Monsters and Machines

NOMMED FOR MOVELLA OF THE YEAR 2017

Nabdale is the most boring town in England. It’s muddy, it’s rainy, it’s full of cabbages, and all its residents can talk about is the lights in the sky.

On Sunday night, the lights come down, and barely anyone notices. The few who take notice have three days before they’re silenced. First comes the headache. Then, the nightmares begin. And after that, there’s no waking up.

As a very crazy, very real conspiracy theory takes Nabdale by storm, the residents are forced to push the boundaries of what they believe, and what they’ll do to survive. They’ll have to watch their loved ones suffer; they’ll have to abandon their normal lives, and everything they thought they knew about humanity. They’ll have to die. They’ll have to kill. Sickness and hysteria spread like wildfire, and the plot only gets stupider. It’s the end of the world, and they’re either too early, or too late, to stop it. But that doesn’t mean they’re not going to try.

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13. The Word Zombie

“We can’t… We’re not going to hide you for long. Do you understand that?”

Silently, Leah nodded. The salty clog in her throat had thickened her voice into syrup, and the ambulance floor was freezing cold underneath her bare legs. She pulled the grey blanket tighter around her shoulders, squeezing her eyes shut to fend off the painfully white light, and wondered if this scratchy fabric, this clamminess on her bare arms and freezing floor on her bare legs, this chemical light, this clinical smell, were going to be among the bits of this night she’d remember forever. Then again, it was barely still night-time; the sky was turning pink on the horizon, out of the town’s limits, and the droplets of rain on the windscreen were glimmering gold. They’d been sitting here, parked at the side of this random goddamned field, for what felt like an age. She was the one who’d driven them there; they’d come out to drag her into the back, but she’d torn herself away, jumped into the front and hurtled off the kerb towards God-knew where, refusing to look back at the mess they’d left behind on the road. Nope. Nope.

It was strange, really, how they were only reacting because they’d lost their friend. They were barely even in shock. They’d all seen a headless body before- at the scene of a freak theme park accident seven years ago. They’d seen more blood than that before- masses more. In fact, what they’d just seen wasn’t even an honourable mention in their most-horrendous-accidents list.

Yeah, George was dead. She was starting to feel it now. It hadn’t hit her, though- it’d just trickled in, bit by bit. Those three words had been screaming at her and banging on her double-glazed layer of shock ever since George had let her roll up his sleeve, but they’d been muffled. Now, the glass was slowly starting to crack. She could hear those words more clearly. She could hear Ruth, too, who was sitting on the stretcher with her knees hugged to her chest, breathing hard. Isaac had given up on comforting her twenty minutes ago.

“I wonder…” Isaac muttered. “I wonder what the- the news is saying about this.”

“Like it matters!” Ruth squeaked. “Ross just… Ross just-”

“Nothing,” Leah interrupted. “People have been dying from this shit all week. We check the news every morning. They just say vague shit about an unexplained death or an- an investigation.”

“They can’t keep covering this up,” Isaac murmured.

Leah laughed scratchily at the back of her throat. “Yeah,” she said, wiping her hand across her forehead. “They can.”

“Not from us,” Ruth piped up.

“Yeah,” Isaac said. “If they’re staying quiet cause they don’t wanna cause a panic, fine. It’s duplicitous crud, but fine. Whatever. What I wanna know is why the hell nobody’s come to help us.”

“What do you mean?” Leah said. “Who’s gonna help us?”

“The goddamned army!” Isaac said. “Why don’t they send the army in to smoke these undead sods?”

“They don’t know what’s going on yet.” Leah sighed. “The hospital’s hiding Robert. The police are hiding Harriet.”

“What about Eric?”

Leah looked over at Ruth, who was biting her lip, strands of her short ginger hair sticking to her face. Ruth, Isaac and Ross had all been with her when they’d been called out to Eric. Unlike her, those three had been inside when he’d woken up.

