Freedom by Dorothy Davies

EXTRACT FOR
Freedom

(Dorothy Davies)


Freedom

R.I.P.

 

Arlen Feldman

 

The casket was relatively high-end. It was cobalt blue, made of thick eighteen-gauge steel, with silver handles and hardware. The interior was lined with light blue velvet, with matching pillow and throw.

Thanks to an incorrectly installed seal it was not, however, waterproof.

Barely two days after it had been buried, water from the incessant rain had wormed its way through the seals, carrying with it the biologic pathogen currently wreaking havoc on the surface.

The pathogen found itself in contact with organic material and started to attach itself and reactivate the deteriorating cellular machinery it encountered. Nerves and muscles were not exactly restored, but were jury-rigged into a simulation of their original function. After this was done, the pathogen started to flood the brain stem with nutrients.

Six days after Jerry Weber died of a massive coronary, his body began to move.

More accurately, it could be said that the body started to twitch. There was no objective and no drive. Had it been an isolated case--and had anyone been able to see into the pitch-black casket--it might have been miraculous.

Had one of the survivors on the surface seen it, they would have had a different reaction--identifying Jerry Weber as being a Stage-One Twitcher. What was left of the medical research community would have known that this phase would last for somewhere between three and nine hours, depending on the condition of the affected corpse.

For a corpse, Jerry Weber was in fairly good shape. He was reasonably fresh and, for religious reasons, had not been embalmed. The twitches lasted for about four hours while the pathogen diligently went to work hijacking Jerry’s amygdala.

The pathogen could survive for a long time by consuming what it considered to be non-critical parts of Jerry--but it could survive considerably longer by having him consume external nutrients. To get Jerry to assist in providing said nutrients, it installed in its host an insatiable hunger.

In theory, any nutrients would do, but the pathogen was far from perfect. Ideally, it “wanted” its host to avoid consuming already-infected food sources. The way that it did that had the side effect of only targeting humans.

This stage had been dubbed “the hunger” by those above who had managed to survive long enough to get around to naming things.

Jerry stopped twitching and, infused with a desperate need to feed, made every effort to do so.

Unfortunately for him, he was buried in the dark, five feet underground, in a damp steel box.

The combined instincts of Jerry and the pathogen joined forces to drive him towards the surface and food. Fists, elbows, knees, feet, head, all pounded against the top of the casket--the sounds muffled, even in the confined space, by the velvet lining. At first, the amount of force in Jerry’s atrophied muscles was pitiful, but the pathogen started strengthening the muscles, using energy freed from the demolition of now unnecessary organs, such as the gall bladder and the skin.

If Jerry had been more religious, he would have only been wrapped in a shroud, or, at most, a wooden casket with no nails and hinges. It is just possible that he would have been able to escape from either of those.  He would still have had to make it through the earth to the surface, but it might--maybe--have been achievable.

But the 4,800 pounds of dirt sitting on top of the casket’s cobalt-blue top made it impossible for the lid to be raised. The solid steel meant that it was impossible to break through.

Nonetheless, Jerry spent the next sixty hours trying to do exactly that.

In truth, because of their age and their inaccessibility, very few of the pathogen-powered monsters roaming the surface came from cemeteries. Morgues and hospitals were the primary source. Then accident victims, as panic started to spread. Then victims of the victims.

Aside from the sounds of his own attempts to escape, Jerry’s world was quiet. The surface was currently a very noisy place.

 

***

 

After a while, even the soft thuds against the velvet faded out. Jerry was now a Stage-Two Twitcher. This phase was deceptive--as the doctor who coined the phrase learned to his cost. Given the opportunity, a Stage-Two Twitcher would become active very, very quickly, if presented with an appropriate stimulus.

But at this point, the pathogen was saving its energy. Or rather, it was saving Jerry’s energy. Without further nutrients, the host could last for several weeks in this state, although towards the end of that period, there would not be enough left of the host to move.

Two things happened in Jerry’s favor at this point--if favor is the right term to use.

First, lacking a better place, people started dumping corpses in the graveyard, hoping perhaps that someone would eventually get around to burying them. Many of these corpses had been infected with the pathogen, but had subsequently been shut down via the expedient of chopping through the brain stem--or, as often worked, implanting a bullet, at speed, in same.

Second, it continued to rain.

The rain carried nutrients to Jerry--not much, but enough to be useful. It also brought new and different versions of the pathogen--versions that had experienced the bright world and had had the chance to evolve just a little bit.

Small parts of Jerry’s cerebrum had previously been activated. Enough of the occipital lobe was working to provide at least basic visual processing, although this was entirely useless in the pitch-black casket. Corners of the parietal lobe had been needed in order to coordinate movement. But now the newly improved pathogen started flooding nutrients into the frontal lobe.

