Timeline: Occurs less than a week after arrival.
“Tell the general we can’t just ban sex.”
I’ll say this about the Army: they’re really inventive when it comes to stopping the spread of diseases.
“You’d rather they engage in fornication, and spread the taint of the undead further?”
At least, they really want to be.
Anyway, you haven’t really lived until you’ve stumbled upon high-ranking officers using the word taint while discussing regulation of sexy times.
But hang on. I’ll get back to that awkward conversation in a minute.
We’d been in camp for about four or five days, and while my timekeeping methods were still hazy, this meant the big rocks couldn’t have fallen more than a week and a half or so prior. This is a long time in the post-apocalyptic world, by the way, even if I was still trying to get my bearings in the sprawling community college-turned-refugee camp.
I was taking a much-needed lunch break from Introduction to Being a Post-Apocalyptic Medic 101, and spending an hour wandering along the camp perimeter with Dax and the dog. Evie had adjusted fairly well to our new lives—I’m sure a steady supply of kibble didn’t hurt—and bounced along beside us, stopping every now and then to sniff at some dirt or a rock or whatever. We left the medical building behind and headed for the Common, a large central area ringed by the various groups of tents and buildings. The Army had set up a makeshift playground for children, and there was a patchy area those of us with canine companions used as a toilet.
Dax had a bag all set, and Evie contentedly sniffed around, looking for the perfect place to make a deposit.
Dax, the dog, and I looked up.
“You can’t bring that here!”
I reached a hand back to pat the rifle I no longer carried. The Authorities—namely the general, who no one had ever seen, and I guess Captain Hammond—allowed us to keep our weaponry, on the condition that we didn’t tote it all over camp. Something about gunfights breaking out too regularly. So clearly the soldier wasn’t looking to disarm us. I looked at Dax, but he wasn’t packing heat, either.
A soldier jogged out to us. He had a gun (several, in fact) and he was looking at the dog with barely concealed disdain.
“Sir?” I asked. Soldiers like being called sir.
“You can’t bring that thing here.”
He pointed directly at Evie.
She wagged her tail.
He curled his lip.
Her tail drooped.
Dude. This guy was not cool. Who walks around hurting canine feelings?
Dax, being slightly cooler-headed than myself, did not immediately launch into a tirade about how disrespectful the man was being. Instead, he said, “I’ve been bringing her here since we arrived…”
The scolder scoffed at him. “Well, you can’t anymore. Take her to the perimeter if she has to piss. People congregate here.”
We stood there staring at him blankly.
The soldier dropped a hand to one of the guns at his belt. “Do I have to escort you away myself?”
Please don’t, I thought, though I didn’t say it out loud.
“Okay,” Dax said. “We’re going. Thanks for letting us know.”
He tugged on the leash. Evie, perhaps sensing she wasn’t particularly wanted, trotted after him. I brought up the rear, glancing over my shoulder now and then to check on the soldier. He kept staring after us, hand on one of his many guns.
Now, I hadn’t entirely figured out Hammond yet, but I was pretty sure the camp’s captain didn’t want his soldiers chasing civilians around at gunpoint. It didn’t gel with his whole kumbaya-we’re-gonna-get-through-this-together vibe. But it’s stupid to argue with people who have guns, so I saved my complaints until we were a safe distance away.
“Doesn’t he have bigger fish to fry?” I muttered, quickening my pace until I caught up with Dax. “Or zombies to shoot?”
“They’re very regimented here. It’s the same way in processing. Something about maintaining order.”
Something about maintaining assholery was more like it. I mean really. Evie wasn’t a dog. She was a living, breathing cuddle machine, and quite frankly everyone needed some cuddles these days.
We trudged along for a few minutes, leaving the bulk of camp behind, and finally came up on one of the exterior walls.
Wall, of course, was a strong word. Elderwood Community College hadn’t possessed an actual fancy wall. As the story goes, they built a big chain-link fence way back when neighborhood kids started worshipping Satan or something on the outskirts of the campus. I don’t think it really did any good—they probably just summoned Lucifer elsewhere—but it apparently made the city at large feel better.
We stopped in front of it.
“How many zombies do you think this thing can hold back?” I asked.
Dax shifted the leash to his left hand, reached out with his right, grasped the fence, and shook it.
The chain link tinkled softly, rippling beneath his grasp.
“Nah, that doesn’t mean it’s not solid,” he said.
“I dunno. Ask Tony. He probably knows lots of stuff about fences.”
I didn’t want to ask Tony. He would just start spouting off about how five hundred ghouls could knock this thing over, no problem.
There wasn’t a ghoul in sight, though, which meant Evie could finally do her business.
We walked slowly for a few minutes, letting her examine the turf. She sniffed around, once again searching for the perfect spot to do her business.