Ruth cleared her throat. “What about Eric?” She repeated. “Who the hell would cover for Eric? We were never told to do anything. Or say anything. Shouldn’t we’ve been visited by the motherfucking Men in Black by now?”

“Nobody…” Leah coked on a sob. She liked this conversation. It distracted her from Ross. And George. Not real. Not real. Not real. “Nobody knew what was happening then. Did they?”

“They should’ve.”

“Yeah, but they didn’t, Ruth, did they?” Isaac said. “How were they supposed to get their skates on and shut us up, if they didn’t even know what they were dealing with yet?”

“We never even reported back,” Leah murmured. “Did we?”

“No.” Ruth pulled her hair in front of her face again. “We just said he’d been revived and then we got called out.”

“To who?”

There was silence for a couple of minutes. Then, Isaac murmured, “To that high school kid with the chair stuck on his head.”

Ruth smirked. “That’s right.”

Leah smiled too, tiredly. “Mm. Take me back to then.”

“Yeah.” Isaac sighed. “Tell you what, I’d even take a goddamn bad call right now. Just one that made sense.”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah.”

There was silence in the back of the ambulance for a minute, maybe two. Leah picked at a loose piece of skin on her thumb, swearing as it ripped and started to bleed. The pain was nothing, but she still began to cry, pressing her fist into the floor and feeling the blood sticking to her palm. Oh, god; George wasn’t just dead. She’d killed him. It was like a fucking nightmare- the worst fucking nightmare she’d ever had. Ever. She’d seen stabbings before. They were rare in Nabdale, but they happened. But she’d never imagined it felt like… like… that. Harriet’s skull had rotted, sure, which was why her head had fucking exploded instead of denting a little, and George had softened, too; the flesh she’d sunk the knife into had been dough-soft and she’d barely even felt herself doing it. Not that it mattered. It was still going to fucking haunt her for the rest of her life. On an impulse, she wrung both hands together and touched her arms, pulling them out in front of her to check for any black blood. There wasn’t a smear of it on her, and besides, if she had touched it, she’d be able to feel it. Right? She hoped so. But her life wasn’t the one on her mind. It was George’s. She hadn’t left him behind on the road, black-crusted and grey-dusted and cold and dead. No. She’d left him behind back in their bedroom, when she’d turned her back on him as he choked out his last feeble scraps. Leah’s eyes filled with hot tears that spilled over her cheeks and she started to choke out sobs, louder than before. The first had been deliberate. The second was pulled out with it. The third and fourth and fifth and sixth- now, those she couldn’t control. She was crying. For the first time since her husband had died nine fucking hours ago, she was crying, and it didn’t feel wrong. It didn’t feel right either. It just felt necessary. She kept going. Ruth and Isaac were looking at her, but she didn’t care.

Ruth got up and walked over to her, sitting next to her and putting a hand on her shoulder. Her gaze was sympathetic. This girl was Leah’s trainee, no more than twenty-one or twenty-two, a baby-faced nervous overemotional wreck whenever the job showed her something she didn’t want to see. Leah liked her, but she didn’t want her comfort. She pressed both fists into her eye-sockets and held her breath till the sobs stopped shaking her. She swallowed salt and let her breath out, slowly. In control. In control.

“I- I’m sorry.” Leah laughed. Or at least tried to.

“It’s okay.” Ruth said. “You should be allowed to-”

“No, I shouldn’t. Crying’s selfish bullshit. I’m sorry. Look, we’ve all…” Her voice wobbled. “We’ve all lost someone tonight. I just… I think we need to agree to stay strong. If we stay in here, crying in this fucking ambulance, till the police catch us and drag us off, we’ll have lost. We’re some of the few people who know what’s happening, and we can’t give up.”

“We’re not the only people who know.”

Leah looked up at Isaac. So did Ruth. “Wh- What?”

“This guy,” Isaac said. “This blogger online. He knows everything. Everything. And he’s been writing blogs about it for months. He knows… He knows more than anyone should know. And he’s got half a million followers. And he’s told the world what’s happening here.”

