“Welcome back,” Thomas said, grasping Leza with both hands when she returned with her usual zombie groupies. “We heard from our people at David’s Pump Brigade, but how was Martin’s group? Did everything go well?”
“I’ll say! Aside from an awkward introduction, the training went well. Your girls were wonderful, proving my contention about women being naturals at this. Martin’s women volunteers were great as well. While the men were nervous, the women giggled like young girls at a sleepover instead of sleeping with the undead. As a result, the local zombies were captivated. The women kept them busy, never giving them time to move out of sight. If your people can keep this up, the future looks bright. As everyone’s fears grow more distant, the process becomes simpler each time. It’s still risky. We’ll eventually suffer a fiasco, but hopefully as we build a reputation for success, it will alleviate any damage.”
“I’m curious,” Thomas asked. “Were the zombie’s yours or theirs?”
She giggled. “Theirs. Mine fended for themselves nearby, instructed not to bother the humans while we were busy. With Cynthia acting as my go between, they’re getting easier to manage. She’s got a real knack for working with them.”
“Well, in case you haven’t heard yet, the boy’s team did well at the Pump Brigade. David’s group were already believers. They were ready to make concessions as soon as our team arrived. The training went off without a hitch and they’re excited.”
Anderson stepped forward, having held back during the preliminaries. He swallowed but looked her in the eyes, though he couldn’t keep his hands from fidgeting. “Everyone in the Pump Brigade wants me to apologize for their accidentally shooting you, as do I. We thought we were doing the right thing.”
Leza waved his concern off, rubbing her chest as she did. “There are only so many times you can atone for the same incident before it becomes annoying. You blundered in without understanding what was happening. I understand it, although when it happened, I wasn’t feeling terribly forgiving. If Thomas’ people hadn’t acted quickly to appease my zombies, none of us would have survived the bloodbath. You owe more to them than you do me. Still, if they’d balked over my approach, I might have avoided them altogether.”
“That’s why we were relieved when you suggested your dual strategy,” Thomas said. “With you supporting the women working with Martin Spenser’s Metalsmiths, while the men handled David’s, everyone felt more at ease.”
“I realized they felt skittish around me, and we needed every person working together. It was the natural solution. What’s more, the fact we averted a potential disaster proves my system works while reinforcing the dangers involved. I hope it prevents further troubles down the road as word spreads.”
“Believe me,” Anderson said. “As the message circulates, no one will second guess you again. With your returning from the dead, and the rumors of your being half-zombie, you’ve reached demigod status.”
“We’ve been busy, too,” Thomas said, trying to get off the unpleasant topic. “Fredrick has some additional news for you.”
Fredrick stepped forward, grinning like a little boy allowed to stay up late for the first time.
“We’ve identified the active element in your bone marrow. As expected, it changes how the zombie cells interact with the normal human cells. They increase cellular oxygen efficiency by decreasing the cellular activity, putting their entire bodies into a low-power mode. That’s why zombies are immune to common infections and diseases. Their cells respond too slowly, just as their blood pumps too slowly for them to bleed out as easily. Your marrow prevents those cells from activating until the oxygen level drops to dangerous levels. It seems the entire zombie apocalypse was the result of a beneficial genetic adaptation run amuck. With your cells, it’s likely humans will live longer and be more robust.”
“That’s terrific, but what does it mean? I doubt you’re telling me just to impress me with scientific trivia.”
“No, there’s more. I’ve grown your marrow cells—which I’ve named Lezarium in your honor—in a test tube. We’ve generated enough to begin testing. I tested them on a few newborn rabbits. Not only were they fine, but after I exposed them to the zombie infection, they resisted it. With a bit of trepidation, I took it a step further by killing one of the test cases. It recovered a few minutes later, no worse for the wear. As you suggested, I gave it a mild shock to boost its heartbeat out of its low-power state. Not only are they immune to the zombie plague, they’re essentially impervious to death.”
“So you’re suggesting you can apply this to humans?”
