious time that had been). I could see on Laila's face how badly she wanted to return to the roadblock after our adventure. She must have seen the same look in me. "Careful", she whispered, as one finger playfully poked my ribs. "It's not safe to drive drunk."
We noticed the second smell several minutes later, after pulling off the motorway and returning to the site across the tops of trees. The olfactory impact struck us like a wall, human terror mixed with decaying flesh. A split second later, our ears were assailed with distant gunfire.
The neighborhood must have been especially built for the plantation workers. Rows of neat little houses lined broad, newly paved streets. We could see shops, cafeterias, a pair of grade schools and the large Catholic Church, now common for our country's Filipino guest workers. From the top of the Church steeple, the highest point in this prefabricated settlement, I could only gawk at the carnage below. The fires caught my attention first, then the blood stains, then the drag marks, then the bullet holes lining several of the houses, many of which looked like their windows and doors had been stove in by a mob. I noticed the bodies last, perhaps because they'd already cooled. Most of them were lying in pieces, a mélange of limbs, and torsos amongst loose organs and amorphous chucks of flesh. Some corpses remained reasonably intact, and I noticed all had small round holes in the center of their heads. I reached over to point them out to Laila and noticed that both she and Anson had vacated our rooftop perch. I guessed they must have made for the sounds of shooting.
For a second I became lost in memory, lulled into nostalgia by the sensory banquet of collective human death. For a moment it was the 1950s again and I was lurking through the jungles in search of human prey. Laila and I still talked fondly of "The Emergency", how we hunted the scent trails of either communist insurgents or commonwealth commandos, how we struck from the shadows while our quarry's weapons (and bowels) discharged from panic, how we greedily supped upon the last succulent drops from their frantically beating hearts. "If only…" we would lament for decades, "if The Emergency had lasted".
I have heard it said that the more memories one acquires, the less room the mind has for conscious thought. I cannot speak for others, but at my age, after the remembrance of so many lifetimes crammed into my ancient skull, I do suffer from occasional lapses of 'preoccupation'. It was one of those lapses, lost the recent past, and unconsciously licking my lips, that I descended from my omniscient perch, rounded the church's corner and practically collided with one of them. It was a man, or had been one recently. The right side of his body was still smooth and supple. The left side had been badly charred. Dark, viscous fluid oozed from numerous, steaming wounds. The left arm below the elbow had been severed, cleanly, as if from a machine, or more probably, from one of those great hacking knives the workers used to harvest their crops. His left leg dragged slightly, digging a shallow trench behind him. As he lunged forward, I instinctively drew back, crouching for a lethal blow.
And then came the unexpected. He, it, just slouched slowly right past me. It did not turn in my direction. Its one good eye did not even make contact with mine. I waved my hand in front of its face. Nothing. I stepped beside it and kept pace for several seconds. Nothing. I even went so far as to stand directly in front of it. Not only did the silent brute refuse to halt, but it barreled into me without even raising its arms. Hitting the sidewalk, I let out an unexpected guffaw as the subdead abomination trod over my body without even taking notice!
Later I realized how foolish I had been to expect any other reaction. Why should it have recognized me? Was I food? Was I even 'alive' in the human sense? These creatures obeyed only their biological imperative, and that imperative drove them to seek out only 'living' beings. To its primitive, diseased brain I was practically invisible, an obstacle to be ignored, and, at best, avoided. For a second I could only marvel at the absurdity of my situation, giggling like a child as this pathetic obscenity dragged its mangled carcass past me. Then rising to my feet, I withdrew my right arm and swung. I giggled again as the head tore easily from the shoulders, bounced hard against the opposite house, and came to rest at my feet. Its one working eye continued to move, continued to search, and, ridiculously, continued to ignore me. That was the first time, I came face to face with what the human solbreeders referred to as a 'zombie'.
The following months could be called 'the nights of denial'. They were the business as usual nights where we tried to ignore the threat growing steadily around us. We talked, or thought, very little about the subdead, and could not be bothered to keep abreast of the news. There were many stories, from both humans and our kind, of subdead risings on every continent. They [the stories or the subdeads?] were incessant and expanding, but most of all, they were just boring. We always seemed to be bored, such is the price of conditional immortality. "Yes, yes, I've heard about Paris, and your point being?" "Of course I know about Mexico City, who doesn't?" "Oh for Hell's sake are we going to bring up Moscow again?" For three years we shut our eyes, as the crisis deepened and the humans continued to either die, or turn.
And in the fourth year, 'The Nights of Denial' became what we, ironically called, 'The Nights of Glory'. That was when general knowledge of the outbreak swept the world, when governments began formally revealing the nature of the crisis to their people. That was when global systems began to erode, when national links closed and national borders collapsed, when minor wars ignited and major riots raged across the world. That was when our kind entered a phase of unbridled, celebratory ecstasy.
