TAKE A DARK RIDE…
© Stephen Carver, 2016
‘The thing I love about this job,’ said the soldier, ‘is that you never know where you’ll end up next.’
You and me both, I thought, following him along the deserted seafront. One day you’re doing a bit of freelance journalism, the next you’re on some mysterious Pacific island at the invitation of the owners, all expenses very generously paid. Odd really, given that when I was in the Fleet Street mainstream I was one of their most ardent critics. I shielded my eyes and surveyed a promenade of abandoned cars and looted shops. Off the grid corporate retreats can get pretty weird but I hadn’t seen this one coming.
‘Where are all the people?’ I asked the soldier.
‘You’ll see,’ he said.
‘But the guy I’m supposed to meet, is he still here? I mean, the place looks like a bomb’s hit it.’
‘More than one,’ he said, ‘but it’s nothing we can’t handle. The complex is still fully functional. A minor incursion, know what I mean?’
‘Not really,’ I said.
I was in desperate need of a shower and sleep. I didn’t even know where I was anymore. I was no war correspondent, and rarely left London for a story. But this one was so big, not to mention exclusive, that I had no choice. Who cares why a senior exec in a company I once described in print as ‘gross and cynical plagiarists’ chose to grant me his first interview in years. He did, and that was all that mattered. Professionally, this was going to be a real game-changer.
‘…I mean, look at this place,’ my escort was saying, returning to his original topic, ‘it’s a f***ing island paradise.’
‘Yeah,’ I agreed, ‘just like Bikini Atoll.’
‘Exactly my point,’ he said enthusiastically, as if he’d just discovered we supported the same team. I wasn’t sure if he was regular army or private security. The camouflage indicated the former, but he kept his head bare, which didn’t suggest the traditional military, although I hesitated to use the term ‘mercenary.’ As we walked he put his finger to an earpiece and then spoke into a mic on his shoulder. ‘That’s right, I’ve got him. We’re in Sector Three, I’m just giving him the guided.’ He paused and then laughed, ‘Sounds like a plan,’ he said, ‘let’s do that. Out.’
We kept walking, keeping to the centre of the hellish strip, stepping around rubble and trash, the rotten smell of rainforest gradually overwriting the ocean. There were bullet holes in some of the cars. I raised my phone, but my companion dissuaded me with a shake of the head. ‘They don’t like you taking pictures,’ he said simply. I didn’t argue. ‘Your phone won’t work here, anyway, mate,’ he added.
‘Figures,’ I said, checking anyway. He was right.
Ahead of us, a shadowy figure suddenly emerged clumsily from a doorway and looked down the street towards us. He reached out a hand imploringly.
In reply the soldier stopped, raised his weapon and put the man down with a single shot.
Like most normal people, I had no register for actual death beyond films, games and family funerals. I kept waiting for the guy to get up again, but he didn’t. After the shock of the gunshot the waves crashing behind us sounded weird, like a bad recording. ‘Jesus Christ!’ I said, aware my voice was rising. ‘Why did you do that?’
‘Local hostile,’ said the soldier. ‘We’d better get out of here. There’ll be more. Stay close and do what I tell you.’
‘No one said anything about “local hostiles”,’ I said.
‘Then why are you here, mate?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said.
The boat would be long gone by now, so we made for one of the buildings, some sort of supermarket. The main door was locked but the soldier kicked it open and went in, signing me to follow. He switched on a torch on the barrel of his rifle and shone it into the darkness. There were huge cobwebs everywhere. I didn’t like to think what had made them. The air inside was foul.
‘They hide in the corners,’ he said over his shoulder, without further clarification. ‘If I gave you a pistol would you be able to use it?’
‘Do me a favour.’
‘Then find something heavy,’ he said.
We were in the drinks section, and although all the beer was long gone the ads remained. There was a man-sized mannequin of a baseball player in corporate colours swinging a real bat. I tooled up without conviction.
‘Classic,’ said the soldier.
We crept down the long aisle. There were a couple of bottles of water lying on the otherwise empty shelves. ‘Do you think these are safe?’ I whispered.
‘Go for it,’ he said, though I noticed he didn’t have any.
