« Oomblaug Day » was first published in the November 1996 issue of Parsec , Canada’s first (and very cool) comprehensive science fiction magazine. Fifty years after those maggot-faces crawled out of their graves and invaded the earth, what’s a regular « livey » to do? Francis goes to the office one day, dares to speak up to his zombie boss, and promptly gets fired. Is there life after the invasion? Get a taste of…
Francis squirmed on the three-legged stool. Despite his best efforts, his nose wrinkled at the omnipresent odour of decayed flesh. Across from him, Mrs Zardog leaned forward, her mummified arms firmly planted on the carved mahogany desk, and said nothing.
He glanced around the room, pulling at his collar. On the wall, a calendar featured fat, naked liveys, posing, surrounded by a few animal carcasses and sitting on piles of worms. The liveys were smiling. They always smiled. Looking delicious had its advantages. You got more money and food that way.
Francis squirmed a little more. He felt conspicuously mortal. Alive. Human. A soft, squiggly thing.
Then, in a cavernous voice that echoed throughout the room , Mrs Zardog dismissed his request for better ventilation: « Let’s get one thing straight. Your pathetic sensitivity is not the result of our production methods. It’s a livey thing. Get it fixed. »
Francis felt his fear turn into anger. Careful now, he chided himself. Stick to the facts. You know what happens to liveys who get upset. They use it against you. See, humans are nothing but weaklings. Why let them work for wages? Why not simply herd them into compounds?
He took a controlled breath, trying not to look nauseated, and set forth his arguments. Logically. « Mrs Zardog, ma’am. Many, many studies have shown that liveys are better, more productive workers when they have access to fresh air. Nasal operations are painful and they take liveys out o f the workforce for some time. They’re also cruel. Smell is important to us. »
Mrs Zardog clicked her few remaining teeth impatiently. Her eyeless face scowled at him: « Those are livey studies, no doubt. Other underlings have not complained, » she rumbled out. « They get operations when they need them. We have other priorities. This is a clothing factory, not a livey pampering station. »
Maggot-breath, thought Francis, looking across the desk. Good thing zombies don’t read minds. Not that it makes any difference now. He heard his voice rise by half an octave, awash with defeat. You idiot, why are you bothering. Because it’s too late to back down, that’s all.
« All it takes is separate ventilation. There are plenty of ways to do it cheaply. It’s a small investment to boost overall production. »
The answering snarl was stern and dismissive. « Need I remind you that, to boost production, we can simply replace you. It’s not that difficult. There are plenty of desperate liveys who would love to be in your place. Have all the fresh air you want. You’re fired. Don’t come crying to me when you’re homeless and someone bites your arm off for a little snack. »
Francis blanched. He backed away shaking and stunned, staggered out of the office and ran out of the airless building.
Finally, out of breath, he staggered to a broken, rotting bench. After a few gulps of air, he stood and continued.
All around the city strewn with bones of stray animals, banners hung across the street from lampposts. Day after tomorrow was Oomblaug Day. Oh, great. Commemorating conquest. As if we needed reminding, thought Francis.
He froze as a careening truck ran into a car full of liveys. The truck driver and passenger laughed at the shrieks of pain and the scream of metal shattering glass. Another day, another « accident. » The recent dead were fair game. No license required.
A crowd swarmed around the twisted wreckage of the car. The dead were pulled out, arms and legs ripped off. Hair, brain, blood and gristle flew in all directions as the feast began.
Francis stumbled forward. Ahead was a café. Its wooden facade was grey, the denuded clapboards faded by years of rain and sun. A few tables and chairs spilled out onto the sidewalk. Two of the occupants were debating loudly, oblivious to the carnage just a few blocks away.
A bombastic voice boomed above the rest: « … If we didn’t have plenty of people selling their arms and legs or whatever, you know the zombies would just get worse. They’d go after the rest of us. And those pictures are just pictures. Besides, those liveys get paid enough. They make millions! »
Another voice piped in, slightly tremulous. « A friend of my cousin’s dated someone who had a bite taken out of his shoulder after he posed like that ».
