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Authors: Robert Swartwood

Tags: #Fiction, #Horror

The Dishonored Dead (8 page)

BOOK: The Dishonored Dead
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As the myth went, after the Zombie Wars, when the dead began to conquer the planet and began rebuilding, those living that were left created for themselves a society. Those that believed the place actually existed said that it had to be underground, as countless satellite images showed all over the world no city or town or even village that was not inhabited by the dead. It was in this place, what someone long ago named Heaven and by which name the city had been referred to ever since, that the zombies had built a community where they lived and breathed and did everything a zombie did.

It was where, according to Albert, infant zombies were born.

Before Conrad could say anything, the office door opened. A woman in a long white coat entered, carrying a small black container. The container looked to be made of plastic, about the size of a shoebox. She took the container to the desk, set it carefully on top, and slowly backed away.

Albert nodded, thanked her, and the woman left.

“This,” Albert said, and gently laid a hand on top of the black container, “is the other way zombies are created.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter 9

 

 

 

There were latches
on all four sides of the container. Albert undid each, as gently and carefully as the woman had placed it on the desk, and opened the lid. He set the lid aside, paused to take a breath, and slowly reached inside the container.

Conrad hadn’t realized he was sitting on the edge of his seat, inching closer and closer to see what was inside, until he almost fell off.

But the scientist did not bring anything out of the container. He seemed to pause, reconsider, then brought his hands out empty. He said, “I apologize, but before I show you this, I have one final question. What do you know of the Zombie Wars?”

“What do you mean?”

“How long did they last?”

“About two months.”

“And the outcome?”

“We destroyed almost all of the living. We conquered the world.”

Keeping his gaze level with Conrad’s, Albert said, “Yes, that is what the Government wants all the dead children in the world to learn. But would you be surprised if I told you that information is far from the truth?”

Conrad said nothing, now staring intently at the black container.

“The Zombie Wars actually lasted two years,” Albert said. “And it was not an easy campaign for either side.”

“Why are you telling me this?” Conrad asked. His impatience was growing, so much so he was ready to shoot out of his chair just to get a glimpse of what was inside the black container.

“I’m telling you this in the hope that it’ll be easier for you to understand. At the end of the Zombie Wars, both sides started using weapons of … well, mass destruction. Chemical bombs, hydrogen bombs, atom bombs, and in some areas even nuclear bombs. Much of the continental earth was affected. And somehow—we’re still not able to understand this fully—this assault changed the substrata of our planet. It created pockets of contained energy. And what is life, Conrad, but a form of energy?”

Albert reached back into the container. This time he didn’t pause, didn’t reconsider. Without hesitation he pulled a black rock from the container, held it up for a moment, then gently set it down.

A joke. It had to be a joke. Some elaborate joke being put on him for screwing up the other night, for hesitating in killing that zombie. Only, as he stared at the rock, Conrad quickly realized the thing before him wasn’t a rock. It looked like one, yes, but it wasn’t. What it was—and this was the best his dead mind could come up with—was some kind of dark crystal cube.

Conrad whispered, “What is that thing?”

“We call them Pandoras. A scientist once equated these cubes as boxes which contained terrible evil, and so the comparison to Pandora and her box made sense and it has stuck ever since.”

“Who’s Pandora?”

“It doesn’t matter, Conrad. What matters is that these cubes come straight out of the earth. That is where they were formed and that is where many of them have stayed for over a thousand years.”

Conrad couldn’t take his eyes away from the cube. It wasn’t very big. The fluorescents above shined brightly off its top and sides, causing it to shimmer. For some reason he thought it looked familiar but couldn’t tell why.

“The closet organic base we’ve managed to establish is quartz. Each Pandora is made up of the same substance. Each is roughly the same size, a near-perfect three-inch cube. It fits right in the palm of your hand, though I wouldn’t recommend touching one.”

Conrad asked, “Just how dangerous are they?”