It was like drinking from the hot tap, but I sucked one down gratefully. I was thinking about stashing the other when there was a crash that could only be the last of the door going. I jumped and dropped the bottle.
‘Bo***cks,’ said the soldier.
Something growled in the shadows behind us.
The soldier got on the radio and started arguing, terminating the exchange with a dreadful oath.
‘What did they say?’ I asked him.
‘They said I woke them up, so I can deal with them.’ He spat on the dirty laminate floor.
‘Woke who up?’ I said.
‘Them,’ he said, nodding towards the front of the store.
‘You’ve got to be f***ing kidding,’ I said.
The doors had given way, and with a battlefield stench a great hoard of people flowed in, as stiff as robots and rotten as high game. With a shark’s sense of prey, they were heading unerringly for us, like free radicals in a concrete body. They were dressed in ordinary civilian clothes, but this was no normal crowd of rioters. Eyeless, flayed and mummified, even at a distance it was more than clear that they were no longer alive.
‘How much ammo do you have?’ I asked the soldier.
‘Not enough,’ he replied.
‘They can’t be f***ing real,’ I hissed, ‘what the bloody hell are they?’
He shrugged. ‘Have you not seen the movies?’ he said.
‘You mean they’re actors,’ I said, almost pissing myself with relief, ‘thank Christ for that.’
‘No mate,’ he said, ‘they ain’t actors.’ They had blood in their eyes and maggots in their mouths. Their skin was slimy brown leather. ‘When I’m down to the last couple of rounds,’ he said, ‘I’ll do us.’
‘No,’ I said weakly. ‘I’m not ready.’
‘Before this is over you’ll be begging me to do it.’
‘F*** you,’ I said, ‘and your f***ing bosses.’ This was clearly their doing, my hosts, Chiranjivi, one of those massive conglomerates the politicians sold us all out to, like bored princes transferring power to an occupying army. ‘What the f*** happened?’ I demanded.
‘Don’t f***ing know, don’t f***ing care,’ he said. ‘I’m just a body guard.’
I was getting desperate. ‘Can’t you call for help again?’ I pleaded.
‘Too late now.’
‘Can we not get out the back, then?’
‘Listen,’ he said, ‘they’re already there.’ He was right. We were quickly being surrounded by flyblown, staggering death. It was hopeless. ‘Go for their heads,’ he shouted, firing into the mass.
I swore and swung in panic as much as the flailing arms of the dead allowed, wetly cracking a couple of skulls as they yawned towards me. They just kept coming, scrabbling and snarling, and clambering over each other like rats pouring out of a sewer. The soldier fired with precision but they were on us soon enough, cold, wet claws that ripped and tore, ragged teeth snapping. I couldn’t lift the bat. I saw the soldier raise his rifle through a dim red light. Something punched me in the face.
No. That’s not right. That’s not how it happened.
I was laying down some hard miles along the old Pacific Highway in a black Cadillac convertible with this crazy ex-merc who’d picked me up off the side of the road after my motorcycle went bad on me. We were drinking excessively and bombing speed to keep our eyes sharp and our hands steady.
‘This is how fighter pilots kept it together in the Second World War,’ my companion was explaining, flooring it while I rode shotgun. Every few hours we’d trade places. He wore aviator shades and a faded t-shirt that said ‘The hardest thing about the zombie apocalypse will be pretending I’m not excited!’
We’d been discussing the importance of signature weapons: sawn-off shotgun, chainsaw, shotgun sawn off by a chainsaw… I was carrying a pickaxe handle, which required no fuel or ammunition ‘Can’t you just use a goddamn baseball bat,’ drawled the ex-merc.
‘Been done,’ I said.
‘That’s a fair point,’ he replied, grabbing a fishing rod off the backseat and casting a heavy trace with a sea fishing weight at a biter on the shoulder. He heaved the line and the head came clean off. ‘You’re gonna need a bigger boat,’ he called back, reeling in while I took the wheel. I watched the headless body stagger a couple of steps in the rear-view then it went over the rail. Killing was our business. Business was good.
