Story abridged for word count:
Another day, another body. The grey-faced corpse sat on the cold metal table amongst the various autopsy tools like it was a butcher’s block. The amount of dotted lines the mortician had drawn across the skin made it look like he was indeed outlining the various cuts of meat.
Dr. Oleksonder Loudermilk tugged at the strands of grey hair that had suddenly started to infest his beard like crab grass. The clock on the wall ticked performatively—it didn’t matter what time it was, it never mattered anymore—yet he eyed it every so often out of habit. The only time of day he bothered to pay attention to was midnight. Then, he could scratch another mark onto the worn, terra-cotta colored brick wall to signify the passing of another day.
Everyday it looked more like the tally marks on the prison wall in a Hollywood movie. He counted—one-hundred and ninety-six.
He turned his attention back to the task at hand. The body was more decayed than usual. It must have rested amongst the tunnels for a couple days before it was recovered. Thankfully—it hadn’t gone undiscovered much longer.
It smelled of putrid flowers. Enough rancidity mixed with cloying sweetness to repulse your appetite and make your head throb. None the matter, Loudermilk had long lost a sense for what smelled pleasant.
His fingers swiftly fanned over the heel of the bone saw. First thing was first after all, the head needed to be detached. He levied the sharp edge against the jugular and pierced the skin with a slick gasping noise—like a box cutter through bubble-wrap.
No blood seeped from the sudden wound—the infection would have consumed that first once the host had expired. Instead the saw tore through the bloated skin like a chicken breast until it reached the cervical vertebrae. That was when the sound changed. Less spongy and mushy—more cardboard being ripped apart by bare hands.
Once Loudermilk felt the last shards of bone crack and the weight of the skull fall into his other palm her was careful to ensure it didn’t bang against the autopsy table to hard.
It was standard procedure when dealing with the infected and Olek was right to have been cautious. He could see the white silk sacs almost immediately pulsating from inside the flesh around the mandible.
It was one of the four common forms Dr. Loudermilk had seen the infected bodies take. In this case, white-grey gel sacs formed around the cranium orifices in order to quickly spread the infectious venom should the host body be put down in the most common method—a head shot.
They would set off like a cacophony of microbombs on heavy impact and spray the surrounding area. Any exposure to the liquid inside on exposed skin and that person was as good as infected too.
Olek though Airheads were the second most dangerous mutation the contagion caused. The most perilous—and least encountered—he called Ironmouths. They were immune to headshots and notoriously difficult to put down. Their skin would shed bullets and even melee weapons from close range were not enough to subdue them. They had vicious, hardened teeth. Sharp enough to rip through soft fabrics of clothing and slice right into the skin, injecting the victim with the contaminated ‘blood’—even if it were more like sludge.
So far, the only method of stopping an Ironskull had been immobilization by removal of their legs and then a vial of nitroglycerin stuffed inside their nasal cavity.
The other two classes of infected were more common and easier to deal with. Simple infected, usually just called by their colloquial name—Zombie. And their slightly upgraded version—Mimics—which were infected that managed to maintain human speech pattern even after the virus had consumed the host. The mimics could momentarily fool someone into thinking they were healthy until the person got up close and realized their folly. If they weren’t quick enough, the zombie could strike.
For these two types, a bullet to the cerebral cortex was enough without any additional fuss.
Dr. Loudermilk finished combing over the infected body for all his usual examinations. He needed a continuous supply of the infected sludge that ran through the ‘veins’ of the zombies in order to continue his research for an anti-dote. Or at least a vaccine if reversing the infection wasn’t possible.
Loudermilk re-grasped the bone saw and began cutting away the grey corpse into small sections until he had about six or seven maneuverable chunks of the zombie body. One by one, the doctor carried them from the mortuary passed the incinerator and into the narrow access passage he cleverly kept obscured by various equipment.
Careful to listen for any incoming traffic, Loudermilk ably tucked the body back into secrecy within a couple minutes. From there, he made his way down the narrow access tunnel with the pieces of corpse until he reached the dirt covered floor of an unfinished area of the tunnels.
The unfinished area was small and dark, but unequivocally warm from the heat generated by the incinerator. Loudermilk had discovered it by accident during one of his manic, late-night episodes of being unable to quiet his ruminating mind.
He had been sure to keep its existence quiet from Jerry or Elska or any other living person in the tunnels, because it would be the one place he could keep them. His live specimens.
The auxiliary tunnel had earth carved out where additional rooms were meant to have been constructed. Whenever this part of the tunnel dig was abandoned—likely when the outbreak started and normal construction of anything ceased—it had been walled off but more importantly left off the schematics that Elska had acquired about this place.