“He’s told the world?”

“Yeah. And- And I reckon he might just have saved a lot of people.”

“You read this blog?” Ruth got up.

“Uh… yeah- no. No, not especially… I mean, the guy’s a lunatic. He-”

“What’s his name?” Leah interrupted.

“Huh?” Isaac’s expression cleared. “Oh. Nobody knows. He’s kept himself a secret.”

“Why? Does he fucking think he’s Batman?”

“I think it’s because he’s sharing stuff that could get him fired. Or arrested.” Isaac sighed, pulling his phone out of his pocket and turning it over and over in his hand. “Or… as he puts it, carried off by the Men in Black.”

Leah laughed drily. “What, so he’s just another fucking conspiracy lunatic?”

Isaac nodded.

“What does he know?”

Isaac sighed. “Like I said… everything.”

“Amazing. So he works at the hospital.”

Isaac shrugged. “Maybe. But I thought he was an investigator of some kind.”

“Oh.” Leah thought for a second. “Yeah. No. That makes sense. So… What? He’s either some highly-skilled double agent, or some clueless bum breaking his oath of confidentiality?”

Isaac nodded. “I guess so.”

“Either way. What a fucking dick.”

“Guys!” Ruth burst out. She was scowling down at her knees. Ruth had a bad habit of acting like a spoilt child.

“What?” Isaac and Leah both looked at her.

“What’s the point of all this spitballing?” Ruth said. “We just… We just watched- I’m sorry, Leah. But I’m using shock as an excuse. Fuck it. We just watched George rip Ross’ fucking head off, and then you stab him through the chest. Like any of these fucking threads still matter! I mean…” She trailed off. “Like fuck it matters what the news is saying. Like fuck this arsehole’s blog matters. We can waste time sitting here, crying and- and talking, or we can…”

There was a silence.

“What?” Leah said. “We can what? What can we do?”

“I dunno.” Ruth muttered. “Just something useful.”

“Something-”

“Look, the fact is, whatever the cause, whatever we believe about the fucking cover-up… People are dying.” Ruth wrung her hands. “We should try to help, don’t you think?”

“How can we help?” Isaac said. “We don’t understand-”

“We don’t need to understand.” Ruth sighed. “What if… We… I don’t know.”

“Are you suggesting we go in guns blazing and murder everyone who gets back to their feet?” Leah said.

Ruth stuttered. “N… N-no? I don’t know. Just… is there really nothing we can do? At all? I mean, we’re medics!”

“We can’t save anyone from this.” Leah put her hand on Ruth’s shoulder, but Ruth shrugged her off. “We can’t-”

“I’m not on about the sickness,” Ruth interrupted. “I’m not on about saving people from dying. I’m on about saving people from getting infected in the first place.”

There was a long pause. Leah’s heart was hammering in her mouth. She liked this conversation- again, because it distracted her from what’d happened the previous night. The mess on her finger was still throbbing, but she could ignore it now.

“I think…” Leah looked down at her hands before looking back up at Isaac. “I think she’s right, you know.”

“About?” Isaac muttered.

“About trying to help.”

“But-”

“I know.” Leah looked at Ruth. “You are on about dealing with the… the undead people, aren’t you?”

Ruth scoffed. “The undead? Are you mad?”

“As long as we don’t say the word zombie, we don’t sound as mental.” Leah lied. “But they are undead. They have no brains. There’s no life in them… just their bodies. I know- I know that for certain. So if you really want to help deal with this…” Leah sighed and clenched her fist, remembering silencing George out in the gutter. She didn’t remember the guilt. She only remembered the satisfaction, bubbling in her like a drug. George had been long gone when she’d shoved that knife into his heart. “We do have to do to them what was done to George. And- and Harriet. You understand that?”

Ruth stayed silent for a second, her eyes wide. Then, she nodded.

“Mm. I- I think so.”

Leah smiled tiredly. “This is weird,” she said.