There were biters spread out along the road like hitchhikers leaving a festival. We took turns to shoot at them, and if there was a group we gave them a grenade. Sometimes I’d lean out and fracture a skull or break a jaw like a kid hitting a mailbox. One time I mis-hit and the bastard grabbed on to my club and wouldn’t let go. He was clawing and snarling and running alongside of us like I owed him money. My bud floored it but the stupid deadie still wouldn’t loosen his grip and neither would I. We dragged him till there weren’t nothing left but his arms, head and shoulders. I shot him in the face and he finally let go.
We were going great until some f***er dropped a biter head off a bridge. It landed in my lap while I was the designated driver. We were on a straight and I was doing about a hundred and twenty per. Our eyes met as its teeth closed on my crotch. Someone was screaming, and then we were flying, past the cliffs and out over the ocean. The rocks came up to give me a little tap, just like a kid hitting a mailbox.
I was on the road having had a spot of bother with a rich man’s wife.
It was the usual story. She’d married young, and the age gap had not seemed so much when she was twenty and he was fit and fifty. But she was pushing forty now and he had not aged well. Emphysema was slowly drowning him and he was all but crippled with arthritis. I was the care assistant. He was decent enough to me, but there was something grotesque about him. It was his skin that got to me, stretched over him like a shower curtain wrapped around a skeleton.
She was a fine looking woman, and he was very proud. ‘Marrying her,’ he told me once, coughing wetly, ‘was the best thing that ever happened to me.’
‘You’re a lucky man,’ I agreed, thinking of the way her hips moved in those fashionable black skirts.
It was only a matter of time until she made her move. After that we couldn’t leave each other alone. She took to slipping him sleeping pills and then coming to my room. There were no servants, and when the old man was out of it we had the run of the place.
Eventually she broke the spell. ‘He still makes me do things,’ she said one day, sitting up in bed and lighting a cigarette.
‘What things?’ I asked her.
‘Dirty, filthy things,’ she said. ‘Not like us,’ she added. ‘He says I have to, or he’ll cut me out of his will. He has a half-brother somewhere, in the military I think, and he says he’ll leave it all to him unless I do what he wants.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said uselessly, trying to get my arm around her.
‘I hate him,’ she said, moving away. ‘Why won’t he just die?’
I had been wondering about this myself. ‘He’s very frail,’ I ventured cautiously, praying I was reading her right. ‘He could easily have an accident.’
‘Do you think I haven’t thought of that?’ she said. ‘Do you think he hasn’t? There’s a clause in the damn will that says in the event of any death deemed to be unnatural or in any way suspicious the entire estate goes to the half-brother.’
‘Then we wait,’ I whispered. ‘He can’t last much longer.’
‘Neither can I,’ she said.
But he did last. The old bastard was a deal tougher than he looked, although he remained seemingly ignorant of our betrayal. I didn’t know if he was still f***ing her – she didn’t dare drug him every night – but she didn’t raise the subject again and I never asked. It was only when he caught us together that things finally changed.
From her position I’m sure she must have seen him, but she just carried on while he watched from the doorway of my bedroom. He must have woken up and needed me for something. I had no idea we weren’t alone until she greeted him cheerfully over my shoulder.
He just stood there, huge tears sliding down the hollows of his face. I started to apologise, but she kept silent, staring him down in utter hatred.
His face began to distort, and he started to shake violently, gasping for a breath that wouldn’t come. I watched, willing him to go. Finally, he fell backwards into the hallway, one of his slippers flying off as he hit the floor.
I moved to go to him but she held me back. ‘Wait,’ she said, lighting a cigarette. After two more she phoned an ambulance.
But still he did not die. It was, the doctors said, a massive stroke, and they marvelled at his will to live. We had thought him dead, but the paramedics had found a pulse and with his wealth and status the healthcare was exemplary. In a week he was off the critical list.
Eventually they sent him home. I was still his nurse, but now he was completely helpless. Only the sad light behind his eyes betrayed any sign of consciousness. A bedroom was set up for him downstairs, and during the day I sat him in front of the TV, cleaning and feeding him like a baby. He never said a word, but his eyes followed me intently. It would have been more humane to suffocate him with a pillow.
To hasten the inevitable, we made love on his bed every day while he watched silently from the awful prison of his own body. When he finally slipped away we didn’t immediately notice. We put him carefully to bed, and this time we left him all night before we called a doctor.