It took about five days of working like a thief in the night for Loudermilk to construct a simple containment zone in one of the rooms. From then, he would spend his manic episodes during the night sneaking out of the tunnels to acquire new specimens. In total, Loudermilk had about six at a time.
But they needed to be fed to remain worth studying. Some bit by bit, Loudermilk carried to unharmed, but suitable flesh of the newly re-deceased body and slid the large metal plate on the access door aside. He could hear the low, sluggish groans of the zombies inside. It had been days since he had been able to get back here.
As the meat hit the musty, swamp-like ground beneath their feet, the zombies became more active and Loudermilk could hear them shuffling around towards the scent. Ripping and tearing followed and soon Loudermilk couldn’t bear the noise any longer and closed the feed panel off.
He shook his head, wiped some filth that had smeared along his lab coat and hurriedly made his way to the access tunnel to return to his lab. He slipped back passed the equipment and out the secret compartment like a rat flattening its torso. He squeaked back in the mortuary with the subtlety of a leaf falling.
The hatch was the only exit from the tunnels. Any alternative egress was caved in when they first arrived to prevent any lapses in the tunnel’s security.
But to exit the tunnels through the main shaft would mean popping his head up like a meercat in a potential storm of jackals. If Elska’s horde were over the hatch, he could easily be ripped apart by zombies within seconds and worse—breached the security of the tunnels for everyone else.
He packed very lightly for his missions to the surface. The only weapon he carried was a hunting knife to stab a zombie through the brain if it came to it. Other than that, he carried rope for binding, thick fabric to mask the mouth of his capture and firefights gloves to protect his hands when up close to the zombie’s gnashing teeth.
Loudermilk was swift as silk in navigating from his mortuary to the higher deck that led to the hatch. The tunnels were rarely quiet, but his heart was so rapidly beating he was sure it was echoing down every corridor.
The hatch was atop a long steel ladder. The ladder itself was secured inside a buffer room that was sealed with a comically large orange wheel-lock. Despite its frequent use, the wheel-lock was still relatively new and thankfully made very little noise when spun.
Loudermilk rotated the wheel like a ships captain until the door unclasped and he felt the pressure of the lock give. He quickly jammed his boot against the base of the door to keep it from swinging open—that would make a lot of noise.
Instead, he slipped inside the smallest crevice he could and pulled the door closed behind him. The metal ladder was cold and firm. Loudermilk grabbed the lowest rung and felt the grease of his palm sweat slip on the ladder as he began his climb.
The climb up the ladder took about three minutes before he reached the bubble top of the hatch. Similarly, it too had a large orange wheel to needed to spun to open. Loudermilk took the wheel with one hand and held the ladder with the other. The pressure released and he felt the harsh wind and cold air of the surface blast him directly in the face.
He closed his eyes and did his best to shut down all his senses other than hearing. Zombies weren’t usually sneaky in their movements. Loudermilk breathed in fresh air with sweet relief. He didn’t hear anything. The army of zombies must not have reached them yet.
His fingers clasped around the outer edges of the hatch and pushed it upward. A loud creak streaked into the silent nights air. Loudermilk pulled himself up and out of the hatch, feeling the soft press of grass against his boots—a nice change from the hard concrete he spent all day standing upon.
The moon was a foggy red—like it had rusted since the outbreak began. It lit the entire field around the hatch in a hazy crimson that made the trees look surreal and alien.
Usually, finding a specimen wasn’t hard. Most nights, a zombie or two were wandering in the field ripe for the capture. Loudermilk had only ever encounter four at time on his twilight trips to the surface. Tonight, he saw none.
His eyebrows formed a wicked ‘V’ shape. That was unusual, but not deal breaking. He would need to travel slightly further from the hatch. He had only ever had to travel up to a quarter mile from the safety of the hatch on any previous journey.
Loudermilk carefully closed the hatch and resealed it using the opposite-side wheel-lock. He heard the locking mechanism click into place and then turned his focus on finding a stray zombie as quickly and efficiently as possible.
The grass was overgrown and itchy against his skin. There were broken streaks of grass where zombies during the day had wandered by, shuffling their broken feet and creating a path through the long grass. Loudermilk followed a particularly dense path hoping to find a zombified traveler not far ahead.
It didn’t take long at all. No more than two minutes’ walk from the hatch into the tall grass and Loudermilk was greeted by an eerie silhouette shambling in the blood-red light.
“HELLO!” the zombie screamed back at him, “HELP ME.”
It was a mimic. Loudermilk felt the burn of sweat and his eyes. This was not ideal, but manageable if he was quick. The mimic zombie would draw attention of any others nearby.
Loudermilk abandoned stealth mode and lunged at the zombie.
“HELP!” it shrieked.