That was something I never understood about dogs. Why couldn’t they just pick a spot and go? Why agonize over it? The whole world was their toilet.
Evie was still nosing through the dried, dead grass when Dax pointed ahead. “Soldiers ahoy.”
A makeshift guard tower had been erected on our side of the fenceline. I counted two guards up there, scanning the area for any threats. Both of them had their rifles aimed at something on the outside, though I couldn’t tell exactly what.
Dax poked my arm and pointed through the fence. “Look.”
Far off in the distance, something shuffled uncertainly.
My breath hitched in my throat. I hadn’t seen an actual zombie in the handful of days we’d been in here, but I had no doubt that thing was one of them. It moved in a slightly hunched manner, hands outstretched, always looking for that next snack. Not unlike the stoners I met in college.
“Are they going to shoot it?” I asked.
“Might not be a good idea.”
If there was one thing I’d learned about the undead during this very inconvenient end of days, it was that they rarely traveled alone. Zombies love to party; where there’s one, there’s usually at least four more. Maybe we only saw this particular individual because the others were just out of sight.
I imagined the soldiers up there in the guard station, ruminating over their options. Should they take the risk and pop him in the head, or just throw something at him? Maybe they could use the Force on him.
That last one probably wouldn’t work too well on the undead. Or anyone, really.
Evie cocked her head to the side and let out a low growl, her more pressing needs evidently forgotten.
“Grab her,” Dax said.
I knelt down and grabbed her collar a second too late. Once she established we were indeed all looking at the same shambling figure, she opened her mouth and let out a deep, powerful bark.
“Ssh!” I almost grabbed her mouth, then thought better of it—hunting dogs had pretty impressive chompers, didn’t they?
Hell, I didn’t know anything about canines. My family always had cats.
Dax had no such fears and shut her barking down right away, wrapping his hands around her jaws.
She blinked at us, puzzled. Barking at ghouls had always been a good thing.
“Hey!” one of the soldiers bellowed.
Shit. We were getting yelled at.
He had pressed himself up against the edge of the station and yes, that did appear to be a middle finger held in our direction. “Shut that fucking dog up!”
His buddy smacked his shoulder. Both soldiers returned their attention to beyond the fence.
“Incoming,” Dax said under his breath.
The ghoul had either heard Evie or the shouting or both, and it was most definitely coming our way.
The soldiers up in the tower appeared to be having a minor argument.
You shoot it, I imagined one of them saying.
Naw bruh, it’s your turn.
Maybe they’d ro-sham-bo for it.
Finally one of them came to a decision and shot the ghoul.
It got very quiet.
The victorious shooter went back to scanning for trouble. The other one climbed down from his shelter and began stalking over to us.
“We’re in trouble,” I said.
“No shit,” Dax muttered.
The soldier lurched to a halt in front of us. “What the hell are you doing?”
“Walking the dog,” I said.
“Can you do it where she won’t bark at revenants? We’re trying not to lure them over here.” He paused, looked between us, and softened his tone slightly: “Please?”
Okay. Maybe not all the soldiers were total dog-hating douchecanoes.
“Where do we take her?” Dax asked.
“I just got chased out of the Common. Captain Hammond said we could bring her there, but another soldier said no, and dude, she needs to take a whiz…” Dax trailed off.
The soldier sighed. “I have to report that shot, anyway. C’mon, I’ll go with you. We can talk to the captain.”
And so the small group of us set off for greener pastures: that is, Captain Hammond’s makeshift command base in what had been the center of campus. Along the way, we passed post-apocalyptic life, like soldiers carting around heavy artillery and civilians pretending they weren’t scared out of their wits.
“…I’m going to get that goddamn gopher,” one man snapped, pushing through our crowd. He appeared to be talking to himself, but none of us remarked on that.
“Gophers survived the end times?” I asked.
“They would,” Dax said. “Little fuckers live in holes, underground. Probably have an entire tunnel system they aren’t sharing with us. Probably planned this thing.”
So Dax was into gopher conspiracy theories. Nice.
The soldier was waved right into what had probably once been the school’s admin center. The guard eyeballed Dax and myself, but let us go in, too; Evie didn’t even get a second glance.
Hammond was arguing with someone when we got inside. “Tell the general we can’t just ban sex.”
Oh, shit. We’d walked into the wrong part of that conversation.
“You’d rather they engage in fornication, and spread the taint of the undead further?”
I was ninety-nine percent sure I wanted no part of whatever was going on, but Dax grabbed my arm, preventing me from turning around and walking right out of the building.
“We can’t ban sex,” Hammond repeated.
“Why not? Everyone’s distraught. Why would they be doing it anyway?”
Hammond paused. “Lieutenant, that’s…that’s when people tend to…do it most.”