Following a small private service, the old man was laid to rest in the family mausoleum, a great grey tomb built in the grounds by a Victorian ancestor. If there really was a half-brother, he had not deigned to attend. The reading of the will was a similarly simple affair, the entire estate going to the grieving widow. In acknowledgement of my faithful service, she graciously kept me on as a personal assistant and after a decent interval we were married. We never spoke of the old man.
Our seclusion was interrupted only by weekly visits from the same team of gardeners and cleaners that had maintained the place in the old man’s day. One midsummer evening, after the groundsmen had gone, we walked hand in hand through the great garden equipped for an impromptu moonlight picnic. The air was warm and sweet, the night charged by our mutual desire.
‘Let’s do it by the old fool’s grave,’ she suddenly said.
I could never turn her down. She arranged a blanket not far from the door to the vault and I lit some candles. We drank to the old man’s demise and she lie back laughing and lifted her skirt. Then something hit me hard from behind.
When I came round I was aware only of stone walls in trembling orange light. I was facing a long, low sarcophagus with our candles placed all around the base. There was a shadowy human figure laid out along its length which I took to be a marble effigy. I couldn’t feel anything, but I was evidently propped against a wall because I could see my naked legs splayed out in front of me. I willed myself to move but nothing happened. I tried to speak but no words came. My mouth hurt and my head was throbbing, but I was otherwise completely numb. With a rising sense of panic, I realised that my spine must be damaged. I could do nothing but stare hopelessly at the silhouette on the slab.
All at once the statue sat up and spoke my name. It was my wife.
In the shadows beyond my field of vision something coughed wetly.
Dead lungs still wheezing, the old man lurched out of the darkness, his translucent skin hardened and his bones exposed in the ghostly candlelight. I willed my wife to run, but she was paralysed in terror and struggling for breath. He was on her soon enough, forcing her back onto the stone. He took her in front of me and at last she found her voice.
I awoke shivering and soaked with sweat. My girlfriend turned towards me. ‘I just had the most horrible dream,’ I said.
‘Safe now,’ she said, earnestly stroking my hair and gazing into my soul with her weird crystal eyes. She doesn’t say much as a rule, my gothic girl, my Little Miss Scare. She mostly just watches.
She wasn’t asleep, of course. She never sleeps. She just lies beside me quietly at night, protecting me from the feral dead. We live in a derelict oil tanker, changing cabins periodically to avoid attracting attention. Outside, somebody was shouting. I saw a man running across the dock pursued by several skeletal shapes. They caught up with him soon enough and then the screaming started.
I went back to my girl. It was nobody I knew.
Eventually my zombie girl started to come back to life, so we made for what was left of civilisation. We found a group of preachy, metrosexual survivors led by a state trooper. They shot my girl in the head and hanged me for a necrophiliac. Self-righteous bastards.
‘The stupid woman steered you in the wrong direction,’ the Director explained apologetically. ‘They’re always a bit ditzy when they come back to life.’ He leaned forward across his desk and freshened my drink. ‘So you ended up in Walkerville,’ he continued, ‘when you should’ve stayed in Verona.’
‘Romeo and Juliet, you know? So instead of a gentle Zom/Rom you got the brutal Darwinism of a bleak, character-driven frontier drama.’
‘I see,’ I said, although I didn’t really. I had woken up in an otherwise empty hospital ward a few hours earlier, attended by a young doctor and Latino nurse who looked rather bored.
‘Is it over?’ I kept asking her.
She said I could leave once I’d used the toilet.
I shut up and took a shower. When I returned to my bed there was a corporate hoodie and black 501s laid out next to a pair of Nikes, all tagged and a perfect fit. No one would say what had happened to me, but I was offered counselling. When I declined the nurse had said that in that case the Director would see me soon.
I’d been collected by an indifferent PA after my evening meal and led through the deserted hospital to a lift that had taken me straight up to the Director’s office. The air was conditioned and scented. It was late by then, and the only light in the room came from a retro desk lamp and a bank of screens on the far wall that mixed high quality CCTV images with rolling news and a couple of popular film channels. The sound was off and most of the surveillance cameras were covering workmen and technicians, but a couple were focused on huge piles of bodies, stacked like wrecked cars in a scrapyard.
