The Rest of the Mission
A round robin zombie story by the authors of the 2017 Summer of Zombie tour
Oxygen vented into space.
It dissipated fast. Only the water droplets showed the spiral of the space station’s spin for a moment and then they were gone too into the void. The oxygen continued to go and the station was still spiraling toward Earth’s atmosphere.
Captain Fay Stills pushed away from the thick plastic of the window and pulled herself along the wall and away from the lab with her feet trailing behind her. The tight braid against her scalp kept her hair out of her face in zero gravity. It wasn’t this long when she got here and she was never supposed to stay, but then the zombies overran Washington, so the last order was for her to oversee the development of the cure and return it to either the CDC in Atlanta or the Russian Health Administration bunker in Siberia. The Russian transport left without her and her hair grew as she waited for the scientists to create something to combat the virus and finally destroy the walking dead across the globe. The CDC and Siberian bunker were both gone now. It was the second one, that isolated bunker being overrun by zombies, which made Captain Stills start to lose hope that a cure mattered any longer.
One of the dead Russians chewed open a respected French virologist’s throat as the men’s locked bodies spun in a counter motion to the death spiral of the station. Red droplets formed perfect orbs which spread out from the wound until they splattered against the clean walls to break into smaller orbs.
Fay Stills sealed the lab behind her and pulled herself through the perimeter corridor between conduits and insulated cords. She did her best to ignore how often and quickly the giant, bright curve of Earth raced by the windows to her right. She clutched the handle to the small case of samples in her left fist and kept going.
One of them came at her in the air through another open passage. Fay released the wall and grabbed the figure’s throat with her free hand before the creature could find flesh with its teeth. She fought the urge to smash its skull with the corner of the case holding the fragile samples.
Dr. Lisel Glass held larger cases in both hands, so she wasn’t free to defend herself from the Captain’s choke. “I’m still alive. Did you get it?”
Fay’s back bounced off the bulkhead and she let go of Doctor Glass to steady herself with a grip on one of the struts. “Yes.”
“The correct case?”
“Yes, Unit 1-32-473A with samples from Batch 19. I checked three times, Doctor.”
Lisel Glass glanced down the passage toward the lab. “Doctor Petit?”
“He didn’t make it. Where’s Martin?”
Lisel turned her head the other direction. “Still in the escape pod guarding the hatch like you told her, I assume. I hope.”
Fay took Dr. Lisel Glass by the collar, using the same hand which held the handle to Unit 1-32-473A with Batch 19 inside. Captain Fay Stills pulled them both along the perimeter wall as fast as she could toward the escape pod’s hatch.
“Can we launch with the station spinning like this, Fay?”
Fay Stills puffed her cheeks out as she exhaled before she answered. “I don’t know if we should, but we sure as hell are going to because staying aboard here is something we most definitely cannot do.”
They had made radio contact with a new lab south of Berlin. They were working on a cure too. They shared information and identified a lake nearby where the pod could land. Then, they were all dead when their “live” specimens escaped containment.
Three weeks ago, on the station, they developed a cure. It was a pathogen harmless to living flesh, but deadly to the transference agent for the zombie virus and 99.7 percent destructive to the virus itself. And it could be breathed in by the zombie’s own dead lungs. Only a couple parts per million would take out the single zombie within a few hours and every other zombie it breathed near in the meantime.
The station put out a general call to any labs in every language of every country they passed over in orbit after orbit. They replicated as much of Batch 19 as they could on the station. Lots of desperate people radioed back, begging for the cure, but with no lab facilities to do the work that needed to be done. Thousands more probably received the message, but had no capability to respond to the station.
Then, a lab on the east coast of Florida a few miles south of Jacksonville radioed back. They were active, secure, and working on a cure. They had not developed one of their own, but they had an aerosol delivery system which could be developed into small handheld units or large scale delivery from ground vehicles or from the sky.
The crew took three orbits to communicate and verify the identities of scientists and engineers in the lab, their scientific knowledge, and the specifications of their equipment. Dr. Hellen Martin and the now late Dr. Petit had discovered the Florida lab possessed the necessary equipment, power, and raw materials to replicate Batch 19 on a mass scale.
They planned to launch one pod with Glass, Martin, Petit, Stills, and four of the Russian officers to see about the safe delivery of Batch 19. Others would follow on later orbits once the location and the cure was secured. Things got heated among a few of those being left behind. Things turned violent. Infected blood was accidentally released from storage and then ingested. Russian officers began delivering the virus with their undead teeth and the station lost integrity in the chaos which followed. They were now about to tumble past their drop window and burn up somewhere over the Midwest.
Fay thought, If we don’t launch now …
Dr. Hellen Martin whipped her head around where she stuck it out through the hatch of the escape pod airlock. “Oh, Jesus, I thought you’d never come back. Do you have it all?”
Fay shoved Lisel past Hellen Martin in the airlock. The Captain handed Hellen the smaller case.
“Oh, thank, God.” Hellen stared down at the unit number as she clutched the samples in her hands. “Where’s Dr. Petit?”
