“HUMANS—WHAT SIMPLE CREATURES we are, but we’re so inscrutable.
There is nothing in the world more complex than our biological substrate. We only understand a fraction of the chemical reactions that go into maintaining life, consciousness, memory and personality.
But on the flip-side it’s simple enough to figure out our psychological motivations: food; sex; shelter. Our basic wants and needs are so transparent that anyone with a little insight can predict the movements and actions of groups, forecast the behavior of whole populations. But take one individual out of that crowd, and no one on earth can tell what they will do at any moment.
Chaotic and organized.
The crowd is predictable: the individual spits in the fucking eye of anyone who tries to guess what he or she will do next. It’s a contradiction and it doesn’t make sense, but that’s how it is.
Humans are incredible. But some of the people closest to you—your grandfather, your sister, your wife, anyone—might not be human. Not anymore.
We thought the plague ended years ago. We hadn’t seen the infected in our settlements, and we hadn’t crossed any in the wilderness. So we thought we had reason to hope. We thought the horror was over, and we could begin to rebuild.
But I’m telling you now that it isn’t over. The plague isn’t over. It has just changed. It has adapted.
We got too good at fighting the Shamblers. The mindless hordes of the undead that overran our cities, killed our families, murdered us through a whole generation. We got too good at fighting them. We were too much smarter than them. When their numbers started to thin out after all these years, and when those of us who were left learned too many strategies to deal with them, they weren’t dangerous anymore.
That’s why the virus adapted. It could no longer propagate itself the old way—only the most successful strains continued to pass on into the human population. The strains that were more deceptive. The strains that left victims looking more normal, acting more lucid. The virus adapted to deceive us, to keep us unaware that it was spreading through our loved ones and our neighbors.
You need to understand what I’m telling you. It was natural selection.
The virus evolved to be more successful as conditions changed. And what we have now is something different than what we had before. Our enemy isn’t a mass army anymore, mindlessly breaking over our cities in waves. Now we have sleepers among us—people who look and act like you or me, but who are every bit as driven to kill as the zombies in the old days were.
You can’t pick out the infected when you see them. You can’t hear it in their voices. They look like anyone else in the crowd. They act like anyone else. And when they get you alone, they will murder you. They will pass on the infection, because that is the only thing that drives them, and all their acting and charades are just to make them more effective propagators of the virus.
They don’t have personalities, they just act like they do.
They don’t have memories, they just act like they do.
In a world where we’re all ready to shoot the infected on sight, the infected have adapted to look normal.
Too many people don’t believe this. They don’t understand that not believing it makes them incredibly vulnerable. The Sleepers need nothing more than for you to doubt they exist.
The virus continues to spread, silently.
If you knew your daughter was infected, but she was standing in front of you acting normal, would you put her down? Would you believe she had really turned? No, you wouldn’t.
And you would go on not believing it right until she murdered you without a twinge of remorse. Because your daughter is already dead, and the thing in front of you is a heartless mimic.”
There was a tone that signaled the end of the pre-recorded message, and it began again from the beginning. Just like it had over and over for many years now, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
The signal swept off from the weather-beaten radio tower, cascading over brambly terrain, pinging through abandoned mountain ravines and radiating off into the vacant sky. The message, starting at the beginning, told of a settlement of several thousand souls who had recouped the ruins of Sacramento, California, and begun the work of rebuilding a small, self-contained civilization for themselves. It gave the coordinates of the city. It called for anyone who could hear the message—scattered people, alone or in family clans, eking out short existences in the wilderness. It called to those who didn’t know there was still something left of civilization.
Then the message continued on into the second half, where the voice gravely told any poor, huddled listeners that the plague wasn’t gone. The horror that had burned the world of their parents and grandparents was still alive under the ashes they rebuilt their lives on. And that horror had a new form for a new age.
In the wilds, the lost waifs faced more dangers than they knew. The best chance they had at survival was seeking out the city-state of Sacramento, slipping into the fold of the bourgeoning new society.
In the dilapidated office below the radio-tower, the two operators sat in silence monitoring the equipment, making sure the broadcast went uninterruptedly and listening intently for any reply from the outside.
There hadn’t been any reply for a long time.
Crisp sunlight slanted in the clean window, falling across peeling paint the color of eggshells.
“The vet was awful last week,” Alan, one of the radio technicians, said. “Line out the door. Understaffed. I should know by now not to put it off until the last of the month. Everyone puts it off to the last minute, so there’s a fucking crowd there every time.”
Jeffrey, the other technician, nodded in commiseration as his coworker spoke. He knew how alternately boring, stressful and dehumanizing vetting could be. That was why he had skipped it last month.
He looked away sheepishly. The topic made him profoundly nervous. Part of Jeff wanted to mention off-handedly to the other man that he had skipped vetting, but part of him was afraid what Alan might think. There was one demographic that invariably skipped vetting, and that was a demographic he didn’t want his friend to assume he had fallen in with.
Vetting was a precaution against the spread of infection inside the city. Some people would always be exposed, somehow. That was a fact of life. Vetting was meant to quickly identify those who had been compromised and quarantine them before they could become vectors and spread the virus themselves. At the end of quarantine, if the exposure hadn’t become full-blown infection, they would be released. If the virus turned them, they would be dealt with by the Sacramento Bureau of Public Health—a euphemistic title for an agency of government-sanctioned hit-men, their job descriptions falling somewhere between police officers and euthanasia doctors.
Jeff kept his eyes downcast over the radio dials, avoiding Alan’s gaze. He thought about friends who had gone through the awful, humiliating process of state quarantine. And he thought about those couple friends who had been diagnosed as vectors over the years. He didn’t know the exact details of how they were dealt with, but he never saw them again. It was a horrible system, but it was a system put in place to prevent something even worse.
Jeff wasn’t old enough to remember the world during the first outbreak of the plague—back when the virus was in a cruder form that left the infected like shambling mannequins, slopping off putrid flesh, thronging after their victims and killing with nothing but teeth and fingernails. He wasn’t old enough to remember—but his father had told him stories. The now sixty-something man had been in his late teens when the plague first came to his home in Kansas. The “drunks,” as they were called, came suddenly, dragging their feet, tottering like they had been hit over the head too many times.
A group of seven or eight had broken into the barn where Jeff’s father tried to hide with three other boys. Jeff’s father had only survived because his best friend was overweight and couldn’t run fast enough.
Jeff shuddered and forced himself to stop thinking about the stories. He couldn’t even imagine having to make a decision like that. He was grateful to live in a different time, after the worst of the plague was over.
Vetting is part of what keeps all that from happening again, he thought. Why did I skip? It’s like jury duty. You don’t like it, but it’s your fucking civic responsibility. So why did you skip it? He shook his head to clear his mind, grabbing his cup of coffee and taking a deep sip of the cold, bitter brew. You feel fine, is why you skipped. You skipped because being dehumanized and stressed out, letting a bunch of doctors take blood to check for abnormal protein formations is a waste of time if you already know you’re not infected.
Alan wasn’t talking anymore, and Jeff was grateful for that. The two sat in silence for a while longer, watching the dials, listening for communications from outside the city limits that neither of them expected would come.