Mr. Bombastic snorted with contempt: « Well, if you jiggle in front of the zombies, of course they’re going to bite. But then you want the money, you take your chances… Anyway, it’s their choice, not mine. You won’t see me ending up between zombie teeth. I’ve got friends. Zombie friends, » he added significantly. « We have a deal. I get them body parts and when my time comes, they’ll initiate me. »
Mr. Tremulous sounded skeptical. « They don’t exactly initiate a lot of liveys. We get butchered faster than we can replace each other. The zombies want all the fresh bodies they can get their teeth into. »
Mr. Bombastic was unfazed. « Maybe. But I’m different. I’m tough. They like that. I can drink blood with the best of them. And a deal is a deal… »
The voices trailed off as Francis walked on. His stomach churned. He hated ex-liveys more than he hated the originals who’d come out of their graveyards half a century ago. But the bosses needed a food supply, so, of course, they didn’t kill everybody. They just moved into the big plush offices where hotshot liveys used to be.
On a decrepit nearby wall, a billboard advertised an upcoming conference ; « LIVEYS. ENFORCING POACHING PROHIBITIONS. »
How considerate, thought Francis. Zombies could technically only hunt and kill vagrants, dissidents or Outsiders. If they could find any. Then again, maybe the Outsiders were just a myth. Everybody’s sister had a story about them. Francis thought of Ernestine, the janitor, and her hatred of the « worm-butts. » One day she just left, and never came back. Like a few others he knew.
Francis continued toward his garrisoned dwelling. Much as he tried, he couldn’t get used to the carnage. Sure, the world wasn’t fair. But it was just depressing to see people ripped to pieces like that.
Suddenly, an unpleasant, pseudo-cavernous voice called out behind him:
« Hey, blood-bag! Move your little warm soft ass or it’ll be dessert! »
Francis trembled. Despite himself, he whirled around to face his interlocutor. Bad move. If you were smart, you ran.
The creature facing him was in the earlier stages of putrefaction. A recent, cocky swaggering recruit: face bloated, skin green and purple, almost fresh. What it had done for initiation was anyone’s guess. Francis could sense a wave of self-hatred and insecurity washing over its body as it stood in front of him, testing its new-found power like an aphrodisiac. Of course, zombies didn’t have sex. Sex was a livey thing, good for expanding the food supply, and another perfect illustration of how liveys were pathetic weaklings, with their mortal needs.
The thing smiled with malice. « You really want to feed me, don’t you? »
It lumbered closer. Francis ran for his life. Away from the threat. He ran until his lungs screamed in pain and his legs felt like dropping off.
At last, the garrison was only a few dozen metres away. He could see its barbed wire and high steel bars beckoning to him like a womb of certainty.
Panting with exhaustion, he inserted his compukey into the door slot, making sure no one was lurking behind, or in the shadows within. He slowly climbed the stairs, checking the mirrors installed, many of which were cracked, to see if any intruders could advance upon him.
The coast was clear. His garrison was relatively secure, compared to some of the older buildings where less-skilled, lower-paid liveys had to live.
Individual zombies couldn’t resist trying to get a snack. Sometimes you were lucky, and they just ate your leg or something.
Francis shuffled into the apartment he shared with his wife. Linda greeted him with the arm she had left. Her right shoulder tump was neatly bandaged. Standard procedure. The limb would be auctioned off, and disappear into a zombie mouth.
Francis sank against the wall. « You lost your case, » he stated in a monotone. Her face was set in grim determination, steeled by bitterness and disappointment. « Yes, I lost. The old mummy was really out to get me. After all, I did hack an arm and a leg off of it. »
Francis stammered out in indignation: « But it was in self-defence! He attacked you in the stairwell you were in! »
Linda shook her head. « I know, I know. Look, I’m not the first. I’m still alive. Bad things can happen to good people. We can’t just give up hope, Francis. Besides, I can still work at the emergency desk. Others do it all the time. My uncle Fred had the same thing happen to him. They took off his left leg. »
Linda sighed, walked up to Francis and kissed him on the lips, warmly and firmly. « What’s done is done. We have to keep living. »
Her eyes hardened. « Some day, we’ll get even. Or we’ll get away. »
She turned to steady herself against the counter. « So how was your day? Did you get anywhere with your boss? »
Francis hung his head and felt the stinging tears of despair run down his cheeks. Linda threw her head back and took a deep breath. Calm, controlled. She never panicked. Besides, she’d encouraged him to stand up for his livey rights. Great thinking. Now what would they do? He couldn’t even take care of her now that she needed him the most. They would have to move out of the garrison.
