In the months leading to my personal Armageddon, things started to go wrong for everyone. News services were tracking it, while the government initially limited itself to vague reassurances that there was a pandemic but that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) had things well in hand and the United States would be almost unaffected.
That argument started to fall apart when entire communities vanished overnight, but nobody knew what was happening, or how to combat the threat. CDC was virtually helpless, since there weren’t any zook bodies to speak of, and the people lying in wards to give blood samples didn’t have metamorphic plague. They were sepsis victims, and they all had severe scratches to prove it was a contact transmitted illness.
Between sepsis and the unique nature of the plague, CDC was climbing the wrong tree, and the federal government took the option of comforting us rather than keeping us informed. They may have prevented panic, who knows. But a lot of families died, mine among them, before anyone publicly acknowledged that more people were vanishing than catching sepsis.
Linda, Candy, and Mitch went shopping one afternoon. Linda had left me a note that she was running out to Safeway to stock up the pantry and thought she should pull the kids out of school until this situation resolved. I came home from a late racquetball game after work to find the house empty. “Linda!” I called as I came in. No car in the driveway, so I didn’t really expect an answer, but the house sounded dead when I walked in. Something didn’t set right, but I grabbed a beer, and started to get ready for a shower before I saw the note on the dining room table.
It was almost seven, and they’d been shopping at Safeway since one. That didn’t add up. I tried calling her cell phone, got her voicemail. I left a message, then abandoned the idea of a shower. I drove out to the nearest Safeway and found a mess. The place was taped off, paramedics running back and forth dealing with screaming trauma victims. It had gone on that way for several hours. I tried to go in to look for my family, but they wouldn’t let me slip by. It took days to sort out the mess and Linda’s car sat in that parking lot for the duration. When I finally had clearance to take the car home, it was like they’d never been in it.
I reported them as missing persons and the police were polite, taking my report, but after a couple days of me calling every hour or so while I wandered the streets looking for my family, a badly overworked administrator in the KPD told me that there were thousands of missing persons from the last few days, and no accounting for them. The morgues and forensics shops around the city were unattended, and I should watch the evening news.
* * *
I cleared my throat and barked at the voice recognition system. The steel grid slid up to reveal the front door. The house once had overgrown hedges in the pocket front yard, and a big chunk of glacial rock I used to hate mowing around. I burned the grass and the shrubbery while I was remodeling, brought in plastic sheeting and gravel instead. Not as pretty as a lawn, but better fields of fire. The windows are bulletproof glass, the siding is a heat-resistant plastic, tougher than a zook with a hammer, and the building is as fireproof as I can make it.
I unlocked the door and went in. It’s a tri-level home; big fancy living room up three steps on a landing to the left, then straight back to the kitchen table where we would eat in front of the sliding doors out into the back yard deck. A kitchen, then a formal dining room that we almost never used stretches to the left rear of the house, as you face the back-yard. There’s a laundry room and family room downstairs to the right, and four bedrooms upstairs above them. Wrought iron banisters line the stairs and the living room landing, designed to look like grape vines climbing the rails.
I dropped the Whopper on the dining table and went for a plate. I don’t like eating from the wrapper, maybe my last nod to the civilization Linda once enforced here.
After I rummaged around a bit, I came back with a cleanish plate, moved my burger and onion rings onto it and ate. When I’m alone, I eat mess hall style, so was finished in under five minutes. I picked up the burger wrappings, last night’s pizza box, this morning’s cereal bowl and my lunch plate, and spent a few minutes washing, sorting and organizing the kitchen.
After I lost Linda and the kids, I used to sit drunk on the deck and wait, singing stupid things like “I am my o-own stalking goat. Bet I’m a good one too,” to the tune of John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt. When the zooks came around to investigate, I used a homebuilt flamethrower to torch them, then stabbed them with an ornamental sword, inlaid with silver filigree. My daughter, Candy, used to love John Jacob. She was six when the zooks took her, which was nine months before the government got around to telling us we’d been in a battle for species survival for five years.