For decades we had complained about the oppressive interconnection of the solbreeders. Railroads and electricity had placed enough pressure on our rapacious nature, to say nothing of the telegraph and the accursed telephone! Recently however, with the rise of both terrorism and telecommunications, it seemed as if every wall was now made of glass. As we'd once left Singapore, now Laila and I had recently been considering moving from the Malay Peninsula altogether. We'd discussed Sarawak or perhaps even Sumatra, anywhere the lights of knowledge hadn't yet burned away our dark corners of freedom. Now our exodus seemed unnecessary, as those lights began thankfully dimming.
For the first time in years, we could hunt without fear of cellphones or surveillance cameras. We could hunt in packs, and even linger over our struggling repasts. "I'd almost forgotten what pure night looks like," Laila had once gushed during a blackout hunt, "oh what a delicious seasoning is chaos." Those nights still found us deeply grateful for the subdead, and the liberating distraction they wrought.
One memorable night found Laila and I scaling the balconies of the Coronade Hotel. Below us, on Sultan Ismail Street, government troops thrust lances of tracer fire towards a horde of approaching cadavers. It was an intriguing spectacle, so much concentrated military might; grinding, pounding, pulverizing, yet still not eradicating the subdead. At one point we were forced to leap to the flat roof portion of the Sugei Wang Plaza (no small feat), as the shockwave of an aerial bomb brought a rain of glass from the hotel's windows. It was a fortuitous decision, because the plaza's roof happened to be crammed with several hundred refugees. I gathered, from the opened food containers and dry water bottles, that the poor wretches must have been trapped there for some time. They smelled unwashed and exhausted, and so deeply, seductively afraid.
I remember little else, save flashes of violence and the backs of fleeing prey. I remember the girl, however. She must have been from the countryside, so many were flooding the cities in those days. Did her parents believe they were seeking shelter? Did she even have parents anymore? Her scent lacked none of the modern urban dwellers impurities, no ingested hormones or intoxicants, or even the cumulative stench of pollution. I relished her delectable purity, and later cursed myself for lingering with anticipation. She jumped without hesitation, without so much as a yelp. I watched per plunge directly into the groaning, writhing horde.
The subdead moved like a machine, a slow, deliberate mechanism with the sole purpose of transforming a shrieking human child into a mass of unrecognizable pulp. I remember her chest heaving its last breath, her eyes staring up at me with its last twinkle of recognition, before they were extinguished in a sea of hands and teeth.
In my youth I'd listened to an old occidental reminisce about the fall of Western Rome, and gnashed my teeth with envy at his experience of that empire's demise. "Half a civilization burned," he boasted, "half a continent submerged in a millennium of anarchy." I would salivate, literally, at his stories of hunting the lawless lands of Europe. "It was liberation the likes you Asian's have never, and I fear, will never see!" How solid his prediction had seemed that short decade ago. Now it rang as hollow as the shell of our crumbling society.
I am not sure when ecstasy gave way to anxiety. It would be difficult to trace that exact moment. For me, personally, it came from Ngyuen, an old friend from Singapore. Both highly educated and naturally intelligent, he was Vietnamese by descent and had spent enough time in Paris to become of a student of French existentialism. This might explain why he never succumbed to the capricious pleasure seeking so common for our race. It might also explain why he was, to my knowledge, the first to sound the alarm.
We had met in Penang. Laila and I had been forced to vacate KL when an unchecked, daylight fire threatened to engulf our entire block. Several of our kind had recently been lost that way. We hadn't fully understood how comfortable our life had become in recent times, constricted yes, but also extremely comfortable. Most of us had long abandoned the notion of fortified nests. They had gone the way of the torch and the pitchfork. Most of us now lived as solbreeders, in comfortable, and in some cases, opulent urban palaces.
Anson had lived in one of those palaces, in a glittering tower far above Sydney harbor. Like the rest of our world, his city had degenerated into subdead induced bedlam. Like the rest of our race, his appetite had succumbed to bloody bacchanalian bliss. From what we heard he had retired one morning to his high rise alcazar [?], just as the Australian government gave permission to use military force. No one is sure how his building collapsed. We'd heard theories ranging from stray artillery fire, to demolitions detonated far beneath the city streets. We hoped that poor Anson had been atomized in the explosion, or else quickly immolated in morning sun. We shunned the image of him pinned beneath thousands of tons of debris, tortured by pinpricks of sunlight as his life force slowly drained away.
Nguyen had almost suffered a similar fate. He had had the good sense to flee Singapore the night before a solbreeder offensive. That evening he had watched from across the Johor Straits as his homeland of over three centuries burned. He had also had the presence of mind to bypass the crucible of KL and make his way to the new solbreeder "Security Zone" of Penang. Millions of refugees were inundating the several hundred square kilometers of urbanized coastline. With them trickled dozens of our kind, some from as far away as Dhaka. We had managed to 'acquire' several restricted domiciles of our own, removing the previous human owners and guarding against future squatters. What our new homes lacked in comfort they made up for in security. At least, that is what we told ourselves as the situation deteriorated and swarms of subdead moved steadily closer to Penang. It was in one of these domiciles, after a night of hunting the nearby refugee camps that Nguyen first voiced his concern.
