THURSDAY: Vaccine Z

BY MARY CHAPMAN

Copyright is held by the author.

WHEN THE government came to collect Dr. Renner in the early days of the outbreak, he had been expecting them. He had degrees in microbiology, vaccinology and immunotherapeutics and agreed to go on the condition that his infected family be transported and kept safe until a vaccine was available. The men in suits had agreed. His family had been bitten by their infected shih tzu. He lured them outside into the gated garden and locked them in. This was three years ago; only a month after patient 0 had displayed the virus in China. The virus had travelled at an alarming rate and had reached Canada in just a couple of weeks. Air transport had been cancelled but people with helicopters, single-engine planes and jets had packed up and tried to go far enough where the virus couldn’t reach them. By month three all communications had failed. The grid had gone dark, whether by lack of manpower or by design, it was impossible to tell. Looting, crime and murder had become commonplace. People would do anything to survive.

Dr. Renner was no fighter; he focused on bunkering down and reinforcing his house. The suits brought him to a military base in PEI. A set of four 20-foot, electric fences surrounded the base in geocentric circles. When they rode up in tanks, the guard took everyone’s temperature and waved them in. His infected wife and two children were kept in a dark, cement, subterranean pit outside the fence. Darkness kept the infected in a state of suspended animation — rest — he liked to think of it. He hated it, but the lives of everyone inside were too valuable to risk. He launched himself into the familiar rhythm of dissertation mode: sleeping every 15 hours for four-hour intervals. Every three rotations he took a five kilometre run around the fence, showered and worked again. This was his tried and true regime. He could almost see his wife leaning against the doorframe saying, “Honey, it’s time for a break. Come on, let’s go out for dinner.” Every time he came up against a wall he would go out to the hole and lay down ear to the ground. Listening to the guttural breathing of his wife and his children refueled his efforts. He spent three years working independently on a vaccine. A dozen others on base were also working on the same project. However, they were not permitted to discuss their work to get as many viable and distinct formulas as possible.

The day he created the cure was the same as the hundreds before it. He didn’t even realize he had done it until he began reviewing the formula for the inevitable holes, the chinks that always appeared at two or more places in the pages and pages of formulae. Except this time, there was no pauses, no gaps, no holes. His equation was a thing of beauty. A monster and a wonder.

“Are you sure?” the commander asked gravely.

“I am,” he answered simply.

The other scientists examined and prodded the equation. They all agreed. It would work.

The team of scientists began production and animal testing. First they took healthy rats and put them in a cage with zombie rats. When the healthy rats were bitten and turned, they were removed into private cages and injected with the vaccine. The first set of ten, male lab rats turned back into healthy rats in a little over four hours. The crew documented every minuscule change. First, the feral movements slowed and finally stopped. The rat curled into a ball and seemed to go to sleep. His breathing became regular and less shallow, his teeth unbarred; the gums covered slowly by the little lips. Some jerky, seemingly uncontrolled body thrashes occurred followed by stillness and then sleep. After two hours of uneventful sleep, the rat awoke, a normal rat once more. The crew broke out the champagne they had been saving for this moment. They sent a team out to gather infected humans to test the vaccine on. This was post-apocalypse; no more cumbersome red tape.

A group of four soldiers went out the gates and headed deeper into the island. It wasn’t long until they spotted an infected woman stumbling around on a broken foot and ankle. She shuffled forward slowly with her right foot perpendicular to the grass. They used telescoping rescue poles (the kind life guards used to use to pull someone out of the water) to catch the woman by the neck and pull her into the cage in the back of the pickup. They also gathered a male and a child ? a nice sample for their first batch.

They used the poles to corral the zombies into individual observation rooms ?barren, glass walled enclosures with overhead track lighting. They wrote down the subject’s approximate height, age, weight and length of infection. The last was not too difficult to accurately estimate. The longer people were infected, the slower their movements, the milkier their eyes, the greyer their skin and the more putrid their lacerations. The woman was approximately 40, short and thin, Caucasian. She was medium grey. Estimated time infected: more than six months but less than a year.