Fay pushed Hellen into the pod and took hold of the hatch from the inside. “Secure everything. We have to launch soon. Probably now, if we want a chance in hell of any of this mattering.”
Hellen went to comply as Lisel Glass finished locking down the cases of enzymes and DNA strands next to the bag containing all the disks and data.
“Put on the pressure suits and helmets too and strap into the seats. Doesn’t matter which ones.”
She seized the hatch and then heard him screaming from up the corridor. One of the Russians, Roman was his name, clawed his way along the perimeter from the other direction. Mangled bodies still snapping their teeth followed in their uncoordinated fashion. Fluids in red, green, and black as deep as the void between the stars swirled around the undead and spewed from their wounded bodies.
Roman’s endless string of curses in Russian broke to English when he spotted Captain Stills. “Wait. Don’t leave me. I’m alive. No bites. Wait!”
“Hurry up, Roman. We have to launch now. Move your ass, if you want to live.”
Stills looked up into the ceiling of the pod. The readouts were only in Russian and she missed most, but not all of the scrawl, as readings in orange ran past the map of Florida creeping by in green. The window for splash down was closing, even if they didn’t get smashed open upon separation from the station or burned up in the pod spinning out of control back into the sky.
The scientists buckled in and twisted their helmets closed on the rubber ring around the suits’ necklines.
She stuck her head back out of the hatch. “Toropit’sya, Roman! Move your ass!”
Fay tried to tell herself she wasn’t seeing the beginnings of reentry flames gathering outside the windows.
Roman reached a hand out as he pushed off from the wall and soared toward the hatch. “Save me, please.”
Fay seized his forearm and jerked him bodily into the escape pod. “Strap in or you’ll bash your damn brains out when we hit the atmosphere. Remen’ vee! Teper’.”
“Okay.” Roman pulled himself into a seat among the many empty spots in the escape pod.
Fay slammed the hatch and sealed the airlock. The dead dragged their hands across the window in silent growls. Filth smeared the inside of the station’s airlock. She struck the red button with the heel of her hand and the seals blew outside. The pod rocked through its metal hull, but did not rupture. As the vibration went deceptively still, she saw the station whip out view and the stars streaked space in white lines.
She dragged an orange suit out from under a seat and pulled it on in record time. She swept the multi-point harness into place and twisted on the helmet until it sealed and the oxygen supply hissed on. They were not attached to the backup floatation devices under the seat and their suits had not been harnessed to the secondary chutes. This would have to do though because time had run out.
As the pressure bladders around her legs inflated, Fay saw Roman had strapped in without putting on a suit or helmet. He could not hear her through her helmet now because none of the radios were connected or activated. If the pod didn’t split open or he didn’t suffer an aneurism from reentering unprotected, he was going to pass out without the pressure bladders on his legs.
Too late now. Maybe too late for all of them.
She looked up through her visor. The Russian scrawl was in red and the map of Florida was in orange now. The coast was so close to the edge of the screen it hardly seemed possible to land in water now. If they survived hitting solid ground with the parachutes, they were likely to break a few bones at least. Maybe a leg or two. There would be no hobbling away from the zombie infested landscapes between them and the lab.
She dropped her eyes to Roman across from her. His eyes were wide and darting. Maybe he realized he was the only one not suited up. Lisel and Hellen were breathing hard, but didn’t seem to be in full panic. The extra oxygen was probably making them lightheaded.
Eyes up again. Scrawl in red and map in red too. Shit. They were tumbling. If the pod didn’t right itself like it was designed to do as the air began to thicken with the belly shield down, they would be a fireball in seconds. If they came in too sharp, they’d bounce right off the atmosphere and spin away into space. To shallow and they were going to crack open like an egg – a very, very flat egg. All automated and out of their hands at this point.
The ship shuddered and rocked hard from side to side. Fay started to feel the light pull of gravity again. It was both familiar and oppressive.
It steadied, but the vibration increased. Flames washed out the view on all sides. The pod was belly down at least for now. They were coming in. But where?
“The wrong place.” Her voice echoed inside her helmet as she watched the scrawl. “We’re coming down inland. Shit. We waited too damn long.”
She looked across. Roman’s eyes rolled up. Blood filled the whites. He closed his eyes and his head lulled to the side and bounced with the bucking of the pod.
Two cracking explosions shook them. The chutes deployed and their craft jolted into a slower rocking descent. Fay felt pressed by the pull of gravity. It was tough to draw air. She had warned the scientists earlier they had been in space a long time and their muscles would give them trouble, but she wasn’t sure they remembered after all the recent commotion.
They landed to the sound and spongy feel of water. Splash down? Fay looked up as the craft bobbed on water, but the screens had gone black.
Captain Fay Stills unbuckled herself and twisted off her helmet with shaky hands. Her knees and back screamed at her as she forced herself to her feet. The scientists unbuckled and removed their helmets, but did not attempt to get up yet.
“I can’t move.” Hellen groaned.
“Gravity.” Fay heaved for air with her heartbeat pounding in her skull. “We can’t do the usual R&R or tickertape parades, I’m afraid. We’ll have to fight through the weakness and get moving.”