"I've done the math," he said anxiously, "my calculations are… disturbing." At first I didn't know what he was talking about. The older generation have deplorable social skills. The more they retreated into their memories, the harder it was to communicate. "Famine, disease, suicide, interspecies murder, combat casualties, and, of course, subdead infection." My puzzled expression must have been obvious. "The humans!" He hissed impatiently at me. "We're losing them! The slouching filth is slowly exterminating them."
Laila laughed. "They've always been trying to doing that, and humans have always put them down."
Nguyen shook his head angrily. "Not this time! Not in this shrunken world we live in. There are… were… more humans than there had ever been! There are… were… travel and trade networks that linked these humans as never before! That's how the plague spread so rapidly and so far! The humans have created a world of historic contradictions. They have been erasing physical distances while at the same time erecting social-emotional ones." He sighed angrily at our blank expressions. "The more humans have extended their reach across the planet, the more they desired to withdraw within themselves. As the shrinking world created a higher level of material prosperity, they have used that prosperity to insulate themselves from one another. That is why, when the plague began to spread, there was no global, or even national call to arms! That is why governments worked in relative secret, and in vain, while their populations busied themselves with petty personal concerns! The average solbreeder didn't see what was happening until it was too late! And it is ALMOST too late! I've done the math! The homo sapiens are close to their sustainable tipping point. Soon there's going to be more subdead than living humans!"
"And so what?" I'll never forget those words, or the casual, inconvenienced way Laila sighed them. "So what if there'll be a few less solbreeders? Like you said, if they're too selfish and stupid to stop the subdead from hunting them, then why the hell should we care?"
Nguyen looked as if the sun had risen in Laila's eyes. "You don't get it." he rasped. "You really haven't made the connection." He paused for a second, retreating several steps and searching the room as if he'd dropped the right words somewhere on the carpet. "We're not talking about 'a few less solbreeder', we're talking about all of them! ALL OF THEM!"
Now the entire room turned in Nguyen's direction, although his burning, accusing eyes stabbed directly into Laila's. "The sapiens are fighting for their very survival! And they are losing!" He then spread his arms dramatically, drawing a semicircle of emptiness. "And when the last one of them vanishes, what in hell's name are you or I or any of our race going to live on!?!?" Silence answered Nguyen. His eyes swept the assembled group. "Have none of you thought beyond tonight's feeding? Do any of you comprehend what it means to have another organism compete with us for our one and only source of food!??!"
At that point I ventured a timid response, something on the order of "but they… the subdead have to stop eventually. They have to know…"
"They don't know ANYTHING!" Nguyen cut me off. "And you KNOW that! You KNOW the difference between their kind and ours! We hunt humans! They consume humanity! We are predators! They are a plague! Predators know not to overhunt, or overpopulate! We know to always leave one egg in the nest! We know that survival depends on maintaining the balance between ourselves and its prey! A disease doesn't know that! A disease will grow and grow until it's infected the entire host! And if killing that host means killing itself in the process, so be it! A disease has no concept of restraint or notion of tomorrow! It cannot grasp the long term consequences of its actions, and neither can the subdead! We can! But we don't! We've been condoning it! We've been CELEBRATING it! For the last few years we've been blithely dancing in a parade to our own extinction!
I could see that Laila was becoming agitated. Her eyes locked on Nguyen with in a predatory gaze while her thin lips curled back around her fangs. "There will be more solbreeders," she said in a soft, almost hissing voice, "there will always be more!"
And that became the conventional wisdom. From the historical; "When have humans not risen to the challenge of the subdead?" to the pragmatic "yes, the present global human socioeconomic system might disintegrate but not the humans themselves" or the humorous, "as long as humans keep fornicating with abandon, there will always be more". From the dismissive to the confrontational, so many of our people clung to the same desperate argument "there will always be more." Desperate is the only adjective that describes this new phase of our existence. As the subdead continued to multiply, as they surged over one human stronghold after another, the argument of "there will always be more" became more insistent, more dogmatic, more desperate.
And yet it was not the disciples of "more" that troubled my daylight sleep so deeply. It was those who thought as I did, who began to follow Nguyen's logic and 'do the math' for themselves. Humanity was indeed reaching its collective tipping point. The subdead had sparked a chain reaction, just as our Vietnamese sage had predicted. Every night their corpses stacked higher in Penang's streets and hospitals and makeshift refugee camps. Malnutrition, sickness, suicide, and murder followed, and the subdead had not even reached our zone.
We knew there would not, could not "always be more," but then was there to be done? To be done… the question at first seemed so alien. I could barely ask myself, let alone query others. Now that we were facing an apocalyptic threat, wouldn't the logical conclusion be to prevent it? Of course it would… for anyone but a race of passive parasites.
We were like fleas watching our host dog fight for its life, never considering that we might have the power to aid it. We had always looked down on solbreeders as a so-called 'inferior race'. And yet, that race, confronted daily with its own weakness and mortality had taken destiny by the throat. While we skulked in the shadows, they had studied and sweated and changed the face of their world. And it was their world, not ours. We'd never felt any ownership of our 'host' civilization, no need to contribute, and hell forbid, fight for it in any way. While the great metamorphoses; the wars and migrations and epic revolutions passed before our eyes, we craved only blood and safety and habitual relief from ennui. Now, as the course of history threatened to carry us into the abyss, we remained shackled by near genetic paralysis.