“Very. We’ve been studying these rocks for almost five hundred years and still know very little about them. Believe it or not, there is no way for us to get to the energy inside. The quartz itself is like an egg, protecting it. In fact, each Pandora emits a kind of … pulse. If Gabriel were here right now, he would hear it.”

“What does it sound like?”

“A heartbeat.”

Conrad found himself staring at the Pandora again. “The energy inside can be released somehow though, can’t it?”

Albert nodded.

“How?”

“That isn’t the question you should be asking yourself, Conrad. First ask yourself, out of all the zombies you’ve killed, what were most of them.”

“Children.”

“That’s right. And roughly how old were those children.”

Thinking briefly of his son, Conrad said, “Ten.”

“Correct. Now ask yourself, why only children of ten years.”

Conrad didn’t answer right away. He just sat there and listened to the fluorescents humming and the fish tank bubbling. Finally he said, “I don’t know.”

Albert raised his hands, palms up. “Then you know just about as much as we do. Our only theory is that puberty plays a major factor in the process. Children of ten years are on the threshold between childhood and adolescence. Their bodies are developing, going through changes. And somehow—maybe something in their minds, maybe something in their genes—allows them to become aware of these Pandoras. They sense the energy somewhere around them. Sometimes they even hear the pulse. The window seems to be open for only about a month or two. Most children ignore what they hear, probably because the closest Pandora to them is too far away. The energy and pulse is too faint. But some children live close to a place where a Pandora is buried in the ground. And if they go looking for that energy and dig it up …”

The scientist paused there, no doubt hoping Conrad could fill in the blank. But Conrad wasn’t thinking about the man’s words. He was staring at the Pandora in front of him and thinking about where he’d seen it before.

“Wait a minute,” he said, and glanced at Norman. “That boy from the other night …”

Norman just stared back at him.

“There was a rock just like this one on the ground, right beside the hole. That boy had dug it up, hadn’t he?”

“I couldn’t have told you the truth then,” Norman said. “You never would have understood.”

“But the boy,” Conrad said, his mind racing now, “he wasn’t a zombie.”

“No,” Albert agreed, “he wasn’t. He must have just finished digging the Pandora up when Lewis approached him. Not enough time had passed for his body to absorb the energy inside the rock.”

“But you said—” Conrad paused, took a breath. “But you said they couldn’t be opened.”

“They can’t, no. Well actually, that’s not completely true, but we’ll come back to that. Anyhow, as I’ve explained, children ten years old are able to sense these Pandoras. And these children, if they find a Pandora, are also able to absorb the energy inside. It’s a remarkable phenomenon, to be completely honest with you. The child needs to hold a Pandora in his or her hand for at least thirty seconds. Most times it takes a minute. After a few seconds, the energy inside the rock begins to fluctuate and the rock starts to glow. Then, if a child has not yet released the Pandora, the energy inside it is absorbed into his or her body, turning them from the dead into the living.”

This last point was a little too much for Conrad to take. He focused his mind instead on Scott, one of the eight he’d graduated with on that prestigious day so long ago, and asked Albert, “What is a Tracker?”

Smiling, Albert told him exactly what a Tracker was. How it was a very important employee of Living Intelligence. How every night all around the world, while everyone else slept, a Tracker went out with a fellow Tracker to follow one of the living. That was the purpose of most of the zombies in this facility: besides allowing the scientists to study them, every evening after midnight a few of the living were taken out into the city or suburbs, mostly in parks or woods, and they would walk around listening for the sound of the pulse. They would find where the sound came from, and there the Trackers would mark it for the Diggers who would arrive soon after, dig it up, box it in a plastic container such as the one now on Albert’s desk, and take it away.

Conrad said, “Where do the Diggers take these boxes?”

“I’m sure you saw the building you passed on the way in here?”

Conrad remembered that large white windowless building, the place Norman had called the Warehouse.

“That’s where we keep the found Pandoras. And before you ask, Conrad, no, we can’t destroy them. The thought has crossed our minds more than once, and a few times we even came close to attempting it, but in the end we decided it was much too dangerous. After all, we can’t guess what might happen to the energy inside them.”