“Listen,” said Linda. “I have a plan. One of my friends has a business on the side. Counselling amputees. We met at the hospital this afternoon, after the amputation. I’ll talk to him. The pay isn’t good, but it’s better than nothing. We’ll make do. Less food, fewer clothes. At least we don’t have children.
Francis gave a silent prayer of thanks for the hospital’s underground sterilization clinic. It was risky. The penalty was death. Despite the threat, there was a huge backlog. At least hospitals were livey territory. Dealing with that biological stuff was a step down the social ladder for any self-respecting zombie.
Francis and Linda ate their meals in silence. Next door, a television set blared out the dialogue from a zombie movie. There were’t any livey productions showing anymore, except for Night of the Living Dead. Typical.
Morning was grey and wet. Putrefaction weather. The newest recruits were out soaking up the rain, trying to rot as much as possible. Ancient zombies preferred to stay in and wait for hot dry weather, the kind that mummified you just right.
Oomblaug celebrations were gearing up. Francis covered himself with a baggy rubber poncho, hoping to pass unnoticed. As if. He felt like a walking target as soon as he left the building. He strode with purpose, taking side streets, ignoring slobbering glances cast his way. His appointment was in half an hour.
He passed a zombie holo-cade. The brick façade featured simulated blood and plastic replicas of internal organs. The sound of zombie teleholos reached him, with its screams of liveys projected into labyrinths, trapped against the precipices, sliced, diced and joyfully dismembered. Zombie songs blasted out in accompaniment. “Hey jiggle flesh/ Let me splash your warm delicious blood all over my tooth stumps.”
This kind of material was supposed to be an improvement over actual swarming. Francis didn’t care. One thing he did know. It made him feel even worse about life.
He hurried onward. The clinic was small, located in a crumbling storefront that used to be a greengrocers.
Francis peered into the room, his leg outside, trying to decide if he should go in right away and introduce himself. Linda’s friend, Danny, was giving a pep talk.
“It’s not your fault. You did the right thing when you tried to fight back,” said the counsellor to the legless man. He then patted a woman’s lap. “You sold your breasts because you needed to buy food. It’s OK. You’re OK.”
One old man, a new member who was missing his left arm, cut into the spiel.
“I knew I shouldn’t have come here. My doctor’s a horse’s ass. This is useless. Why don’t we all just quit whining? My cousin lost an arm and a leg during the resistance. He didn’t complain. He was proud. Always looked on the bright side. As he used to say: ‘Well, I can still smile and breathe, even if I can’t dance!’”
An old woman, her leg cut off below the knee, nodded in response. “I remember how awful it was back then! They didn’t feed us right – just old, rotten animal carcasses. Then they figured out we were dropping like flies and not having babies. Now liveys have it easy, compared to when I was a young lass. It really isn’t so bad. Sure there’s the odd attack. Random, it is. Not like the old days.”
One young livey stood up and sputtered: “But how can you just have accepted it? Why didn’t you do something?”
The old woman shook her head in disbelief. “Do something? Do what? What are you doing, my young man?”
Her interlocutor stood silent. She nodded slowly. “We couldn’t do anything then, and we can’t do anything now. For all your talk, I don’t see you heading any armies. What kind of armies can you have against creatures that are already dead?”
Francis cleared his throat to signal his presence. “What about the Outsiders?”
The old armless man harrumphed. “Outsiders? Why, they’re just stories. The kind that keeps your hopes up for nothing. I tried to escape once. Didn’t get far. Out there in the country, they go hunting for you. Dozens of them. I was lucky. I bribed a zombie to take my wife’s right arm and my son’s leg. Tastier than my old body. They consented to it. To this day, I’m eternally grateful for the sacrifice.”
The old woman chimed in: “Even if they’re not stories, we can’t all be Outsiders. The zombies just wouldn’t let that happen. And there’s nothing out there. How’s a body supposed to live out in the cold and the rain like that? It might be bad over here, but at least we know what to expect…”
Danny interrupted, walking toward Francis. “I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m the head counsellor. And you are?”
“Francis. Linda’s husband. Pleased to meet you. My wife suggested I come over. She called first thing this morning.”
Danny smiled. “Oh yes. The rebel. It’s an honour to have you here. I’m so sorry about Linda’s court case. Please, sit down.”
Francis didn’t feel like much of a hero. More like a loser. He took a seat nonetheless. Danny surveyed the group and concluded, “Well, our fifty minutes are up for now. Keep up your spirits. Remember, liveys have to stick together. We’re here to help you. We share your pain.”