The man was young, Asian, 18 or 19, muscular, with lightning-fast movements and aggressive as hell.  His clothes were tattered but not yet rags, his skin only slightly greyed. Time of infection: less than a month. That was good. They’d need to measure different timeframes of infection.

The child was an ancient zombie, milky-eyed, non-responsive to light. It was impossible to guess his ethnicity this far into his disease. Age seven or eight at time of infection. His body was in bad shape: multiple lacerations, missing left arm and left ear. The skin from his left cheek hung limply down his neck like a latex glove, rocking gently back and forth as he walked. His neck was broken at a 45-degree angle. If it weren’t so sad, it would have been funny. If you ignored the skin flaps and the eyes, you could almost see a little boy saying, “Huh?” as he cocked his head to the side.

Soldiers were given syringes and full body armor. They administered the vaccine at 19:02. Three scientists would take the first watch, each responsible for detailing one subject’s reactions throughout the night. The woman (patient 1) had undergone slow changes throughout the past ten hours. Like the lab rats, her breathing slowed and became regular and she stopped shuffling around aimlessly. At hour 9, she had curled into fetal position on the ground and fallen asleep. Her skin pallor was still grey, her hair and clothes revolting, but as Dr. Renner squatted down next to the glass to inspect her, he was overcome by how absolutely human she looked. She could have been a homeless woman sleeping on some cardboard boxes in downtown Toronto.

Patient 2, the young man was also curled up, asleep. He also had the same intangible quality as the woman. Dr. Renner couldn’t put it into words, but there was something different about them, and it wasn’t just that they were so still or the fact that they were asleep. There was just something so very human about them.

Patient 3, the child, had smashed his head against the glass wall until he cracked it open. He had dislodged his cerebellum from the spinal cord at 19:57. The test subject was crumpled on the ground ? a grotesque discarded puppet.

On days 2 and 3 the subjects continued to sleep. A gurney was brought in and the patients were connected to an IV and secured with straps. They did not wake and they did not move, but their eyes were responsive to light. On day 5, a soft whimper from patient 1, repeated three more times throughout the day. Staff members were frantic, speaking to her, touching her cold hand with their gloved ones urging her to wake up. Text results all pointed to a middle-aged, severely dehydrated and battered female, but without a doubt, a human woman. They tended to her broken bones and stitched up her cuts. On day 7 she woke up and was lucid for several minutes. She raised her hand and looked at the IV in her wrist. She cleared her throat with visible effort.

“Water” she croaked.

Dr. Flanaghan, an award-winning neurosurgeon, was monitoring her and went into her cell. He checked her vitals and eyes and wet her lips with an ice cube. Doctor Flanaghan introduced himself and asked the patient if she knew where she was.

She shook her head no.
He asked if she knew her name.

“Diana,” she said hoarsely.

“Well, Diana, you’ve been sick for quite some time, but we are taking very good care of you.”

Her eyes fluttered closed. The next day she tried to sit up and started thrashing about when she felt that the straps holding her down. The Doctor on shift, Dr. Evans, was a tall, strong woman and held her down easily. “Diana . . . Diana listen to me. Listen to me!” The patient was hitting herself on her chest and arms as if she were killing mosquitos. She keened loudly. The sounds made the hair on Dr. Evans’ arms stand up on end. Dr. Evans pushed a sedative into her IV drip. As the patient drifted off into darkness she mumbled, “Killed them . . . I killed them.”

On Day nine Diana was given clothes to wear instead of a hospital gown as well as some watery, tasteless broth. She retched and couldn’t keep it down. Armed soldiers escorted her to the nondescript office of Dr. Rawal, a clinical psychiatrist.

Dr. Rawal was on staff to attend to the post-traumatic stress disorders of the military, the scientists and all other personnel. No one had made it through the infection unscathed. “I remember everything, or at least I think I remember everything. But it’s like remembering a dream . . . a dream I’ve had repeatedly . . . but I can’t remember the way it originally went. Chronology is all mixed up in my head, but I remember. I remember it all and it hurts so much I just want it to stop.”