“So how are the Pandoras stored?”
 

“A long time ago, even before Living Intelligence was formed, the Government had knowledge about these stones. After all, at almost every construction site at least one or two Pandoras would be dug up. The Government found that these rocks couldn’t be destroyed, and so they decided to store them in places that they thought would never be found. There are no doubt places even in Olympus, such as in subbasements, where a handful of Pandoras now rest. In fact, I’m certain about that, but it’s impossible to scour the city looking for something the Government will deny exists, something it does not want the public to know about, even though it is a major threat.”

Conrad shifted uneasily in his chair. “What do you mean, ‘a major threat’?”

Albert gestured at the dark crystal cube shimmering on the desk. “This Pandora here? It can only be opened by a ten-year-old child, and only in that month or two when his or her body and mind is vulnerable to it. If a child were to touch a Pandora, that Pandora would somehow become theirs. The energy inside senses that child, and will not be absorbed by anyone else. There have been incidences where we have caught a child right before he or she opens a Pandora.”

“So that boy from the other night,” Conrad said, and even though his eyes were open and staring back at the scientist he was seeing the dead child standing by the freshly dug hole, the shovel in his hands, the square rock on the ground, “the zombie never infected him with any parasites, did it?”

“No,” Albert said. “But as far as the parents and everyone else is concerned, it did. We couldn’t take the risk of letting the boy tell his parents what Lewis had told him. His dead mind had already been tainted by living thoughts, so we had no choice.”

Conrad realized this was the second time the name Lewis had been mentioned. He asked who this was.

“He was the living you … well, hesitated in killing. He was a good, kind zombie, but it’s not surprising that he managed to escape our Trackers. He had attempted it before. And when it was clear our Trackers weren’t going to recapture him, they had no choice but to make an anonymous call into you. You see, normally we have two Trackers go out with one of the living each night, though after this most recent mishap we have decided to step it up. That’s why you’re here now, Conrad. We are going to start putting together teams of four Trackers every evening, to ensure that what happened the other night never happens again.”

“Let’s backtrack,” Conrad said. “You still haven’t explained what you meant by ‘a major threat.’ ”

Albert stiff face quickly became somber. He stared hard at Conrad and in a low voice said, “By a major threat I mean a force we have come to call the Ripple Effect.”

“What’s the Ripple Effect?”

 
“I can’t very well show you, at least not in person, but we do have videos documenting the event. We brought in … well, test subjects—”

The phone on the desk buzzed. Albert, clearly annoyed, sighed and signaled for them to wait. He answered the phone, saying, “Yes?” and listened for a moment, and in that moment something strange happened: his stiff face fell, his body slumped, and the emptiness in his black eyes appeared to be magnified.

When he hung up the phone a few seconds later, Norman asked what was wrong.
 

“It’s your headquarters,” the scientist said, and even in his words there was the sense of rapid decay. “Apparently it has just been bombed.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter 10

 

 

 

At the same
moment Conrad and Norman merged onto the Shakespeare Expressway, headed toward the city, Denise opened the basement door at 58 Orchid Lane, reached inside and turned on the light.

The steps weren’t dangerous, were actually quite sturdy, but she took her time regardless, thinking of the twins. She even placed her hand on her belly, for extra protection in case she fell.

The basement was unfinished—something she and Conrad had been meaning to take care of ever since they moved in but which they never got around to doing—and she wondered why she never came down here to change things around. It was always on the first and second floors, always rearranging the furniture at least every other week because it was something to do, something to break up the boring monotony of her existence.

She walked toward the washer and dryer, her hand still on her belly, finding herself walking in an almost waddle. She didn’t know why. She was less than a month along, which meant she wouldn’t be showing for at least another two months, but she remembered how hard it was being pregnant with Kyle, and she wanted to be ready.

BOOK: The Dishonored Dead
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