The clanking of metal chairs, crutches and canes resounded as the assembly prepared to leave. Danny steered Francis into his office. Three wooden chairs, adapted with special bars and supports, faced a battered oak desk, its polish scratched and worn.
Dozens of files overflowed from the top of the desk and from rusted filing cabinets. Danny waved his hand at them in a mock gesture of despair. “Case histories. Five years’ worth. They need to be sorted and filed, A to Z, by date. Right now, it’s a nightmare to try to refer back to anyone. We finally rounded up enough donations to pay for one year of help. So, glad to have you aboard. You’ve got half an hour for lunch and two breaks a day. Dig in. I have another group coming in. Sorry for the abrupt introduction. We’ll talk at noon. See ya.”
He closed the door behind him. Francis surveyed the mounds of paper. He sighed and grabbed a handful of files.
Within these pages lay the broken lives of hundreds like Linda’s. People who broke the rules or were desperate enough to sell themselves. Brady, S., 03/54. Sheldon, H., 04/55. He made 26 separate piles on the floor, on the desk and on top of the filing cabinet. The dates would be sorted later.
As he sifted through, a few pages slipped out of and especially thick file, four years old. He cursed and gathered up the stray papers.
Gold, Marilyn. He froze. It was one of his old girlfriends. Despite himself, he read through the file. To make sure.
It was her. Born in ’44. Beautiful, golden girl Marilyn. He read further. Marilyn was in bad shape. Both arms, one leg and both breasts were gone. Voluntary amputations. She must have had trouble finding work. Two children. One dead during a swarming.
Francis closed the file.
He felt a bottombless sorrow, then fury.
All those years held in check, from fear, from a sense of the inevitable, his rage erupted through his every pore, shaking his body.
Had a swarm of zombies walked into the office at that moment, he would have died striking at them.
Menace hung in the air like a thickening fog. The clinic was clsoed to ensure everyone’s safety.
Looking out the window, through the bards and the double-glass panes, Francis felt nothing. His fear had deserted him. Rage and hatred had subsided to a dull, constant throb. Outside the garrison, zombies were streaming toward the graveyards to drink a little blood, crunch a few bones and swap feasting stories. For liveys, it was a time to stay indoors.
Dozens of files lay scattered across the apartment floor. As he ordered them, he thought of Linda. And Marilyn. Linda was at the hospital. There might be survivors. He had entreated her not to go, but she was adamant.
A frantic pounding at the door and a hoarse voice calling his name startled him out of his brooding. He jumped up. Zombies. They must have broken into the building. Whoever was outside the door was probably half shredded by now. If he let the person in, he was sealing his own death warrant. He picked up a heavy wooden chair and walked up to the door. All he heard was panting and sobs. No other footsteps, no moans, shrieks or cries. Strange. He opened the door.
Danny stumbled in, his face and clothing spattered with blood, his left arm badly mangled. He trembled spasmodically, his eyes wild and desperate.
“I’m so sorry,” he gasped out. “Oh, my God, I’m so sorry. Please. We have to stay here. Barricade the apartment. I had things downstairs but I couldn’t carry them up.”
“Linda,” muttered Francis, and sank to his knees on the floor.
Danny nodded, his features contorted with pain. “They swarmed the hospital. I was there, talking to Linda. Everything happened so fast. They got to her first.”
Francis covered his face with his hands, his body rocking in silent anguish. Slowly, he raised his lead up to face Danny. “There’s gauze and antiseptic in the washroom. I’ll get them.”
He moved as if caught in a web, his shoulders sunk as he attended to the living. As Danny yelped in pain, alternately offering words of comfort, he washed, set and bandaged the mass of dangling muscle and splintered bone.
There was a shuffling and scraping noise in the hall. Danny’s voice rose by an octave in hysteria.
It was too late. The zombies pushed through, snarling and snuffling. There were three of them, one a recent initiate, lipless rictus followed by purplish stumps. The bombastic voice crowed, “Well, well, hello there.” Danny screamed in terror.
Electrified with rage, Francis grabbed the oak chair and swung blindly. One of the zombies was behind him. Danny leaped forward, his last gesture of courage. Enough time for Francis to hack off a few more limbs.