These revelations, are, naturally, the harvest of hindsight. They were not so lucid as I stalked my hunting ground that night at Temenggor lake. The human barricade in the 4 Motorway was their latest breakwater against the surging tide of subdead. What was left of the military a garrison had erected some makeshift fortifications but refrained from destroying the bridge. They must have still clung to the idea of reclaiming the far bank. The central island was designated as a "quarantine" zone, the former nature preserve now overrun with 'detainees'. Our kind found it to be the ideal location for stalking some unsuspecting refugee who'd strayed too far from the others. That night ran red with gluttony. I had already fed on two previous refugees before purging my body and searching for a third. Such acts had previously been unheard of among our people, now it was becoming commonplace. Perhaps it was some misguided means of overcompensation, an unconscious need to exert control over our situation. I am still uncertain of the deeper motives. From a conscious, emotional perspective, I can claim all trace of enjoyment had evaporated from my hunts. Now rage was all I felt for my victims, rage and irrational contempt. My kills were becoming unnecessarily painful. I found myself mutilating my victims' bodies, even taunting them in moment before death.
I once went so far as to cripple the target with a blow to the head, but left him conscious enough to hear my words. "Why don't you do something?" I mocked, my face inches from his. He was old and foreign and could not understand my language. "Go ahead!" I snarled, "Do something!" It became a psychotic mantra, "Do something, do something, DO SOMETHING!" Recalling it now, I suspect "Do something" was less a provocation, than a masked cry for help. "Please do something," was what I should have said, "Your species has the tools and the will! Please do something! Find a solution that will save both our races! Please do something! While there's enough of you! While there's still time! Do something! DO SOMETHING!"
That night by Temenggor lake, I was too blood drunk to commit such acts on my latest feast. The haggard wretch was equally incapacitated, only her condition was mental. Many of the refugees were suffering from what the humans referred to as 'shell shock'. Many of their bodies had survived beyond their minds' limitations. The horrors they witnessed, the losses they endured, many of their psyches had simply melted into oblivion. The woman I fed on had as much recognition of my presence as the subdead. As I opened her veins, she gave what could only have been a small sigh of relief.
I remember how repulsive her blood had tasted on my tongue, thin and starving and tainted with the cumulative residue released from self-digested cellulite. I considered rejecting her mid-consumption and searching for a fourth victim. Suddenly I became distracted by a cacophony of screams and moans, louder than before, and coming from the western side of the bridge.
The subdead had broken through. I saw it the moment, I stepped out of the jungle. The human barrier of overturned cars and debris was swarming with carnivorous automatons. Whether the defenders had run short of bullets or courage, I did not know. All I saw were humans in full retreat before the swarm. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of the creatures surged over the barricade, crushing their breathren that had formed a ramp of compressed flesh.
I sprang up onto the bridge, calling for Laila in the pitch only detectable by our species. No answer came. I scanned the fleeing human multitude, hoping to discern her deep amber aura against bright pink human mob. Nothing. She was gone, nothing but the frantic solbreeders and the surging, howling subdead. That was the first time I felt it, an emotion so powerful and so long forgotten. It was not anxiety, I had become all too familiar with that sensation. Anxiety is the fruit of potential harm; fire or sunlight, or a new substrain of biomechanical doom. This was not anxiety. This was not conscious thought. This was primal and instinctual and it gripped me like an invisible claw. This was something I had not felt since my heart had stopped beating so many centuries ago. This was a human emotion. This was fear.
It is a curious thing to be a spectator to your own actions. I remember every tear, every punch, every second of violence as I tore into the subdead horde. Ten, eleven, twelve… Skulls imploding, necks cleaving… Fifty seven, fifty eight… spines shattering, brains rupturing, one hundred forty five, one hundred forty six… I counted each one, as the hours stretched and corpses mounted. Driven was the only word that describes my actions that night, operating without will, as a daybreeder would one of their great machines. Driven without inhibition or pause, until another hand grasped mine. I recoiled, drawing to strike, and found my eyes staring into Laila's.
Her hands were shaking, slick and black with subdead putrefaction. Her eyes burned with animal exhilaration. "Look!" she growled, referring to the hundreds of silent, mutilated mounds before us. Nothing stirred, save a few severed, snapping heads. Laila lifted her foot above one of the air gnawing skulls and brought it down with a guttural grunt. "We did this…" She exclaimed, the realization mounting within both our chests, "WE did this!" Panting for the first time in centuries, she waved her hand over the distant barricade, and the next wave of subdead now traversing it. "More." Her whispers grew into roars, "More. More! MORE!"
We lay dying for the next few days. How could we have known that subdead fluid was so lethal. The micro fissures of close combat, the deep immersion in their virulent corruption. After a night of over a thousand slain, we appeared destined to be the final casualties. "At least you fed before," said Nguyen, as he came to our darkened sanctuary. "I have discovered the sapiens' blood is the only antidote to your contamination." He had brought with him two meals, a male and a female, both bound and struggling and screaming against their gags. "I considered silencing them," he said, "but I chose purity over convenience." He then held the females' neck to my lips. "The influx of adrenaline will only hasten your recovery."