Metamorphic plague is a bloodborne pathogen, and it creates zooks, whose minds fade back to a primal state during the months the disease runs its course. They generally migrate to secluded areas, like Green River Park, and eat whatever they come across. Other humans they catch get bitten, and have some blood sucked, but aren’t usually eaten. The victims turn instead. Their body temperatures skyrocket, they become unreasonably fast and strong, and they bite people. During their short lives, they’re like living tanks. I mean, you have to blow one up, burn it, or lodge silver in its body to kill it. The internal organs and bones self-seal when they’re shot, and a zook, no matter how badly mangled, won’t stay broken for more than a few minutes.
According to the institutes, zooks have a hypertrophied awareness of intent. They seem to know about traps, bombs and grenades incoming, and poisons lying on the ground, so they’re gone when the bomb blows and won’t get near anything that might trap or poison them – unless they’re too busy trying to bite somebody. They know when a grenade is about to explode and leave its blast zone. They never, or almost never, get caught in a trap. They start moving out of the path of bullets – before the round clears the barrel, most times – so a hunter’s range is limited by the speed of the bullet, how well he guesses where the zook will be, and to a lesser extent, how many people are shooting at the zook.
Nobody knows how to cure the plague, and maybe there isn’t a cure, since it isn’t just a disease. But they’re allergic to silver, and will burn as long as the silver is in contact with their bodies. Once it’s lodged, the silver spreads through their systems along the new circulation pattern their bodies use. The experts at the Institute say that they circulate oxygen and nutrients a lot faster than just blood circulation can account for.
Which is why Gary’s slammer isn’t real effective against zooks. Silver-iron, AgFe, isn’t unreasonably expensive, and it will fire from a gauss gun just fine. But, the pellets are moving so fast they don’t lodge so even if he shoots silver, it doesn’t leave anything behind to catalyze.
I was standing at the sink, gripping the counter rim like death and staring out the window into the rocky backyard. We’ve learned so much. If we’d known a tenth of it five years ago – or even that there was something out there to learn about – Linda, Candy, and Mitch might still be alive. Years ago there were wooden privacy fences around all the back yards. I cleared out those, and a few hundred yards of huckleberry and salal underbrush, three years ago while I was improving my perimeters.
Used to be ten houses, a few dozen trees, and a whole lot of fence within two hundred yards of my place. Now there’s knee high grass and a half dozen trees. Those trees are mostly there to give zooks a false sense of security. With cameras all around them, if a zook decides to hide up one of my trees, I don’t even have to leave the house to fry him. Her. It.
Linda and the kids would be safe here.
Abruptly, I had to leave the house. I called our secretary, Alana Johansson, on my cell while I secured the grounds, and climbed into the Celica. “Hey, ‘Lana, I’m driving down to Gonzaga Institute to file a report. Could you tell Gary?”
“Gary’s right here, hon. You want to talk to him yourself?”
“Naw, I don’t think he really wants to talk to me, right now.”
“We were arguing about the slammer again. We got jumped by six zooks, and I shot him. Take your pick.”
“You think I should order that railgun?”
“I think we’re partners, and I’d like his blessing before I gift him with a 30 K piece he doesn’t want. Just tell Gary I’ll file the report.”
“Gary says he’s writing it up right now. Sure you want to drive all the way into Tacoma?”
“Why not? Beautiful day. No traffic to speak of. You want to come along?”
“I don’t know, let me see if my busy schedule … I think I can make time.”
“I’m in the Celica, so we’ll be staying on the interstate. Suits?” I-5 is walled, patrolled, and still maintained. It will be decades, at least, before anybody needs another north-south corridor through the Seattle area again.
“You know I think that little thing’s cute as a bug. I’ll bring out the shoehorn when you pull up.” Alana is ten years younger than I am, my height, and fifty pounds lighter. If I can get into it, she can rattle around and do calisthenics in it, so she wasn’t likely to need any shoehorn.
I pulled out of the driveway, and hit the electronic key. The house chirped and flashed the perimeter lights at me as I drove off.