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We were wrong, so wrong, about the zombies.
Issue #28, Monday 2 October 2023
We were wrong, so wrong, about the zombies. We’d come to treat the idea as a joke; we’d seen too many movies, too many TV shows, read too many comics, played too many games. We thought we knew all about what it would be like when the zombies came. But we were wrong. It wasn’t like that at all.
I’m holed up here, as high as I can get, with the most powerful shotgun I could find, two full boxes of ammunition at my side and still I don’t feel safe. I may be the last human left in the city. I am lucky, very lucky, to have this gun, because I got in early. I knew what was coming, you see, when most didn’t.
In fact, I was there at the very start. At the zoo.
I am… no, cancel that. I used to be a veterinarian, large animals my speciality. I did a lot of work for the zoo, helping out their resident vet when she needed it. They have a few on-call vets like me. But I was the one who got the call that night.
When Marissa called, she sounded worried. “Bob, it’s one of our jaguars. Just seems to have keeled over in the compound. Her mate was making a terrible row, standing over her. We’ve brought her in to the surgery, but I can’t figure out what’s wrong. She’s in some kind of coma, and I can’t bring her round. I know it’s late, but can you come and give me a second opinion?”
“Sure,” I said, threw a few things together and set off on my Harley, my pride and joy. No helmet, no way. I always loved riding that bike at night, wind streaming through my hair, an amazing feeling of exhilaration. It took me a half-hour to get there and looking back, I wish it had been much longer.
The City Zoo is quite modern – hardly any cages are left now. The animals were kept confined by the use of deep ditches, fences of densely-planted bamboo and similar barriers, all the better to let the public get a good view of them in something like a natural state. It had seemed like a great advance. At the time.
I have a passkey to let myself in the zoo gates when it’s closed. I hurried in to the administration building and found my way to Marissa’s surgery.
The huge jaguar was laid out on the examination table, a muzzle on and its legs restrained. Even if the big cat was in a coma, you couldn’t take any chances. Marissa and one of the keepers were bent over the jaguar, attaching monitoring leads.
“We can’t rouse her,” Marissa said. “I’ve taken some blood samples, but it will take a while to get any results. I can’t figure it out. Could she have had a stroke, do you think? Or does she have a brain tumour?”
It didn’t seem likely, but it was possible, I supposed. I started examining the animal myself, not really expecting to find anything which Marissa had missed. However, my gloved hands discovered a slight swelling at the back of the jaguar’s neck, slightly warmer than the rest of her body. What did that mean? I pointed it out to Marissa, who just frowned in puzzlement. “Meningitis?” she asked. “But there’s no fever.”
Jamie, one of the other keepers, came in from outside. “Marissa,” he said urgently. “The male jaguar… it’s down now, too. Same as the female. I can’t wake him up. Shall we bring him here?”
“Damn,” Marissa said, looking at me in alarm. We were both silent, thinking through this new development. Then she said: “Some kind of viral infection then, must be. Bob… can you and Jamie go out and look at the male? We’ll need to bring him in. Hell, we’re going to have to implement a strict quarantine, make sure the other big cats don’t get it.”
As I walked out with Jamie, my mind was racing. Where would these animals have picked up a virus which affected their species here in the zoo? A domestic cat virus which had mutated? Brought in on the clothing of one of the keepers?
I’m not sure what I was expecting to find when we reached the jaguar compound. A very sick animal, certainly. But as we exited the wire-enclosed passage which ran behind the compounds, I saw the male jaguar stagger upright, take a few wobbly steps and then steady itself. My first reaction was relief. If only I had known what was coming…
The jaguar turned towards us, and in the dim light his eyes were glowing a fiery red. Cats often seem to have glowing eyes, a trick of the way they reflect light. But this wasn’t like that. The big cat’s eyes seemed to be actively generating light. It had to be an illusion of course, but that’s what it looked like. The animal started to slink towards us.
“Shit,” whispered Jamie. “I didn’t bring the trank gun. Didn’t think we’d need it. Let’s get back.”
We made a hasty retreat to the safety of the wire corridor, and closed the gate. The jaguar kept advancing, and then leapt at us, smashing into the gate with tremendous force. I stepped back in shock. The metal tubes making up the gate had actually bent. Surely the animal must have hurt itself? But no, it just paced away as if nothing had happened. It turned again and leapt, leapt an astonishing distance. Again the gate shook and deformed. I looked at Jamie, and without a word we retreated further. There were several partition gates along the corridor, and we closed and bolted each one as we went back. Finally, we were out onto the public pathway.
“Jesus Christ,” said Jamie, and I could see him shaking. “Have you ever seen anything like that? What’s going on?”
I suddenly had a very ugly thought. “Oh my God! Marissa!” I said. “If the female is reacting the same way to this thing as the male, then Marissa...” We started to run, but before we reached the surgery we could hear the screaming begin. And then, more horribly, it suddenly stopped. As we reached the door all we could hear from inside were smashing sounds and a feral roar.