"Why?" I asked, surprised at Nguyen's generosity. Selfishness was a common trait among our people, both in material possessions and blood. "Why save these morsels for us? Why not…"
"You're both famous," he announced with almost youthful giddiness, "What you did on the bridge, what both of you accomplished… you've inspired our race!"
I could see Laila's eyes widen as she greedily fed on the male. Before either of us could speak, Nguyen continued with "Well, you've inspired our race in Penang. Who knows what anyone of either species is doing outside this safe zone. But we'll sort that out later. Right now the critical fact is that you showed us what is possible! You showed us a solution, an escape! Now we can all strike back together! Some others have already started! These past three nights at least a dozen have leapt beyond the human defenses, and have penetrated deep into the heart of the approaching mega swarms. Thousands of subdead have fallen! Millions more will follow!"
I don't know if it was Nguyen's words or the rush of human blood, but my thoughts sank quickly into numbing euphoria.
"You saved us!" he cooed in both our ears. "You have declared war."
And the war began with many of our kind following the example that Laila and I had set on Lake Temmengor. At least we had learned from our near fatal mistake of exposure, and either sheathed our hands in gloves or else bound them with impermeable material. Some of our kind learned to fight entirely with their feet, developing what I suppose the solbreeders call a "martial art". These "Skull Dancers" carried themselves high above the flailing arms of the subdead, leaping and crushing as if on a sea of eggshells. It was graceful and deadly and while not particularly important to our war effort, it was also one of the few aspects of our culture that anyone could claim was truly ours.
Unfortunately every skull dancer was matched by an equal number of "emulators", those of our kind chose to arm themselves as solbreeders. The emulators wielded human inventions; firearms, blades or bludgeons. Their argument being that such implements were more 'efficient' than our bare bodies. Many chose their weapons based on the era, or the geography of their previously lives. It was not uncommon to see former Chinese brandishing a broad, double handed dadao or former Malay carrying the traditional Keris Sundang. One night in the Cameron Highlands, I actually observed a former occidental rapidly firing and reloading a rusted "Brown Bess" flintlock musket. "Some talk of Alexander, and some of Hercules", he sang with motions so quick they matched the speed of a modern day automatic rifle, "of Hector and Lysander and such great names as these!" As impressive as the spectacle was, I could only wonder his remaining supply of powder and shot. Where on Earth had he acquired either? For that matter where did any of them attain their particular implements, and how much time did they waste attaining them? How truly 'efficient', or simply some subconscious emotional need to reconnect with the proactive hearts that once beat within them?
I believe the latter lay at the center of another, even more fanatical emulator clique. We dubbed these imbeciles the 'militarized emulators' as they organized themselves into quasi-humanlike 'strike teams'. They bestowed ranks and designations upon themselves, even creating protocol such as solutes and secure passwords. Within a month, several of these 'strike teams' had sprouted in and around Penang.
The most notable was "Field Marshal Peng" (not his real name) and his "Army of the Blood Line."
"The plan for victory is being finalized as we speak," he told me one night while gesturing to a map of Southeast Asia. Laila and I had been curious enough to pay a visit to the "Field Marshal", hoping that he might very well have the answer to our precarious predicament. Twenty minutes at "SAC HQ" cured us of that hope. From what we could tell, the army consisted of half a dozen members, all clustered around a collection of human maps and human satellite radios and human books on everything military. They all looked quite resplendent in their gold trimmed, black uniforms, complete with blood red berets and even matching human... and I write this without jest, sunglasses. More impressive than their appearance were their proficient debating skills. "Static Defense", "Choke Point", "Search and Destroy," and "Clear, Hold and Build", were just a few of the terms we caught amidst the flurry of verbal clashes. The 'Marshal' must have noticed our glances over his shoulder, and our reactions to his 'Strategic Operations Staff'.
"The final blow needs to be decisive," he said confidently, smiling and nodding in his staff's direction. "Therefore, let a hundred flowers bloom. Let a hundred schools contend."
"If only we had a hundred of anything," sighed Laila as we dismissed the "Army of the Blood Line" and the "Bare Fang Militia", and the "Noctactical Wing" and the handful of other militarized emulator bands who barely stopped a few raindrops of the raging subdead storm.
Numbers continued to be our enemies' greatest asset, numbers in both bodies and hours. How many of the latter found our kind feeding, resting, or just cowering from the rays of the sun? Could any of this be said for the other side? As we retreated with each sunrise, those decaying carcasses continued to advance, kill and multiply. For every swarm we obliterated, the following night saw instant replacements. For every kilometer we cleansed in darkness, the new light brought renewed infestation. Despite all our vaunted physical strengths, despite our supposed 'superior' intelligence, despite the overwhelming advantage of not even being noticed by our adversaries, we fought as hapless gardeners in the face of an overwhelming blight.