“What do you mean?” Isaac asked.

“Well, by this point in every zombie film, someone’s already yelled ‘This is crazy!’ and left.”

“Well.” Isaac gritted his teeth. “This is crazy. Isn’t it? And we’re hiding a double murderer.”

“But?”

“But…” Isaac sighed. “The guy who tries to run is always the first one to die.”

Leah grinned. “Right you are, Isaac.”

Leah liked the idea of helping people. It distracted her. Again- it distracted her. Her life was all about distractions now, but working systems didn’t need fixing, did they? Nah. She was fine. She could hold herself together for now, then let herself fall apart when she had no strength left. She could do it. She could. Now was the time to be strong. She didn’t want to look back on this moment and wish she’d done anything differently, so she shoved down that boiling grief and whispering wisps of guilt, climbed out of the ambulance, and walked around to the driver’s side.

“Belt up.” She said.

“Wait.” Isaac paused. “I’m sorry. I must be missing something.”

Leah looked into the back. “What do you mean?”

“Well, I mean… I heard the pep talk. It was a pretty good pep talk, actually. And I know we agreed to save the town from flesh-eating monsters, and I’m all down for that. That sounds good to me.”

“They don’t eat flesh.”

Isaac blinked. “No. No, you’re right. They just rip people up like paper dolls.”

“So what’s not to get?”

“Well…” Isaac said. “What are we actually going to… do?”

Leah and Ruth looked at him. There was a long pause.

“Shit. You’re right.” Leah muttered.

“How do we know where to go?” Ruth added. “We’ve just… we’ve just got a radio. And they won’t send calls to us.”

“Why not?”

“Because as far as they’re concerned, we’re still out on a call. Unless someone’s already found the- the- the mess, in which case we’re buggerfucked. Or they’ll think we’re missing.”

“They’ll be looking for the ambulance already,” Leah pointed out. “They’ll think we’ve gone rogue or some shit.”

“We have, haven’t we?” Isaac said quietly. Leah smiled.

“Come on. Screw it.” Leah said. “Let’s just do what we can.”

“Okay.”

“Okay.” Ruth paused for a second. “Uh… L-Leah?”

Leah started the engine and pulled out into the quiet country road they’d been parked on, checking for traffic she knew wasn’t going to be there.

 “Yeah?” She said, starting to drive back towards the town.

“Uh… H-How do you… kill…” Ruth’s voice trailed off. Leah could hear the rustling of a packet in the back, and Ruth swallowed before continuing. “How do you… kill one?”

Leah looked at her, noticing she’d just put a tray of pills back into her pocket. “You… saw me. Doing it. Back at the-”

“No. I know.” Ruth sighed, biting her lip. She looked like she was in pain. “I just… mean… how. How- how… do you cope with having done it?”

Leah paused. “Who said I’m coping?”

“Oh.” Ruth audibly sighed. “That’s okay then.”

Suddenly, someone in the back of the ambulance coughed, followed by a soft wet splattering sound. “Leah!” Isaac yelled.

There was a cry and a thump and Leah swore, wrenching the wheel to one side and jerking the ambulance back over to the side of the road. She slammed on the breaks and turned to see Ruth, who’d undone her seatbelt and been thrown to the ground by the sudden stop. She was lying in a black puddle, sluggishly blinking as she stared up at the ceiling. She was laughing to herself.

“Ruth!” Leah shouted, undoing her seatbelt and leaning over. “The fuck? Are you-”

“Oh-oh-oh…” Ruth sighed, choked on a sob, and started to laugh again. Black dots appeared on her cheeks at each burst of laughter. “Oh, yeah.”

“She is.” Isaac wiped his eyes.

“Eric?” Leah said.

“Eric.”

Ruth brushed her hair back from her face to reveal the black pitted scar choking the side of her neck. The smell hit Leah like a gale-force wind and she retched, nearly vomiting.