“Don’t get ahead of me. I’m enjoying my moment of glory, as should you. You deserve the credit for this. While you were gone, I produced enough cells to inoculate a test subject, Rebecca. Since women are better at this, we decided to focus on females. Normally, bone marrow is type sensitive, just like blood is, however you’re a universal donor. She’s fine, and I’m convinced she’ll recuperate—if and when she’s ever killed—assuming it’s not anything too severe. We now have a working human inoculation! Rebecca is now working with zombies, like you, without fear of being attacked! That means the training process is dramatically less dangerous.”
“Except, with the limited supply of marrow you can extract, you can hardly inoculate everyone.”
“We’re limited, but not enough to halt our progress. Each person we treat can donate enough to inoculate several others, with little chance of compromising their immune system or weakening their bones. If needed, each can donate enough for three full inoculations in addition to what we can make in the lab, which is a slower process. That means we can extend the inoculation effort beyond you. I’ll put out a call for anyone with scientific experience to work in the lab. If no one is qualified, I can train whoever is available, just as I did with Helen. Each person will travel between existing communities with a cadre of zombies, adopting any strays along the way, making the countryside safer. They can train someone to process the cells, treat someone else and educate the community on how to manage their zombies. That will allow beleaguered communities to regrow and develop specialties which they can trade with surrounding communities, helping everyone. Once that’s accomplished, the treated person can move on, along with whoever treated them. With my ability to grow your cells in a lab, that will leave enough samples for additional treatments in their absence.
“This approach is slow, operating on a train-one, treat-one basis, but it’ll tie the surviving communities together, allowing us to pool utilities and resources. We can institute a communal rule of law, curtailing the local abuses of power most regions suffer from.”
“What about accidental contagions?” Leza asked. “Say if someone is bitten by their local zombies. Can your inoculation be applied after the fact?”
“Potentially, if given early enough, but inoculations aren’t the same as antidotes. Even if they could, each community will only possess a limited supply. Once their local volunteer disappears, they’ll only have a couple doses left. They can treat one more person to help stockpile supplies, donating more marrow, while leaving the extra dose for emergencies. If we use children to manage the zombies, if they get infected, we can treat them with smaller dosages. I wouldn’t use children for the training program, but using them more with interactions with the zombies will allow us to train more while preserving our inoculation stock. In short, by having the older kids take over the daily care of the local zombies will allow us to inoculate a few more, so they won’t die if accidentally contaminated.”
“Sounds like you have this all planned out. Does that mean I don’t need to skip town? Maybe I can laze around, eating bon-bons and gossiping with my zombie girlfriends?”
“You wish,” Thomas chuckled. “You’ve become a public relations figurehead. We’re going to blanket the airways with what you’ve accomplished. Normally, there aren’t enough people for many to monitor the airwaves, given how few people have radios or electricity. However, this is big enough news, if we broadcast using long-range ham radios, anyone receiving it will pass it on. As word spreads, communities will get in touch, linking everyone together. As more people devote the time to it, more will learn about your technique. This will pave the way for us to enter each community, ensuring they’re enthused to see us.”
“You realize I’m more comfortable sleeping on the ground with my zombie homies. You’re going to be the death of me, forcing me to become civilized again.”
“You can’t fool me. We’re talking about saving humanity and improving the lives of millions of zombies. You claim they prefer structure. By getting them to work together, everyone benefits.”
“Until the humans decide they don’t need those who’ve threatened them for so many years,” she countered.
“There is that,” he admitted, “though humanity will remain the minority for some time. Besides, I’ve watched the zombies under you. With the extra care and attention, they blossom. They can become productive members of society. If Fredrick refines his treatments, preventing the brain damage they suffer in the minutes after death, they should be even more functional.”
“Yeah, but I’m afraid of their being cast aside as an inferior species. History is full of such responses. The only way to prevent that is keeping humans in the minority, not giving them the opportunity to abuse others. With the undead in the majority, the humans will have difficulty abusing their position.”
“I don’t underestimate the ability of anyone to be an ass,” Jefferson said with a sneer. “I’ve seen it in spades over the years. Like we’ve always done, we have to fight one injustice at a time, as they occur. Nothing will halt the abuse of minorities other than individuals standing up for themselves and those more unpopular, always a tall order. But by the same measure, we can’t stop advancing due to fear of what might go wrong. Since the zombie apocalypse began, we’ve lost a tremendous amount of technology. The death rate of both humans and zombies has been atrocious, while everyone’s quality of life is horrendous. There’s no reason to pretend things are working. You might be safe with your people, but it’s an uncomfortable existence.”