Dax and I exchanged glances. The soldier next to us let out a long-suffering sigh.
“If it’s spread through anything, we need to put a stop to it. The general wants a hold on all physical contact. Hugging, kissing, sexual relations. If there’s fluid exchanged, it needs to stop.”
What kind of hugging was he doing if there were fluids exchanged? I was intrigued.
But mostly intrigued.
“Tell the general,” the captain said, “we can’t just…people are going to hug. And shake hands. And spit.”
“And if they all turn into revenants?”
“How would we even enforce that?”
I finally got a look at the man talking. He was young, dressed in an impeccable uniform—odd, considering how much ash and dirt and grime was smeared over the other soldiers. He spoke to Hammond the way my mother used to talk to me as a child, when I scribbled on the walls with non-washable crayons: “The general is concerned that he’s the only one trying to contain this thing.”
That probably meant we weren’t winning the war. Or battle. Or whatever it was we were doing out here.
Captain Hammond caught sight of us and held up a hand. “One second, Lieutenant.” He made his way over, offering a brief, tired smile. “May I help you?”
“They can help us first,” the lieutenant said. He turned in our direction, but didn’t bother coming any closer. “If this virus can be contained by restricting sexual activity, isn’t that worth it?”
“You don’t have to answer that,” Hammond muttered to the soldier.
“Sir,” the soldier whispered.
“It’s just a couple of civilians,” Hammond went on. “You really want their opinion on it?”
Hammond eyeballed me. “Medic Orvik, is it? Should the good survivors of the apocalypse stop having sexual relations if it stops the wave of the undead?”
Oh, for fuck’s sake.
I had never been particularly good at taking tests, and this felt like a very easy one to flunk.
But the captain was looking at me. Pleadingly, I thought. Actually, everyone was looking at me, Evie included. What did she even care about sex?
“Um,” I said. “Is…is the…the plague…an STD?”
“Isn’t everything?” Dax asked.
“Aside from the initial impact, we don’t really know how it’s spread yet,” Hammond said. “We’re exploring all avenues. Though our research team feels the possibility of it being sexually transmitted …or transmitted through, um, hugging…is quite slim.”
I was pretty sure the research team consisted of Doctor Samuels and a few of his friends looking at ghoul goop under a microscope. They were good at fixing up humans, but none of them had a ton of experience in an actual R&D facility. On top of that, who the fuck would hug a zombie to find out if it was that contagious? The smell alone would repulse most outward displays of affection.
“The dog has to go to the bathroom,” I said. “Really, that’s why we’re here.”
Evie wagged her tail.
“Answer the question, please,” the lieutenant said.
“If there’s a strong link, then sure, ban it,” I said. I thought that was a pretty safe answer.
“If?” the lieutenant asked.
Hammond shook his head slightly at me, as if I’d personally disappointed him.
“We’re just looking for a place to walk the dog,” Dax said. “The soldiers at the perimeter said to stay in the Common, but this other guy there said to leave—“
“Why can’t you walk her in the Common?” Hammond asked.
“There’s children present,” the lieutenant said. “New regulation. The general can’t have the little ones getting assaulted by a dog.”
Dax looked at Evie. So did Hammond.
She wagged her tail and lifted a paw.
“It’s a golden retriever,” Hammond said.
“The general says dogs are dangerous.”
Hammond briefly closed his eyes. “It’s still a golden retriever.”
“It’s still a dog.”
Okay. We were definitely dealing with a mouthpiece, as opposed to a man capable of independent thought.
Dax elbowed me sharply in the side, and I realized I must have had an incredulous look on my face. I quickly schooled my features into the bland, vaguely interested expression I used whenever a band I was interviewing started nattering on about inspiration or that time they tripped on shrooms in the desert and how it influenced their latest hit single. Which, by the way, happened to our local bands pretty often.
“So in short, Medic Orvik, you don’t think people should stop having intercourse,” the lieutenant said.
Oh. We were back to sex.
“No?” I asked. “Unless we know it stops the plague. Yes?” I looked at Hammond. “What’s the right answer?”
The lieutenant sniffed. “Captain, I’ll see you back at the loading dock. I need to assess incoming supplies.”
He gave us one last, possibly confused look, and then walked away. I was left wondering how the hell he kept his boots so shiny in the midst of all this ash.
“Am I in trouble?” I asked.
He shook his head at me, which could either mean no more trouble than usual or, alternatively, you’re grounded.
“Captain, we had to shoot one of them,” the soldier said, mercifully dragging us back to something resembling reality. “Station 12. Just one bullet, sir.”
Hammond sighed. “You don’t have to report every shot to me.”
“General wants ammunition tracked.”
“Yes, but…” Hammond seemed to realize he had two very curious civilians looking on, and clamped his mouth shut. “Very good, Private. Go back to it. Thank you.”