One faction might have been able to improve our situation, and they called themselves the Sirenes. These courageous individuals took it upon themselves to seek out our kind all over the world, and rally them to Penang for the sake of a coordinated effort. The Sirenes believed that only a true army of our kind, massing in the hundreds and concentrating at one specific location could eventually begin to purge our planet. I applauded their efforts, but had little confidence in their success. With the breakdown of global transport, how were any us going to travel farther than a few dozen, or perhaps hundred miles before the next dawn? Even if they found shelter from the sun each morning, could the same be said for nourishment? Could they really be expected to 'live off the land', hoping to stumble upon some isolated human outpost every night? Even if some Sirenes succeeded in contacting more of us, how could they convince them that Penang was any safer than their present location? How was a mass exodus to Penang even possible? One of our kind trekking across the globe was next to impossible. How could a supposed 'Army'? Against all logic, I never lost hope that one night would see a ship appear off our cost, or an aircraft (as if any of us ever learned to fly) suddenly swoop out of the sky. Through all my nights of combat, I continued to fantasize that suddenly hundreds of us would suddenly materialize out of the night. I had seen similar scenes from human history, places like Stalingrad and the Elbe River, images of handshakes and embraces, icons of renewed hope and ultimate victory. These icons haunted my fitful rest, tantalizing and tormenting as I waited in vain for the Sirenes.
There were other possibilities, options that might have meant our salvation but only at the cost of sacrilege. Our race had no 'religion' in the spiritual, daybreeder sense of the word. Similarly we carried no complex code of moral conduct. Our allegiance lay in only two inviolate taboos.
The first was to create only one other in our own image. It was the reason time had failed to expand our population. While never discussed, this silent commandment must have had its roots in the predators notion of balance. As Nguyen had said, it would have been impossible to leave one egg in the nest if too many predators walked the earth. It was logical and reasonable, and the rise of the subdead, in fact, affirmed that notion of balance. But when faced with impending triumph of the subdead, could we have not, perhaps this once, slightly modified our ancient cannon?
There were perhaps a hundred of us in Penang, the greatest concentration of our kind in history. Of that figure, perhaps a quarter departed the zone as Sirenes, while another quarter elected for feckless militaristic masturbation. That left fifty true combatants capable of fighting for only a few short hours each night before hunger, fatigue, and the eventual dawn forced withdrawal. While our nightly kills numbered in the thousands, they still had left a propagating force of millions.
We might have corrected that equation with just the right amount of transformed solbreeders. We could have chosen carefully and prudently, adding just enough reinforcements without upsetting the balance between pack and herd. We might have created a force large enough to clear the Malay Peninsula, then Southeast Asia, and from there, who knows? We might have given the humans just the kind of breathing room they needed, enough time to possibly pool their enough resources to finish purging the planet without our assistance. The opportunity lay within our grasp, and yet none of us ever considered seizing it.
Likewise our second precept remained beyond discussion; direct open contact with humanity. Like recruitment, anonymity found its roots in the logical desire for survival. How could we, as predators, reveal ourselves to our prey? Did we desire the same fate as the saber tooth cat, the short faced bear, or a host of other apex killers who had once feasted upon human bones? Throughout human history, our existence remained relegated to myths and childhood parables. Even now, in the midst of our parallel struggle for existence, we strove to conceal our efforts from solbreeder eyes.
What if we had abandoned the charade, and revealed ourselves to our unwary allies? Full disclosure would not have been necessary. We might have bypassed the ignorant masses in favor of an enlightened few. If not the Malaysian government then perhaps others operating 'in exile' throughout the region. There must have still been some nearby safe zones like ours, some human leaders who were willing to come to a mutual understanding. We would not have asked much, just the right to continue hunting as before. Homosapien leaders had never been loath to sacrifice their own people. We might have even negotiated distinct boundaries, feeding off specific refugees who'd lost everything in the maelstrom. Who would mourn, or even notice their passing? Perhaps the more lucid might have even submitted themselves willingly. Self-sacrifice was nothing new to solbreeders. Some might have actually prided themselves on literally spilling their blood for the survival of their species. Would it have been such a high price for their race to consider? Would it have been such a high risk for our race to propose? As with recruitment, I have no knowledge of any challenge to this sacrosanct law. It is bitter consolation that cowardice is not just a vulnerability of our species. In my short life, I have seen too many hearts of both night and day that lacked the simple courage to question their convictions. I now count myself among the guilty, who chose certain oblivion over opaque prospect of "Why Not?".
My sleep was dreamless the day Perai fell. It was the largest concentration of refugee camps in the Penang security zone, which was why some of us had set up residence just across the river in Butterworth. It was still relatively easy to feed in the mainland safe zone, unlike Penang Island where the government was able to enforce marshal law. Perai's crimson fountain fortified us every night for battle. It also fortified the human effort as the last manufacturing base for munitions.
When the explosion occurred, I was resting deeply after our most ferocious battle to date. Three dozen of us had crept stealthily over the daybreeder wall along the narrow Juru river and attacked the heart of a swarm roiling out of Tok Panjang. We had returned depleted and discouraged, barely blunting their incessant push towards the humans. From our commandeered, thin walled flat, we could hear the collective moans rising with the morning breeze.