“I’ll grant you that. We can definitely improve on where we are. So what’s next? According to you, I’m supposed to travel the country, but I can only donate enough marrow to save two others.” Leza paused, rubbing her chin. “You know, you mentioned treating children instead of adults. If we did, we could potentially inoculate twice as many. Given their ability to survive death and the expansion of further inoculations with each one we treat, we’re talking exponential growth.”
Fredrick shook his head. “If you treat children, you’ll spend longer training and monitoring them. With adults, they’ll be more self-sufficient and able to help others. What’s more, we can’t remove children’s bone marrow without risking complications later. I think a combination approach is best. By treating the adults who’ll spread the treatment, and then utilizing the older children, we can train a new generation of long-living humans who’ll accomplish amazing things during their expanded lifespans.”
“Either way we approach it,” Thomas said, “we stand to change our entire world with these advances. It’ll take hundreds of years to erase the losses of the past decade, but we can begin the long climb back. Hopefully, we can do a better job than we did before; heaping less abuse on others, wasting fewer resources and with less pollution. With less waste, we can recover and come out of this stronger than we were before.”
“Let’s not count our chickens before they’ve died,” Leza said, smiling. “Let’s start organizing the initial treatments and begin planning where we’ll spread our message. It sounds like my original plans were too conservative, but it’ll still be hard work.”
Leza stopped at the door, still not comfortable with the feel of human habitations. Knocking, Fredrick turned, smiling broadly. He was standing over Cynthia, who seemed more comfortable within the Collective’s habitat than Leza, while Helen took notes.
“Ah, I’m glad you got my message.” Fredrick and Helen left Cynthia on the gurney, approaching Leza while motioning her in. “I’ve got terrific news, even better than before.”
“Better than saving the human race and benefitting zombies across the globe? This I gotta hear!”
“Please, come in,” Fredrick said, motioning her forward, putting down his papers.
“I’ve got to admit, this is gonna knock your socks off,” Helen said.
“The earlier news was so phenomenal; I can’t guess what has you so excited. What’s the big announcement? You booked me on a flight to San Diego to host a conference?”
Fredrick chuckled while the others grinned. Even Cynthia appeared to crack a smile, a rare appearance for zombies, even one as advanced as her.
“Rather than tell you myself, I’d prefer someone else deliver this important news.”
“Go on, Helen, this is getting old.”
Fredrick ignored his promise of letting her speak first, jumping ahead. “As you know, I developed a working human vaccine which prevents humans from turning into zombies while benefitting from the zombie cells.”
Tiring of this game, Leza nodded.
“Well, our discussion got me thinking, and I decided to try a few things.”
“And?” Leza prompted, wanting to be back in the woods with her followers. Humans always wanted to talk everything to death. As interesting as speaking to someone who understood her was, sometimes they could be exasperating.
“And I now talk,” a deep feminine voice said from beside her. Spinning, Leza glared at Cynthia, who was clearly grinning.
Instead of answering, Cynthia shrugged, indicating Fredrick again. Frustrated by her expectations of continuing miracles, she turned on the two scientists. “All right, what the hell is going on?”
“As I said, our conversation got me thinking. If giving your heart a shock got it beating at a normal rate, I wondered what treating your zombie friends would do.”
“He had me select a subject,” Helen said. “I picked Cynthia, who’s been working with us as a go-between with the humans and your zombies. Not only is she a hybrid case, but she’s the only one we can safely work with, without your presence.”
“When I used the defibrillator on her, the results were immediate,” Fredrick continued. “Her heart sped up, she perked up and her eyes lost that unfocused look which marks zombies everywhere. Their slow reactions aren’t the result of brain damage. Instead, the zombie plague put them into a permanent low-power mode where their bodies can survive with minimal requirements. They require almost no food other than fresh blood and are immune to infections and illnesses, while still fully functional when needed.”
“Although they move fast when necessary, it consumes an inordinate amount of energy.” Helen’s excitement over their latest discovery was almost as palpable as Fredrick’s. “That’s what produced the whole apocalypse. They need so much they grew desperate and attacked any creature they encountered—including each other.”