I put my hand on the door handle and stopped. Jamie and I looked at each other. I said, hating myself: “We can’t open the door, Jamie. We just can't. We can’t let it out. I’ll ring the police.”
“Army might be more like it,” he said. “Look, there are trank guns in the main office. I’ll go get them.” He ran off.
I used my mobile to ring the emergency number. The police sergeant I spoke to was frankly incredulous, and I had a lot of trouble convincing him that this wasn’t a joke. “Send someone with a powerful rifle,” I insisted. “More than one, if you have them. Quickly. We think the animal has already killed a couple of vets.”
Jamie came running back, carrying two tranquilliser guns, but just before he reached me, he stopped short and gave a cry, looking past me. I turned around.
The male jaguar was pacing down the pathway, its eyes gleaming red. It opened its jaws to show dripping fangs. I had time to register that something seemed to have happened to its body; it seemed larger and even more muscular than normal. How had it escaped its compound? Either it had broken through all the gates or it must have jumped the ditch. The ditch designed to be far too wide for an animal to leap.
Jamie threw one of the guns to me and together we raised them and fired darts at the jaguar. Nothing. In fact, I was sure that I saw both of the darts simply bounce off the big cat’s hide. Its head turned towards us.
“Fuck!” Jamie screamed, and started to run. That was his big mistake, and one which saved my own life. The jaguar bounded past me and after him. I fired another dart towards it, and then threw down the gun and ran in the other direction, out into the dark night, hoping to hide. Behind me, there was another scream, rapidly cut off. Jamie was dead.
Panic was only a hair’s breadth away, but I fought it down. Trying to make sure that the jaguar couldn’t follow my scent, I jumped a fence and into one of the waterfowl enclosures, stepping as quietly as I could into the water. A pointless precaution, as several indignant geese and herons rose quacking and honking. Still, I thought, it might be a distraction. I waded quickly to the other side of the pond, which wasn’t deep.
What I found on the other side filled me with an awful dread. Until then I had been trying to rationalise what had happened. Perhaps this feline virus was triggering a kind of hysterical strength in the jaguars, I thought, extraordinary, but at least explicable.
But on the other side of the pond I could see into the rhinoceros enclosure. One of the huge animals was lying prone on the ground. But as I watched, it started to struggle upright again. And the other rhinoceros was pacing about. Its eyes gleamed with glints of red. As I watched, it snorted, turned around and, picking up speed rapidly, slammed into the concrete wall at the back of the enclosure. It was as though the wall had been hit by an armoured tank. Cracks ran through it. The impact should have stunned the rhinoceros, but it simply turned around unconcernedly, and prepared for another run.
No natural virus, surely, could affect species as different as a jaguar and a rhinoceros? Impossible. Could it be some kind of parasite, affecting the brains of these animals? I shook my head in disbelief.
Then I heard distant mad trumpeting. An enraged elephant. My God, what would an infected elephant be like? That’s when the panic really hit home.
I leapt the fence and ran, ran like the devil was on my heels. I unlocked the gates, scrambled onto my Harley and sped off, narrowly missing the police car which was just pulling up. I should have stopped to warn them. I still feel guilty that I didn’t, but I was, quite frankly, terrified out of my wits. And in any case, looking back, what good would it have done?
I bought a shotgun, ammo and packs of survival rations at an all-night store, before the panic began. I didn't say anything to the guy behind the counter. Another stab of guilt. But it’s been chaos in the three days since then. I have survived so far, but I’m not proud of it.
In the hotel room I booked into, on the highest floor I could, I watched events unfold on the television, until the broadcasts suddenly stopped yesterday.
If it had just been the animals at the zoo, I think we could have contained this thing. The army could have used tanks and machine guns and we could probably have stopped them. Probably. But the elephants smashed down the walls of the zoo and almost all of the animals escaped. Lions, tigers, monkeys, buffalo, camels, kangaroos, you name it. All spreading the infection.
Whatever this thing is, it only seems to affect mammals. Perhaps that's a blessing. Can you imagine alligators with this thing? Well, it infected all mammals except one particular species. There haven’t been any reports of infected humans. But everything else. Cats. Dogs. Cows. Horses. Pigs. And that’s just on land. In the oceans, the dolphins, the orcas, the blue whales… When you think of all the animals we live with, or depend on, and how many of them are out there in the world—and how badly we have treated them— it’s terrifying. All of them with hysterical strength, nearly impermeable hides, and all of them bent on killing humans. It isn’t just the random attacks of wild creatures. It seems like something is directing them, something with a very malevolent purpose. Something or someone... I don’t think I'll ever know, not now.
Most people have fled the city, but I figured the city had to be safer than the countryside. Think of all those feral sheep. That should be a joke. But it's not, dear God, it's not.
I’m up here now at the top of this abandoned hotel, the stairwell door locked, furniture piled in front of it. I was hoping to be safe, up this high. Surely nothing could climb this high to get me? But just now I looked down out of the window and I know that I’m going to die soon.
The gibbons are coming.
© Copyright David R. Grigg. All rights reserved.
About this Story
This is based on an idea I had some years ago, but considerably revised for publication here.
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