When Loudermilk was within striking distance the zombie snapped its mouth open and gnashed towards Loudermilk’s flesh. The doctor twisted sideways and parlayed the zombie with ease. The zombie shuffled forward and Loudermilk swiftly crept behind it and strangled its mouth and throat with the fabric. He knotted the fabric tight and—with the zombie defanged—began binding its arms to its side for good measure.
Loudermilk ensnared the zombie and then spun the rope around it to create a leash he would use to guide it back to the hatch. The entire ordeal was over in a quick forty-five seconds.
“Hello. Is someone there?”
Loudermilk turned, tugging the zombie along almost like a human shield. Another figured had stumbled out of the tall grass.
“Is someone there. I need help.”
Another mimic. Loudermilk didn’t like that at all. The creeping feeling of unseen assailants in the grass around him made his blood pump like geysers through his veins. The second zombie shuffled towards him but the doctor didn’t have the time to knife it through the brain.
He tugged the rope and led his zombie away, hoping no further guests would join him in the field—but it was folly.
Six undead emerged from the tall grass all at once. Loudermilk felt the synapses in his brain spin upside down like vertigo. He pushed forward, dragging the captured zombie until it’s rotting legs gave out and it fell to the ground.
Loudermilk dragged the undead corpses ten feet before the arrival of another five zombies caused him to drop his spoils and sprint back towards the hatch. His boots kicked up dirt in every direction as he scrambled towards the safety of the tunnels. The zombies were numerous, but they were slow.
The doctor screeched to a halt just shy of the hatch as he realized the scope of the calamity before him. Tens of thousands of zombies were entering the field from afar. Several of them were amongst a vanguard that had already reached where the hatch was located.
Loudermilk looked over his shoulder. No less than twelve zombies were behind him and another thirty were directly in front of him. He was surrounded.
The doctors breath was quick and shallow as his mind searched for another option. They were everywhere—just as Elska had told him. In all directions, the legion of zombies trembled forth, all seeming to be coming towards him.
Olek withdrew the hunting knife from his pack and steadied his nerves. He rushed towards the hatch. He disposed of the first zombie he encountered with a stern boot kick that sent it breaking backwards in a reverse backbend. It twisted into a spiral and bones snapped and flesh tore as it curtseyed to the ground in a splatter.
The next zombie took the business end of the blade through its right eye and Loudermilk felt the brain squish on the sharp edge. The zombie collapsed instantaneously to the ground. Loudermilk deflected back the third and fourth zombies with a kick and a hard shoulder, but the fifth zombie tripped him up and caused him to crash to the soft grass.
Three more undead were upon him. He uprooted the knife through the jawbone of one of the zombies only to feel the knife snap on impact when it hit bone.
It was an Ironmouth.
Loudermilk kick his boot into the snapping jaws of several more zombies before red hot pain tore through his forearm. The Ironmouth had dug its teeth into his flesh and pulled long, pink strings freely from his radius and ulna.
The zombie ripped deep into Loudermilks’ flesh until deep pools of crimson blood pooled from his body and onto the dead grass.
He wriggled sideways, not caring as another zombie chomped onto his calf, until he could leverage the concrete siding of the hatch to push himself up against. He kicked his boot wildly, not sure what or where he was kicking, until he created enough separation from the horde to stand up.
Loudermilk took his pack and swung it like a flail, knocking at least two zombies backward. With his good hand, Loudermilk begun spinning the orange wheel. He felt the pressure of the lock gasp like it was releasing a deep breath.
With the hatch open, Loudermilk pulled it open and dove inside with reckless abandon. His bloodied body barely caught hold of the ladder before he felt straight down to his certain death.
When his feet securely clung to the ladder he pulled the hatch back down and began feverishly spinning the wheel to lock it. He could hear the repeated pounding of the zombie bodies falling on top of the hatch. The metal clicking noise as the hatch locked back into place only brought minimal relief. The horde would congregate on the hatch now, ensuring they stayed above the tunnels longer.
He looked at his ripped open arm and leg. Blood leaked from it like a faucet drip. The trip to the surface had been for not.
Loudermilk carefully climbed his way back down the ladder. Blood splattered and contaminated every surface as he did so. His mind already began searching for a lie, for a story, for some explanation that he could spin. He had several hours until people began to wake up for the day.
As Loudermilk crept silently amongst the tunnels back to his laboratory he felt the first trickles of rage inside of him. The infection had taken hold. There would be no time to amputate to cut off the infection.
He fumbled—loudly—through the mortuary until he reached the ice chest were, he kept his most recent vaccine attempts. Without hesitating—he plunged the syringe into his leg and watched the icy blue liquid empty out into his veins.
Loudermilk felt a calmness wash over him. He slouched his back against the warmth of the incinerator and let out a single, singsong snort.
Olek Loudermilk had gotten his test subject after all. Himself.