“Ruth! Ruth, I swear to… you fucking… you fucking…” Leah was struggling to keep up. “Why the fuck didn’t you tell anyone?”

“Oh. Oh… I… did…” Ruth choked again. “I did. Just not you.”

Isaac went to undo his seatbelt. Leah pointed at him. “Don’t!”

“What?”

“Isaac, don’t!” Leah wasn’t sobbing. “Don’t… don’t touch her.”

“But-”

“You touch her, you die.” Leah blinked, and saw Ruth’s eyes had closed. “No. No, no no no! FUCK!”

“Still alive.” Ruth whispered.

Leah sighed. “Fuck, Ruth!”

“Always…. leave ‘em laughing. Fuck this… alien… zombie… bullshit.”

“Leah?” Isaac said, nervously hugging his knees to his chest. “Leah? You… you’d better get around here.”

Leah looked at him. “What?”

“You need to- I don’t think I can do it. Kill her. I won’t be-”

“You… know… you…” Ruth sighed, propping herself up on her elbows. She looked at the black smears all up her arm with a sort of frustrated fascination. “You… have… to… deal… with… me. No humanity left, rem… ember? No… me…”

“Ruth, for fuck’s sake. No!” Leah said. Ruth was dead. Leah watched her close her eyes and slowly deflater her chest. She caught Isaac’s eye and frowned, popping open the driver’s side door, jumping out and running around to the back.

“Isaac, for f- for fuck’s sake!” She choked as she tore the ambulance doors open. Isaac jumped out to stand with her on the road, so Leah climbed into the back and stood over Ruth’s body.

“What?” Isaac whined.

“You don’t fucking bring up the- the-”

“What, the fact she needs to be killed?” Isaac interrupted. “Grow up, Leah! She was dying!”

“You don’t- fucking- TELL her that!”

“She KNEW that!”

“That’s not the fucking point! Do you remember anything the fucking training taught you?”

“About what?”

“About talking to dying people!” Leah was fed up with talking in riddles. “God damn it! You tell them they’re going to be fine till they can’t hear you any more! How hard is that?”

“We were JUST talking about killing the zombies!” Isaac said. “There was nothing left to hide from her! She said-”

“That’s NOT the POINT!” Leah yelled, silencing Isaac. She didn’t know why she was shouting; why the idea of Ruth dying without reassurance was hurting her so much. Maybe it was because it was exactly what she’d done to George, and that was the part she regretted more than anything else.

“What is the point, Leah?” Isaac broke the silence, softening his voice in reaction to the single tear Leah let fall down her cheek.

“The point is,” Leah said. “We’d better learn to treat them like humans till there’s not a scrap of human left.”

She looked down at Ruth again, trying not to choke on the smell. “My god-”

Ruth opened her eyes. They barely shone at all in the clinical white light of the back of the ambulance; they were more like glass orbs, swimming with white smoke. Her pupils had vanished. Leah jumped backwards, nearly falling out of the back of the ambulance, and then whispered to Isaac as the monster pulled Ruth’s body to its feet.

“The knife.”

Isaac paused. “The knife?”

“YES, the knife, you dopey piece of shit!”

“We- I mean, you, left it in George.”

Leah closed her eyes and swore. “Shit. You’re right.”

“What do we use?”

“Uh…” Isaac paused. Then, he growled with anger and pressed something into her hand from behind. Leah looked at it.

“This is a fucking biro.” She brandished it, keeping one eye on Ruth. That mouth, pressed so tight shut it was pulling her jaw into a different shape- that face, so coated in black droplets it barely even looked human. It wasn’t Ruth. No.

“No shit it’s a biro.”

“How the fuck am I supposed to kill a monster with a fucking biro, Isaac?”

“Well, you’d better take the cap off first.”

Leah swore and yanked the cap off the biro, looking back at Isaac to throw it at him. He’d taken another step back. What a bastard. She turned back to what was left of Ruth, wondering what it was going to feel like when she got her head ripped from her shoulders. Probably not a lot.