‘We were watching, of course,’ the Director was saying, ‘you were never in any real danger. Flint wanted to see how things developed.’ He had an executive’s hair, thick and silver.
Dr. Flint, I had learned, was the brains behind the project. He was running a team of scientists and engineers head-hunted from universities and private labs all over the world. I’d heard of him, of course, because of his outspoken views on eugenics and his connection to the Israeli military. He’d dropped off the radar a couple of years before. Now I knew why.
‘Academics,’ said the Director, offering a pantomime shrug.
‘Who needs them,’ I agreed.
‘Well, we do,’ he said, smiling. ‘The project was our CEO’s personal vision, of course, but Flint and his team made it happen.’
‘They certainly did,’ I said. ‘It felt so real.’
‘It was real,’ he said simply.
‘Crap,’ I said. ‘It was one of your video games, and it was incredible, I’ll give you that. Total immersion; I’ve never seen anything come close. It’ll piss all over the competition.’
‘It is a game,’ he said patiently, ‘and it is real. We’ve taken it to the next level.’
‘That’s a great line,’ I said, ‘but I’m still not buying it. It was all special effects and, knowing you lot, a few drugs as well. It was basically a variation on drunken paintballing.’
‘Some of it was artificial,’ he conceded, ‘and yes, a little medication is necessarily involved, but nothing harmful.’
That confirmed my suspicions. I was definitely coming down from something, and it wasn’t just the painkillers the doctor had given me. ‘I assume you brought me here to report on the project,’ I said, already planning my article, ‘so let’s have it. You agreed to an interview.’
He put his hands up, signalling acquiescence. I started taking notes. ‘Are you familiar with the concept of “The Dark Ride”?’ he said.
‘You mean ghost trains and suicidal roller coasters and all that?’
‘Precisely,’ he said. ‘This whole island is an amusement park, and all the attractions are dark rides.’
‘Why focus on zombies, doesn’t that limit your market?’
‘Are you kidding,’ he said, ‘they’re a cultural obsession, and perfect for a destination resort like this. The media is packed with allegories of apocalypse – games, films, TV shows. Everybody’s waiting for the end of the world. I mean, look around you: there’s climate change, resource depletion, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, cancer…’ He paused for effect and gestured at his screens before carrying on: ‘Then there’s religious fundamentalism, terrorism, mass-unemployment, economic austerity, the corporations run everything, the governments are corrupt, and global population growth is insane. The human race is run, my friend, that’s pretty clear. They’ll be sounding the seven trumpets anytime soon. We are the zombies.’
‘So you’re essentially talking cultural response…’
‘I’m talking markets,’ he said, ‘zombies are trending, and like the real deal they’re not just holding their ground they’re expanding. There’s still the classic Romero knock-offs of course, but there are also comedies, love stories, road movies, gothic westerns, even fetish pornography. And don’t get me started on the damn games. Our dark rides represent the key sub-genres, and you, my friend, have been our first customer. You got to take all the rides for free, how about that? How you any idea how much we can charge for just one of these?’ He started indicating specific screens with his finger, proudly counting them off: ‘You’ve got your classic “Resurrection Boulevard,” which is where you started: Romero, Fulci, a dash of Val Lewton. If you’d have lasted longer you’d have got to a conquistador cemetery. Then there’s “Fear and Loathing,” which is more of a Zom/Com. We’ve already covered “Verona” and “Walkerville,” and I know how much you liked “The Vault of Horror,” you stayed in there long enough.’
‘That one didn’t fit,’ I said defensively.
‘For shame,’ he said, ‘that ride was old school, designed for the real connoisseur of the gothic.’ (Which, his tone implied, I was clearly not.) ‘That was a classic EC horror scenario. Good God, man, without those Stephen King would never have written a word!’
I looked at him blankly.
‘Our CEO insisted,’ he conceded. ‘Apparently he loved the comics as a child.’
‘You’re not going to tell me that was real, then?’
‘We do use some actors,’ he admitted. ‘The old boy was in the RSC, and we nabbed the cast of that TV show for “Walkerville” as soon as it was cancelled.’
‘I thought they looked familiar.’
‘They were glad of the work,’ he said. ‘And then there are other players, of course,’ he continued, ‘but as you were our first beta-tester we had to improvise. Your wife in “The Vault of Horror” was Tracey from Human Resources.’