"Tomorrow night will be different," Laila assured me. "The solbreeders still have the Juru as a natural barrier and every day they build their wall just a little bit higher." I wasn't sure if I believed her, but I was too fatigued to argue. We collapsed in each other's arms as dawn broke over the closing menace.
I awoke in mid-air, as the shock wave hurled me against the bedroom's far wall. A half second later I felt as if scores of white hot branding irons were suddenly pressed against my skin. The detonation had blown out our windows and the glass had shredded our blackout curtains. Still blind from the reflected daylight and gasping from my smoking wounds, I rolled to the floor while reaching frantically for Laila. Her arms found me first, reaching around my waist and pulling me over her shoulder. "Don't struggle!" she shouted and threw a daycloak over my head. A leap, a crash of glass, and then we were on the concrete six stories down. Laila took off at a lightning dash, her steps echoing across a sea of shards. "What…" I managed to croak.
"The factories!" Laila answered, "a fire… and accident… they're here! They're everywhere!"
I could smell her burning flesh. How much of her body was exposed? How much longer did she have before combusting? Those three seconds seemed a lifetime before I felt her leap again. Laila's grasp abruptly weakened as a cold, hard splash separated us.
The cloak floated from my face. What had been small, searing wounds now melted into a general, boiling torment. I could see that Laila had taken us into the Mallaca straight, and she was now leading me by the hand towards the pockets of shade under anchored ships. There were so many of them now, with fuel bunkers dry and decks crammed with escapees. From the bottom they appeared to us as clouds would to solbreeders. We found a resting place under the semidarkness of an oil tanker. Ironically it was anchored over a sunken pleasure boat. We sat resting with our backs against the yacht's broken hull, both of us too shocked and depleted to stir. Only when the shadow's movement forced us to change positions did I notice the extent of Laila's injuries.
Her body had been almost completely roasted. How many times had I warned her against sleeping in the nude! I stared into the mask of horror that had been her face, at the mist of minute, charred particles that lifted lazily from naked white bone. She had always been so vain, so obsessed with her unblemished beauty. That was why she had turned us so many centuries ago. Her worst nightmare had been the loss of her appearance. I could only be grateful that the seawater masked my tears. I forced a brave smile and drew my arm around her near skeletal shoulder. As her body shook in my embrace, one black, carbonized arm raised to point in the direction of Penai beach.
The subdead were coming, walking out of the silt formed fog. Of course they did not notice us, passing without even the slightest recognition. Penang island, the last human refuge, was their only target now. We watched them silently, too debilitated to even move out of their way. One came close enough to trip over my outstretched leg. As it fell in slow motion, I extended my free arm to catch it. I'm not sure why I did that, neither did Laila. She looked at me quizzically, and, with equal confusion, I shrugged. The burnt, cracked remnants her lips pulled back into a smile, so much so that her lower one split in two. I pretended not to notice. I smiled back and held her close. We sat motionless, watching the cavalcade of cadavers until the ocean's orange surface faded from blue, to orange, to purple, and finally to blessed black.
We came ashore several hours after sunset, into the teeth of a raging battle. Now it was my turn to carry Laila. Limp and trembling, she clung to my neck as we sprinted past the beachhead fray. I found a deep, secure burrow within the rubble of Georgetown's fallen Komptar tower. Its inaccessibility from both solbreeders and daylight were all we could have asked for now. With Laila resting silently on her back, steam perpetually rising from her wounds, all I could do was hold the mangled remnants of her hand and whisper the faint lullabies of a distant, almost forgotten youth.
We remained secluded in our ramshackle burrow for seven nights, Laila recuperating slowly while I foraged after dark for blood. There were still quite a few living humans left in Penang, fighting bravely as wave after wave of subdead rose from the sea. Those nights witnessed the absolute best of their species, and absolute worst of ours.
There is no greater nightmare than watching one of your own kill another. The victim was smaller and weaker. She was murdered by a larger male over what I could see was a barely conscious meal. Madness? There were still so many other living solbreeders. Why fight over this one? Madness. So many human minds had collapsed. Why should we be any different? I observed several other murders during those seven nights, including one that took place for no apparent reason. There were two evenly matched males, each tearing and biting and trying to extract each other's hearts. At the time I believed I could almost see their insanity, a living entity of pure dementia that bashed my brethren together like the war toys of a sadistic child. I would only wonder later if their duel might not be homicide but rather mutually agreed to suicide.
Taking one's own life was nothing new to my people. Immortality has always bred despair. Once every century or so we would hear stories of someone "walking into a bonfire". I had never personally seen this action. Now I became its nightly spectator. In tears or silence, I watched so many of my species, so many beautiful strong, seemingly invincible specimens simply step into burning buildings. I also bore witness to several acts of 'suicide by subdead' as several of my friends willingly sank their fangs into the walking plague's putrid flesh. While their howls of agony tortured my walking hours, nothing so tore at my heart as the night I found Nguyen.