This was a risky trade-off. The frontal lobe could solve problems--such as how to escape from a box buried under five feet of dirt. On the other hand, the frontal lobe was huge and therefore expensive in terms of resources. Worse, it relied on the temporal lobe buried underneath it--another huge, expensive lump of fatty gray matter--the chunk that handled memory. Without memory there is no ability to reason.

On the surface, this technique had driven the pathogen’s victims to conquer such complex tasks as opening doors, climbing ladders and, in one extreme case, using a hammer--literally already in hand--to pull down a barricade.

Jerry’s major accomplishment with his extra, though still extremely limited brainpower, was to rip away the casket’s lining before attacking it once more with fists and feet. It was no more effective, but it was much louder.

In the outer world, the intensity of the rain had increased, which did not do much for the mood of the already miserable survivors. It should have, though, since the rain interfered with the primitive senses of the infected--making the huddled and hiding people a tiny bit safer.

The popularity of dumping bodies in the cemetery had also increased and had even been given something of an official imprimatur by the placement of a printed sign reading “Emergency Body Storage Sight.” The misspelling of site had not slowed anyone down.

The material at the bottom of the casket was now completely saturated with liquid and nutrient-filled water was starting to pool. This created a sort of equilibrium--just enough nutrients were getting to Jerry to keep the pathogen active and able to continue expending resources.

Whether the success of pulling down the casket-lining spurred it on, or whether it had no other strategies, the pathogen fed more of the new nutrients into the frontal lobe, simulating dopamine for the neurons that were operational enough to be stimulated by it.

A groan passed Jerry’s lips. Considering that his larynx was bone dry and flaky and that there was no mechanism for pumping air through the vocal cords, this was actually quite impressive--the release of a last puff of breath. No one was there to hear the sound, but it sounded just a bit like the word “Laura.” Given that Jerry had a daughter named Laura, this might not have been a coincidence.

There were no further sounds from Jerry, although his lips did continue to move.

 

***

 

It started with a swirling of colors in front of his eyes, resolving into disjointed memories. Words associated themselves with the colors. Sky. Ocean. Grass. They all faded to black.

More words came. Hot. Cold. Damp. These connected together into more complex ideas. I am cold. I am damp. I am. I.

Jerry felt very strange. He had no idea where he was but, despite a slight chill, he felt relatively comfortable.

He had memories of a great deal of pain in his arm and in his chest. He remembered his teenage daughter screaming.

And then… nothing.

Maybe he’d had a heart attack? It would not have been the first. If so, was he in a hospital? But it was so dark. Even in the middle of the night, hospitals had some lights and blinking machines.

One thing he knew for sure--he was really, really hungry.

In hospitals there were usually buttons to call the nurse. He reached out to see if he could find one. His hand ran into the side of something and something similar on the other side. And something right above.

Possibilities crowded into Jerry’s brain, but he quickly pushed them aside. It was ridiculous to even consider such a thing. It was the twenty-first century after all. People didn’t get buri…

No, ridiculous.

He tried to take a deep breath, but couldn’t. How sick was he? It didn’t feel like he was breathing at all.

If he couldn’t detect his own breathing, maybe a doctor couldn’t, either. Maybe they had thought he was dead?

“Oh, God,” he thought. “The bastards buried me alive!”

Now fear and anger possessed him and he started pounding on the casket much like he had earlier. He also used his feet to try and push out the bottom of the casket, then flipped himself over and used his back against the lid, to no avail. He tried to stick his fingers through the seam between the base and the lid and actually managed to touch damp earth, losing most of his fingernails in the attempt, but getting no closer to escape.

These were exactly the sort of strategies that the pathogen would have been trying to stimulate and, if it had had any sort of awareness, it would have been pleased with the results so far, ineffective as they were.

The hunger was really getting to Jerry now. He needed to eat. It was odd, though. It wasn’t steak in his mind, or his wife’s brisket. He was thinking about food, but the images in his head were of blood and throats and raw, steaming guts. He simultaneously wanted to drool and to throw up, though he no longer had the ability to do either.

An image of Laura popped into his head, unbidden. His beautiful daughter, crying as the ambulance men loaded him onto a gurney. For just a second, he pictured her throat, torn and bleeding. The picture came with a flash of hunger. He shuddered, forcing the image from his mind.

And now he was just angry. How could they have possibly done this to him? He pounded his fists against the casket lid, hearing the crunch of a finger bone splintering, but feeling no pain.

The more rational part of Jerry’s returning mind eventually managed to assert itself. He abruptly stopped striking out and dropped back onto the silk lining. He needed to think.