LENGTH: 10,034 words
The population of Richmond, Virginia, has been infected with a virus that turns them into zombies. Former med student Rich Murdoch spends his days in Carytown searching for survivors, and his nights in a MCV laboratory searching for a cure. Some days, he feels like he’s the only person left in the world, until he rescues plucky college co-ed Brandi from a zombie attack. He takes her back to the lab, where he’s set up a safe house.
But it isn’t her survival Rich has in mind.
Rich knows more about the virus than he admits — he should, he created it, despite the misgivings of his lover and lab partner, Donnie. Rich has a very selfish reason to cure the virus, but will he find one in time to save the man he loves?
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The woman’s name is Brandi, with an I. That’s how she says it, even though Rich didn’t ask. She races beside him like a track runner, easily matching his longer strides, keeping close to him in the darkness. They outpace their followers, and though Rich knows other zombies see them along the way back to the lab, none manage to trail them for very long. By the time they reach the Infectious Disease Center, they’re alone.
He leads her around the back of the building to a service entrance. When the outbreak started, he barricaded the front glass doors with plywood and disconnected the keypad to prevent anyone from entering the building except him. The only way in -- or out -- was through this side door, with the key he kept on a piece of string tied around his neck. Now he bends down to use the key in the lock, and holds the door open for Brandi-with-an-I. “Ladies first.”
She glances into the well-lit stairwell, uncertainty written on her face. “Is it safe?”
Dangling the key from its string, he points out, “I’m the only one who can get in. Did you want to come on up, or should I lock this behind me and leave you here on the step for the night?”
Without a response, she ducks into the stairwell and jogs up the first few steps leading up. Then she stops and watches him pull the door shut and check the lock to make sure it’s secure. “What is this place?”
“Infectious Disease Center,” Rich says absently. He starts up the stairs around her. “I’m up on the fifth floor.”
She hurries to keep up. “What are you, like a doctor, or something?”
He doesn’t want to make small talk with this woman, but he knows it’ll look funny if he doesn’t answer a direct question. “Medical student. I would’ve gotten my PhD in May.”
“What happened?” she asks, slightly behind him now.
He turns and gives her a hard stare. “Seriously?”
“Oh, I mean ...” She laughs, a nervous titter he thinks he’ll find annoying if she does it again. When he pulls ahead of her, she doubles up her steps to keep up. “What’s causing this, do you know? I mean, if you’re a doctor, isn’t there something you can do?”
I already did my part, Rich thinks, but she doesn’t have to know that. He glances at the next door he passes -- third floor, two more levels to go until he’ll relax -- and decides he’ll keep his responses scientific. “It’s a virus that infects normal cells with recombinant DNA that reprograms the way they replicate.”
“A virus?” She covers her mouth and nose with one hand, muffling her words. “Like a cold or flu? Is it catching?”
He gives her a hard look. Is she really that dumb? “Of course it’s catching. How do you think it’s infected so many people?”
Her steps falter. “Shit. You mean I’m ...”
With an exasperated sigh, Rich turns in the stairwell and looks down at her. “Have you been bitten by any of those things out there yet?”
She shakes her head, her eyes wide over the hand on her mouth.
“Have you fucked any of them?” Rich wants to know.
Now she recoils in horror. “What? God, no. Why --”
“Then you’re fine.” He turns back around and quickens his step. “The virus isn’t airborne -- you can’t catch it by breathing it in. You get it through bodily fluids only -- blood or saliva or semen -- so if you don’t kiss them or screw them or eat them, and if they don’t bite you, then you won’t get infected.”
He hears her breathe out relief, then she starts following him up the stairs again. “How’d so many people catch it so quick, then? I mean, even AIDS took some time getting started.”
Yes, he decides -- she really is that dumb. “The first ones infected developed a nasty taste for human flesh. The people they attacked got infected, then attacked other people, who also got infected ... see how it works?”
They’re on the last riser now. Rich slows down to unlock the fireproof door leading to the lab, its key safe beside the building key on the string around his neck. When he stops, Brandi-with-an-I stops right behind him, so close he can feel her flat stomach press against his elbow with each breath she takes. “So how’d the first ones get it?” she wants to know.
From me, Rich thinks.
He keeps that little news item to himself.