I realised I was shaking. ‘I presume your zombies are extras, then, with a few lead actors. Didn’t Romero use film students?’
‘You still don’t believe me, do you?’
‘Think about it,’ he said patiently. ‘The public’s demand for zombies is insatiable. It was only going to be a matter of time before somebody made it happen.’
‘You’re having me on,’ I said.
‘I’m deathly serious. If you can dream it, you can do it. And we did do it, with Dr. Flint’s help, of course, and millions in R&D, but we’ll make that back a thousand times over once we go global. Zombies don’t need wages, there’s no time off, no health insurance and they don’t have a union. Island of the Dead is about to go live.’
I finally believed him. ‘Am I infected?’ I asked quietly.
He flashed a politician’s smile; expansive, sincere and utterly worthless. ‘I assure you, my friend, you have absolutely nothing to worry about,’ he said. ‘As I said before, you were never in any danger. There is no infection, nothing is contagious. Our zombies are activated by a neurotransmitter in their brains that responds to a signal from Control. All our guests are closely monitored, and at “Game Over” these are simply switched off, as is the player. Then the clean-up teams come in and reset everything.’
‘You stuck something in my brain!’ I shouted, rising from my chair.
‘Calm down,’ he said firmly, ‘we did nothing of the sort. We just slipped you a temporary enzyme that responds to a specific frequency and puts you instantly to sleep. You remember that bottled water you drank; it was in that. It’s all part of the dark ride. You experience your own death, now please sit down.’
I backed off and returned to my seat.
‘The only danger,’ he admitted, is in the possibility of players hurting themselves, but that’s true of any extreme sport. And we are heavily insured, naturally.’
‘So what if this neurotransmitter gets damaged, what if you can’t turn them off?’
‘Think about it,’ he replied. ‘If the device gets damaged then it doesn’t work. It’s not controlling them, it’s activating them. No neurotransmitter: no re-animation. Headshots simply become another Halloween decoration.’
‘Isn’t that a waste of resources? Raw materials must be expensive.’
‘Ten a penny,’ he said. ‘The one thing that’s cheap in this world is life. We have arrangements with several governments; then there’s the homeless, refugees, those nice people who leave their bodies to medical science… In point of fact, we have more cadavers than we know what to do with.’
‘Are they conscious?’
‘Of course they’re not conscious,’ he said. ‘That would just be too hideous.’
‘What about disease,’ I asked him, ‘you’re describing an island full of rotting corpses.’
‘We use plastination,’ he said. ‘We embalm them with a curable polymer resin, flexible but completely fixed. And as a precaution guests are also given a prophylactic dose of standard antibiotics.’
‘In the water?’
‘Where else?’ he said, beaming.
Clearly they had thought of everything. I sat back and sipped my drink. ‘So let me get this straight,’ I finally said. ‘You’ve effectively discovered the cure for death, and you’ve built a zombie theme park?’
‘You know as well as I do,’ he replied, ‘that all the serious money’s in entertainment these days.’
‘You don’t really expect me to endorse this abomination, do you?’
‘We’re bringing back dinosaurs next,’ he said, ignoring my last comment. ‘Now let’s talk about putting you on the payroll. Here, have another drink…’
A myotonic jolt brings you back from a nightmare. You reach out to feel the reassuring warmth of your sleeping wife but instead touch only wall. It’s the same on the other side. Are you still dreaming? Were you drunk? Did you fall asleep fully clothed? You try to sit up and, as you smack your head on the lid of your coffin, the pennies finally drop.
You’d scream but your tongue is ulcerated and cracked. Your head aches, your joints ache. Everything aches. You pound the rotten wood above your face in desperation, you bite, you scratch, you claw. The wood goes and you keep digging like a dog. Wet, gritty clay surrounds you as you drag yourself towards the damp night air.
You finally pull yourself free of the earth and collapse onto the soaking grass. All around you the soft ground is writhing and cracking, vomiting up bodies in the moonlight. Laying in the dew and breathing in an increasingly stinking miasma, you wonder how many people were buried alive in this terrible place.
That woman there doesn’t have any eyes. Or a nose.