Fay pulled two black, squared bags out from under the seats. “Put all the important gear into here. Strap everything in tight, so it doesn’t jostle around. Seal the top well, so no water gets in. These will float, if we need them to, and help us to get to shore. Leave your suits on for now. The bladders will help us float too.”
Fay knelt and wrestled open another cabinet. One of the hinges had broken during the reentry. She dragged out a yellow cube of folded rubber. She felt along the sides and found the inflator and cord were broken. Her gloved fingers discovered a deep tear in the material. “Shit.”
Lisel and Hellen fought their way up from their seats onto shaky legs.
Lisel said, “I feel like I have lead weights around my arms and legs.”
“It will get easier.” Fay crawled over to Roman’s seat. “It’ll feel better once we get in the water. I promise.”
She slapped his cheek a couple times and his head rolled from one side to the other. His chest still rose and fell, so that was something. “Roman, open your eyes. Vistavay, Roman. Come on. Wake up. We have to go, man. Otkroy svoi glaza, Roman. Toropit’sya. Zombies s’yest tebya, poka ty spish’.”
She unbuckled him and left him propped in his seat with his eyes closed for the time being. Fay took to her feet and climbed out of the hatch onto the wide lip around the base of the escape pod. The bright sunshine and humidity hit her like a wave, but no actual waves nor sea spray caught her face like she expected. There was a weird smell.
Her eyes adjusted and she saw low trees with black roots along the shore. The water was calm, flat, and greenish black. She could not see more than a foot down into it. Fay leaned out on her shaky arms and tracked the tight curve of the land around them. The chutes floated on the surface a few yards away to the northeast.
It wasn’t a shore; it was a bank. This was a small inland lake or pond. Maybe a lucky break compared to hitting solid ground. But …
“We’re in the wrong place.”
She heard the scientists banging around inside. They weren’t being careful with their precious cargo. Maybe dropping things from the weight of full gravity again.
She started to turn toward the hatch, but then motion on the far western bank caught her eye. She froze and stared. Bodies. Human forms stepped out of the trees and waded into the water. One fell face down and sunk into the murk. More emerged. Dozens. Then, maybe a hundred or more by the time the front zombies were waist deep a few feet from the bank.
“We need to go. Hurry up.”
One of the women yelled something inside, but Fay couldn’t make it out. She turned away from the zombies toward the hatch and spotted something toward the south in the water. The shapes were big and drifted toward the pod in the water. Crocodiles.
“Son of a bitch.”
Fay tilted her head toward the blue sky she had thought she would never see again. White streaks spread from the apex of the dome of sky toward the ocean they should have landed in some unknown distance to the east. It was the burning pieces of the station where the cure for zombies had been invented three weeks ago. Batch 19 and all the building blocks bound for the Baxter-Sutton Bioengineering Institute campus a few miles south of Jacksonville, Florida. A sprawling city probably sick with hordes of the undead. But they had to avoid these zombies and reptiles and who knew what else first. “Doctors, we need to get the hell out of here. What’s the hold up?”
Roman lunged out of the hatch sideways. His eyes were blood red and he growled as he spotted Captain Stills. Roman clawed at her and Fay scrambled away along the ledge.
His shirt caught on a bolt and tore. He thrashed around halfway out of the hatch and Fay saw two half circles of crusted bite marks around one of his shoulder blades.
“Not bitten, you said, you lying sack of shit.” Fay pulled herself to her feet. She kicked him in the face twice as he grabbed at her suit. She stomped the side of his head and Roman snapped his teeth at her ankle.
Roman tipped out of the hatch and spilled over the edge upside down. Lisel and Hellen leaned out each holding one of his legs as they dumped Roman into the water. He twisted around as bubbles rose from his mouth. Then, he sunk below the surface and vanished.
“Good work, but why didn’t you tell me sooner that he had turned?”
Lisel cut her eyes at Fay. “We can barely lift our arms and we had to fight off a zombie in a tight space. I think we did all right.”
Fay smiled and nodded. “Get the bags out. We have more zombies swimming out from the west and crocodiles investigating from the south.”
“Oh, superb,” Lisel said.
They hauled the bags up and Fay took them by the straps. She dragged both bags out of the hatch onto the ledge. The doctors climbed out next.
“Is this a lake?” Hellen said as she shielded her eyes.
“Yes, we need to find a town, a sign, or a highway once we get to land to figure out where we are and how far we need to go.” Fay looked around past the reptiles and the bobbing undead. The northern bank appeared closest with the reeds growing a few feet out in the water and sawgrass beyond that. “We need to swim this way and then keep moving.”
“We have to get Batch 19 to the facility,” Lisel said. “It’s more important than anything, Captain.”
“We will,” Fay said. “We have to.”
Fay shoved the bags off the north side of the floating pod. They splashed, but floated on the surface.
We reentered and landed alive. Mostly, Fay thought. And the bags float. At least some things are working out.
“Get ready to jump and swim for shore, Doctors.”
Lisel and Hellen nodded.
Roman burst to the surface underneath where they stood. Brackish water poured out over his lips and out of his nostrils. He held the side of the pod and grabbed for their feet.
To be continued …