The doorway was momentarily clear. Francis ran out, throwing the chair at his attackers. The stairwell was empty, littered with bone, blood and gristle. He slipped and slid down.
The street was deserted. Outside was Danny’s car, locked, with the windows closed. Inside were pipes, beams and blocks of heavy wood.
In the garrison entrance, guttural moans of malice resounded. The sounds drew closer.
Francis smashed through the car window with a nearby rock, unlocked the door, jumped in and sped forward, out of the city, through the side streets in disaffected areas, not stopping, praying no other vehicle would smash into his. As he drove, he forced himself not to look at the carnage and prayed no one would stop him. The blockades out of the city would be likely less guarded, with most zombies at city graveyards. His stomach tightened in white hatred.
As he approached the city limits, he saw his conjectures confirmed. A lone zombie, ancient as parchment, stood at the exit gate. It was tightly shut, enmeshed in barbed wire, its thick steel railings the diameter of lampposts. The sides of the road were an impassable jumble of concrete blocks, heaped two metres high, spread out as far as the eye could see.
Francis slowed and grabbed a heavy jagged pipe, cradling it between the seat and the door. The zombie guard shuffled forward, armed with a massive, nail-studded beam. Francis stopped the car at a safe distance, 25 metres from the barricade, and reached over for a panel of wood. It was a wardrobe door. He used the handle to lift the door like a shield above his head and emerged from the car.
The zombie swung at him with obvious contempt. Francis blocked the blow easily and slashed at the guard’s leg, his adrenaline pumping furious strength into his livey body. The leg flew off in a cloud of dust. Francis sliced off the mummified head and quickly kicked it out of the way. The body was still moving.
He sliced off the other leg, and ran toward the control house. The barricade clanged open. Francis dropped his shield, sprinted back toward the car and drove through. He then shut the gates again as tightly as he could and destroyed the controls.
No one followed him. The guard had evidently not believed it necessary to alert any comrades. So much the better.
He drove on for hours, his fists knotted against the steering wheel, his stomach a ball of molten lava. The roads were in an advanced state of disrepair. The countryside beyond the designated farms, where livey workers sweated under zombie overlords, was a mass of tangled forest, littered with blanched bones, devoid of animal life.
The road stopped. Logs piled high onto the broken concrete. There was nowhere to swerve, the surrounding woods thick with heavy oak and pine.
Francis braked sharply. He sat, shaken and numb, sweating on the cracked red vinyl, despite the increasing cold. His anger melted, replaced by a creeping terror that grew with the night shadows rapidly encircling the barricade of fallen trees. There was nowhere else to go. This was the Outside.
He grabbed the battle-pipe and carefully opened the car door. Only the sound of stirring leaves greeted him. He walked up to the stump of a fallen oak. The cut was clean. No accident of flash of lightning had tipped the mighty trunks.
Was this the work of Outsiders or zombies? His trembling increased, approaching hysteria.
Careful, he commanded himself. Panic won’t help you. Even against zombies. He willed himself to the cold stark fury that had gotten him out of the citadel. Remember Linda. Remember Danny. Remember Marilyn. He marched forward into the woods.
No path had been ripped into the wilderness. If the Outsiders lived here, they left no obvious traces. He scanned the tall grasses, the thorn bushes and the pine needles on the undisturbed ground.
Then he saw it. A gold-plated eagle on a chain. Like the one that dangled from Ernestine’s neck, the janitor, the last he’d seen her, before she disappeared.
Ernestine never spoke much. She just looked stubborn, her eyes hard. She was tough, defiant, always swaggering about with her floppy coveralls and loud, brightly-colored checkered shirts. She always spat out at “the dirty rotten maggot-breaths.”
That was years ago.
The eagle was just hanging there from a branch, as if someone, or something, had placed it there. Francis reached up to grab it, then stopped his hand in mid-air.
Why was it there? Was it some kind of signal?
Out here, it wouldn’t have any value. It was best left alone.
Then the noises came. From all around, dozens of footsteps. Francis gripped the pipe tighter. He caught sight of a faded, mud-encrusted overall and a distinctive, if tattered, tartan flannel, moving faster than the rest, partly hidden by the dense foliage.
It was Ernestine. She was alive.
Francis whooped in relief and ran up to greet her.
Ernestine’s face emerged from the moving shadows of surrounding foliage. She was grinning.
A permanent, lipless grin, with just a touch of green, mottled, surrounding flesh…