The soldier scuttled away, leaving me and Dax to stare at the captain.
“Is that dude allowed to talk to you like that?” I asked. “I thought a captain outranked a lieutenant.”
“He reports directly to the general,” Hammond said.
Which probably meant the lieutenant could talk to Hammond any way he liked.
“Anyway, I highly doubt we’re going to ban sex,” he said, clearly eager to get on a new tack. “So you two can continue bumping uglies if you like.”
“What?” Dax squawked. “No. That’s not going on, sir. Ew.”
“Excuse me?” I asked. “What do you mean, Ew?”
“I mean…I thought…he was talking about the dog?”
Hammond arched an eyebrow.
“That’s not better!”
“Civvies. Please. Let’s not…let’s not get crazy.” The captain crouched down to pet the dog. “I’ll work on the general and see if we can’t loosen up those regulations a bit. In the meantime, maybe take her around behind the science buildings.”
Dax seemed ready to make a cutting remark, but evidently thought better of it.
Evie shifted her weight from one side to the other. I wasn’t quite up to snuff on my dog language yet, but I was pretty sure this was her sign for gotta go NOW, humans.
Hammond tugged off his hat, rubbed the back of his head, and put his hat back on. “No one thinks this thing is an STD. But people want hope. And if you give them the idea that stopping something might stop it, then that hope stretches out a little longer.”
“Hugging?” I asked. “Stopping sex, sure. But hugging?”
He shrugged. “The general had an unusual upbringing.”
“Is he a never-nude?” Dax asked.
Hammond leveled a stare on him that would have made a much braver man’s balls fall right off. “You won’t be talking like that about any of the soldiers in camp,” he said. “Much less the general. He’s the reason all of us are alive, he has a damn fine reason to wonder if it’s sexually transmitted, and it has nothing to do with…with…what the hell is a never-nude?”
“Don’t answer that,” I said to Dax. “This is not a conversation we should have with authority figures.” But something Hammond had said lingered with me, and it took me a few seconds to home in on it. “Captain? Why does he have a damn fine reason to wonder if it’s an STD?”
The glare he leveled on me suggested he was cursing the day I walked back into camp and started asking questions.
“There was…an incident,” he said. “Someone was found having…ah…relations…with a zombie.” He paused. “I mean revenant. We’re trying to use that term more often.”
For a moment, all I could hear was Evie panting.
Then I squeaked, “Someone fucked a zombie?”
“Yes, some asshole fucked a zombie, and he turned. He’d been bitten, but his companions said he was all right up to that point, and the bites do tend to heal if treated, so…you can see why the general is concerned, can’t you?” The captain waved his hands around, apparently realized he had just started ranting, and clamped down on his emotions. “There, now I’ve said more than I should have. You’re civilians. This isn’t shit you need to worry about.”
On the contrary: If someone was fucking a zombie, I damn well wanted to worry about it.
I didn’t exactly want to say that out loud, though.
“Just go about your business. And keep it quiet, will you? It’ll get out sooner or later, but this isn’t news we need floating around camp. And so help me God, if McKnight finds out about it I will know who to put on latrine duty.”
That sounded at once realistic and utterly disgusting, and an excellent way to make me keep my mouth shut. Really, I had no idea how I’d even broach that in conversation. Hey, Tony, did you hear about that guy who screwed a ghoul? Maybe if I wedged it in between complaining about the food and listening to Augusta sneeze over Evie.
“Keep it quiet,” he said again. “I mean it. If I hear one word about this from someone besides you two—I don’t even want to hear it from you two.”
We nodded. I was already working very hard at bleaching my brain.
He seemed ready to salute, realized he didn’t really need to salute civilians, then huffed and stalked off after Lieutenant Shiny-Boots.
Dax, Evie, and I stood there for a few seconds, torn between astonishment and mortification.
Dax scratched his head. “Why would you—“
“No,” I said.
“So it was a living guy and a dead girl? I guess that’d be easier—I mean—“
“Dax! No!” Sure, the end times might have been upon us, but there were some mental images I just didn’t need burned into my psyche.
Evie yipped, indicating we really needed to get a move on. We hustled toward the science area—ironically, right where we’d started out—and no one so much as batted an eye at us when the dog found the perfect place to mark her territory.
I swear I heard her let out a relieved sigh once she squatted down.
“Good girl,” I said. “Sorry humans have so many issues.”
“I wonder what made him do it,” Dax said. “How bad does your life have to be for you to go, ‘Holy shit, she’s dead. I’ll tap that’?”
He shut his mouth, tabling that line of conversation for the time being.
Not that it really mattered. We had far weirder stuff coming down the pipeline, and as I learned, after the apocalypse, sexual relations with the undead were just the tip of the iceberg.