He was strolling, for lack of a better word, down the middle of Macallister street, amidst the remains of subdead and solbreeder corpses. His face was peaceful, almost chipper. He did not seem to notice me at first. His eyes remained locked on the luminous east. "Nguyen!" I called nervously, not wanting to waste anymore time getting 'home.' Scrounging was becoming difficult and I was eager to return my catch to Laila before the sun rose. "Nguyen!" I shouted with growing impatience. Finally on my third call, the elder existentialist turned. He looked up at me standing on the rubble of the old mosque and gave me friendly wave, "What are you…" I began but was quickly silenced by his answer. "Just walking into the dawn." His tone implied an action both obvious and expected. "Just walking into the dawn."
I did not mention what I'd seen to Laila, nor did I tell her about any of the horrors beyond our little cave. As she fed off the barely breathing sustenance, I forced the brightest smile possible and repeated the words I'd rehearsed in my head. "We're going to be fine," I began, "I know how to get out of this." The notion had come to me that first day under the ship, and had germinated rapidly over the past several nights.
"Husbandry," I began, and her still mending eyebrows crinkled in wonder. "That's how the solbreeders became the dominant species on the planet. At some point they switched from hunting animals to domesticating them. That's what we're going to do!" Before she could speak, I placed a hand to her regenerating lips. "Just consider it! There are still hundreds of vessels that must contain thousands of solbreeders. All we need to do is take one of those ships by force. We'll just sail our livestock to an island somewhere. There are millions of them close by. All we have to do is find one large enough for to construct a solbreeder ranch! Some of those islands might even have ranches on them already! Well, the humans don't think they're ranches, they think they're havens. But wait till we arrive! One night of violence, just enough to eliminate the alphas in the herd. The rest will follow. They've been through so much they'll be ripe for the taking! We'll begin breeding solbreeders! We'll keep weeding out the troublesome ones, keep fattening and hobbling the submissive ones. We might even breed out much of their intelligence over time. And we have all the time in the world! The subdead wont last forever, you've seen them rotting, eh? Eh? How long can they last, a few years, a few decades? We'll just wait them out, safe on our island coral, with our self sustaining blood supply… or better, even better… We go to Borneo or New Guinea! There must still be some human tribes out there that haven't been touched by this holocaust! We can become their rulers, their deities! We wont need to tend them, or slaughter them, they'll do it all themselves, and all for the love of their new Gods! We can do it! You'll see! We can and we WILL!"
At that point I legitimately believed everything I espoused. It didn't matter how we were going to find and capture either a ship or an island. It didn't matter how were going to keep this mystical 'herd' of solbreeders captive, or healthy, or even fed. I'd only just thought of the Borneo-New Guinea option and so those details seemed even more trivial than human husbandry. What mattered was how deeply I wanted to believe in myself, and how deeply I wanted Laila to believe in me.
I should have recognized the smile on her face, how closely it resembled Nguyen's. I should have restrained her that instant, with steel and concrete or even my own body. I should have never gone to sleep that day. I should not have been surprised at what I found the next evening. Laila, my sister, my friend, my strong, beautiful, eternal night sky. How long had it been since we were children of the beating heart, laughing and playing beneath the warmth of the noonday sun? How long had it been since I followed her into the darkness? How long would it be before I followed her into the light?
The nights are quiet now. The screams and fires have long faded. The subdead are everywhere now, shuffling aimless as far as the eye can see. It has been almost three weeks since I hunted the last remaining humans in the city, almost four months since my beloved Laila turned to ash. At least part of my ranching strategy has taken form. Some solbreeders still exist on nearby anchored ships, living off fish and rainwater, and some hope of eventual rescue. Although I feed as sparingly as possible, their numbers continue to diminish. I have calculated another few months at the most before I drain the last of them white. Even if I had half the knowledge, or will, to implement my plan of domestication, there still would not be enough left for a sustainable herd. Facts can be a most cruel master, and as Nguyen once said, "I've done the math."
Maybe some of my kind have taken on similar 'husbandry' projects. Maybe some have managed to succeed. The world has suddenly become a very, very big place, and across its vast horizon, there are always possibilities. I suppose I could try to strike out in search of these survivalist colonies, with a hobbled solbreeder or two under my arms. Perhaps I could find some means of keeping them alive for a bit, giving them food and water, and chaining them together during the day while I burrowed. I remember one of the Sirenes discussing a similar idea for his sojourn. If rationed carefully and traveling at maximum speed, I might even cover a good amount of nearby land. And what I might discover is what keeps me rooted to the island of Penang. At least in ignorance there can be fantasy, and these nights, fantasy is all I have left.
In my fantasy, repugnant mobile carcasses will not inherit the earth. In my fantasy, children of both night and day will somehow survive long enough for the subdead to dissolve into dust. That is why I have preserved these memories, on paper and wood and even glass, as I have emulated from a human 'apocalypse novel'. In my fantasy I am not simply wasting my final nights with fruitless, Malthusian ramblings. My words will serve as a guide, a warning, and the eventual salvation of the race known to all as Vampires. I am not the final flickering of a light that had allowed itself to be extinguished. I am not last dancer in the extinction parade.
Max Brooks is the author of The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z , published by Crown Books.