“Why is she so still?”

“Like fuck I know. Just do it.”

Leah licked her lips.

“Come on, Leah,” she heard Isaac mutter. “Show us how the fuck you treat things that aren’t human.”

Anger bubbled through Leah and she swore, stepping forwards and pausing. Ruth’s stillness shattered, and Leah yelled and ducked, burying the knife up to her fist in Ruth’s chest. She jumped back as the body crumpled to the ground, wiping her hands, even though she knew she hadn’t gotten any blood on her.

Isaac retched behind her. Leah turned and jumped out of the back of the ambulance, eyeballing him. He was tall for a guy, and she was tiny for a woman, but she didn’t care.

“Isaac, you bag of dicks.”

“What did I do?”

“There was no need for that!”

“No need for what?”

Leah sighed and, in an effort to make sense of her emotions, slapped Isaac across the face.

“God damn it, I’m sorry,” she said as he swore and rubbed his cheek.

“What the fuck was that for?”

“For saying all that shit to poor Ruth. She deserved better.”

“What, than dying on the ground in a puddle of her own filth?”

Leah punched Isaac across the jaw, a pang of regret trickling through her as he stumbled back and dropped to his knees. It felt good. She was in charge, even though she was this tiny blonde woman in pyjamas, a blanket and borrowed boots, and he was a five-foot-ten heavyset medic. She’d always hated that dickhead. She didn’t know why he’d ever chosen to be a medic. He didn’t have a sensitive bone in his body.

DON’T disrespect the patients!” Leah said. “They NEED us, and you treat them like shit! If it was up to me I’d have fired you a long time ago.”

Ross spat black onto the tarmac, looking up at Leah as her heart sunk another mile.

“It wasn’t up to you,” he growled, wiping away the smear. “It was up to Ross, and now he’s dead. And now Ruth’s dead too. And now…” He choked, and Leah jumped back as he vomited more black onto the ground.

“Not you too,” she murmured.

“Me too.” Isaac glared up at her. “So… is this the mo… ment… Is this the moment you tell me I’m going to die like I did to Ruth? Huh? Give me a taste of my own medicine? Coz I’m gonna be honest. Noth… ing could taste as… bad as this… fucking… stuff.” He licked his lips grey. “I’ll go first. I’m going to die. I don’t need life sugar-coating for me.”

“God damn it, why did none of you fucking tell me this?” Leah sobbed with anger. 

“We… didn’t… know. We didn’t know it was anything… wrong.”

“It’s SO wrong!”

“We know. Ruth… her neck. Me… Just got a tiny smidge on my finger. Ross got it too.” Isaac grinned up at her, gritting his grey-stained teeth. “He’d have died anyway if your husband hadn’t ripped his head off.”

“That WASN’T my HUSBAND!” Leah spat. “That was a FUCKING zombie!”

“Don’t use the z word.” Isaac dug two fingers into the pocket of his uniform and pulled out another biro. He held it out to her, and Leah gingerly took it. “Go… on. Show us what a man’s… made of… woman.”

Leah scowled with anger, her heart hammering in her ears. She was in deep. Knee-deep. Waist-deep. She was drowning. She stood on the road, shivering in the freezing winter morning, and waited for Isaac to choke out his last defiant breath. She waited. And she waited. But he just kept on breathing.

She couldn’t bear to watch him suffer; this fucker should have been the easiest to kill, but somehow, he was the hardest. Because he lasted the longest. Because he clung on the most desperately. And Leah wanted to get it the fuck over with and leave this place and this cold and this stink behind. It was pathetic- when Ruth had died, he’d goaded the two of them for wanting comfort. And now, his eyes were begging for it more than ever before. This feeling, bubbling in her blood and making it hotter, could even have been satisfaction.

“Everything’s going to be fine,” Leah whispered after Isaac had finally shut up. Then, before he’d even woken up, she bent over him and pushed the biro point-first into his chest.

She didn’t even feel herself doing it.

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