“What is it you want to stop, Diana?” Dr. Rawal asks softly.

“The flashbacks, the memories.” Diana shudders.

“I remember the feeling of biting into my husband’s neck. I remember the tightness of his skin and sinews as I ripped and tore him apart. I remember pulling his intestines out like a long, wet, knotted rope. I can still feel that sensation on my hands.” She looks down at her hands with a look of horror.

“I must have done it a hundred times . . . on different people . . . on children . . . on babies . . . on my beautiful baby boy.” Tears race down her face in a torrent.

“He was nine months old to the day. I got to him first. John tried to stop me. That’s when I got him too.”

Diana howls in pain. Dr. Rawal waits.

“I am glad there’s a vaccine. I really am,” Diana says after a few minutes. “I just wish that they had killed me instead of bringing me back. There is no coming back from I’ve been,” she says hoarsely, almost a whisper.

“Where is it that you feel you’ve been?” Dr Rawal asks.

Diana responds immediately, “Hell.”

The next day they find her on her cot, dead. A fork, bloody and wet lies on the ground to the side of her bed. On her neck the tines of the fork have left their deep marks. The cot is drenched in clotted blood. On the floor four litres make a slick, glassy lake.

Patient 2 recovered in a similar pattern to patient 1. Unlike patient 1, he did not want to speak to Dr. Rawal. He wanted to be released from the compound so he could go look for his family.

“Damnit! My parents and younger siblings are out there!” he yelled.

Finally they agreed to let him accompany a team of soldiers to his neighbourhood, less than 30 kilometres away. The house had been looted; the cars were gone. No sign of his family, living or dead. They brought him back to the compound. Each day that passed he seemed to collapse inward, as if he were slowly imploding. At night he woke up with night terrors screaming and thrashing. He requested sleeping pills. Dr. Rawal wrote out a prescription for one pill each day. He had to go the infirmary bay each evening to get his dose. No risk of overdose this way. He knew that was the reason and he didn’t care. He was purely existential. A body. A lab result. He went through whole days without thinking, without feeling. A living zombie.

The teams gathered more infected and treated more patients. As many as they could house. Some lived through the first few days and some didn’t. Some begged for death and some wept on their knees in gratitude. It was rare for children to come back. They compiled data and measurements.

Finally, the man’s family was brought in for the cure. He had wanted to wait to see as many side effects and outcomes as he could before administering the cure to his family. Was this biased and unfair? Absolutely. But the cure he’d invented was for them.

His wife and children came back easily. His daughter quickest of all. On her first lucid day she croaked out, “Daddy! I waited for you. I waited,” as tears coursed down her cheeks. His wife and son recovered perfectly. A slight limp they would both have for the rest of their lives was the only visible effect.

Late at night, in their bed Helen would tell her husband her memories. They broke his heart and soothed her soul. He listened to stories of eating squirrels and dogs that fell into their hole. Of what it felt like to be a zombie: without memory or thought, just reflexes and a burning, unquenchable need to bite, to tear, to eat.

“I know why you locked us up in that cage,” she whispered in the dark.

“I am so sorry, Helen. I had to.”

“I know.”

“I am so sorry.”

“I know.”

“I couldn’t let you go,” he whispers.

“I’m glad you didn’t.”

In other dark rooms down the hall, men and women cry bitterly. For all the loved ones they killed, for the infected they left behind, for the sorrow of those they saw take their lives rather than become infected. Bitter tears with no relief.

The scientists begin to work on a strain of the vaccine that functions as immunization. After animal testing, everyone at the base is immunized. And on that clear, crisp September morning when they walk outside the metal gates unarmed, they breathe in the smell of a brave, new world.

One comment

  1. Dave Moores

    This was imaginative and interesting but ultimately unsatisfying. I guess I’m one of those annoying people who are looking for the point of the story, the deeper meaning, the “aha” moment, something. I didn’t find it.
    People got sick with a zombie virus, society darn near collapsed, then a cure was found, some sufferers still didn’t make it, but most started to. Okay, so..?

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