“Ten years ago, a deadly plague ravaged humanity. There were seven billion souls on our planet; now, there’s just a handful. Our extinction event has come and gone, but a few of us did survive. We’re the lucky ones, born with a rare genetic adaptation that gave us immunity to the plague. But the intervening decade had been brutal and unforgiving; so many more of us died.
“I was eighteen years old when I watched my family die one by one. Now, I am alone. I’ve managed to eke out an existence amongst the ruins of our shattered world, but there is so much danger that it’s a miracle I’m still alive. I am a lone female in a world without rules; death stalks me at every turn.
“But I will not give up. I will not surrender. I am the last of my line, and I am determined to honour my family, even if I couldn’t save them.
“My name is Sandy McDermott, and I am a survivor.
“This is my story.”
Targeted Age Group:: Adult (16-70)
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I could go on about how I wanted to explore the nature of the human psyche after a disaster or something, but the truth is much more basic: I wanted to write a post-apocalyptic smut novel. No, I’m serious. When I sat down to write The Survivors, my intention was to write post-apoc erotica. Somewhere along the way, the erotica vanished completely, and was replaced by the deep exploration of the human psyche in the wake of a disaster which I wasn’t even thinking about initially. Isn’t it funny how our lives take a twist?
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
They pretty much wrote themselves, really. I’m an organic writer (otherwise known as a pantser), meaning that I plan nothing in advance – that includes my characters. I love how they turned out, but that was almost entirely up to them, with just the occasional nudge from me in the right direction.
It seemed like a cruel irony.
I’d survived the brutal end of civilization and watched our world fall from grace; I’d watched helplessly while all of my friends and family died one by one, or were reduced to the walking dead. I lived on and yet now, a decade later, my salvation lay behind a faded poster for a film called Zombieland.
Crouched between a dumpster and a stack of decaying boxes, I stared at the ruined poster, wondering at life’s morbid sense of humour. I remembered that movie. It had been out for a few years at the point when the world ended, so it seemed strange to see it still hanging in the window, but places like this backwater little town did tend to be behind the times. I used to enjoy that kind of thing, back when I was a teenager and the world was still whole. The zombie fad had been so popular – there were copies of The Walking Dead in the window, too.
If only we’d known what was to come.
The virus that struck us down was nothing like any of those movies. There was to be no Dawn of the Dead for us, no 28 Days Later. I was eternally grateful for that fact, actually; my reality was very different to the fantasies dreamed up by Hollywood, but mercifully less violent. The dangers in my life sprang from the living, not the undead.
There was one of them in the DVD store across the road from me. I could just see him past the tatty photograph of Jesse Eisenberg, shuffling back and forth between the shelves. He wandered tirelessly, trying to organise his stock with hands no longer capable of gripping.
Some of the undead were still dangerous, but most of them were slow and heart-wrenchingly pathetic, like the little old man in the store. I’d take him over a fast-moving, angry movie zombie any day, even if it did break my heart to look at him. The difference came down to which one was more likely to eat my brain. The real undead weren’t interested in brains, which was fine by me. I liked my brain right where it was.
There was nothing left on the shelves now; the old man had knocked all the videos to the ground long ago, and then crushed them beneath his wandering feet. He was far gone after all these years, his flesh half-rotted and his eyes unseeing. Only instinct kept him moving in his relentless, unattainable quest for perfection.
A lot of the infected seemed to retain the basic memories of their lives, but only the things that they had repeated so often that the action ended up deeply ingrained within their subconscious. The core of their personalities seemed to linger as well, but it was just an echo of the person they’d once been. That made them unpredictable.
I had seen a great many different kinds of infected over the years, and their behaviour seemed to vary depending on the person they’d been before death. Mothers still rocked the withered husks of their dead babies. Soldiers gunned down non-existent foes until the chamber of their weapons ran dry. Most of the infected just went on about their un-lives, oblivious, like that old man in the store. Even though his conscious mind was long gone, he stayed in the place that he knew best, going through the same motions now as when he was alive.
The old man must have really loved that little store. Ten years was a very long time.
The virus had come from somewhere deep in Central Africa; a mutation of the deadly Ebola virus. They’d named the new strain the Goma ebolavirus, after the city where the first cases were found. By the time they’d decided on a name, it had killed a hundred thousand people and infected millions more.
The media nicknamed it Ebola-X, and that version stuck. It had more of a ring to it.
In the beginning, diagnosis and research was slow. The doctors, nurses, and scientists studying the pathogen kept getting infected, no matter what they did to prevent it. Level four biohazard containment was not enough. Nothing was ever enough. It’s funny how much a kid like me learned about biohazard containment in those first few years. Not so much “funny-ha-ha” as “funny-horrifying”, though.
The thing that made Ebola-X so terrifying was its virulence. It spread so fast that no one could hope to contain it. It had infected half of the African continent before the rest of the world even realised that it was a threat.
It was vicious and untreatable. What it did to the human body was horrific and irreversible; like other strains of the Ebola virus, it liquefied healthy cells. Unlike its ancestors though, the thing it destroyed first was the delicate tissue of the brain. Within hours of infection, the temporal lobe began to disintegrate, taking with it speech, memory, and perception. The rest of the cerebrum followed soon after, leaving only basic motor function behind.
Eventually, the motor function went as well, but by that stage the body was usually starting to fall apart. Given enough time the virus destroyed the entire infected body, but it sometimes took years to get that far. Even a decade after the infection first hit us, there were still plenty of undead wandering aimlessly around the landscape.
Some of the victims died within hours, but others survived for many years after the infection erased their minds. It had been almost ten years since the first reported case arrived on New Zealand’s shores, and nine and a half since they stopped telling us what the body count was. It was safe to say that most of the people that used to live here were dead.
I had seen a few other survivors over the years, but experience left me wary of strangers and I always gave them a wide berth. Resources were limited, and a lone female in a world without rules was easy prey. My sense of self-preservation told me to keep to myself, so I did.
For me, the worst part was that I didn’t know if the infected were conscious or aware up until the end, or if they felt any pain. I had no way to ask them. It made me feel terrible to put them out of their misery but I had to do it; they were human beings, or at least they had been, and they deserved a little dignity. Somehow, killing them felt like an act of mercy.
Before the roar of the media shrank to a whisper, they told us that there was a small percentage of the population who had been born with a natural genetic abnormality which made us immune to the effects of the virus. The only thing separating me from that poor old man was one tiny twist of fate. I was still infected, but my immune system had the rare and precious ability to fight it off. I had no idea how long my immunity would last, though. The virus could mutate at any time, leaving me defenceless.
Einstein was wrong. God did play dice, and I was lucky enough to roll high this time.
The virus was aggressive and indiscriminate; it was in the water, the air, and was even carried by some of the animals. For the people who weren’t as lucky as me, transmission was unavoidable. If you were near an infected and you were not immune, then you were going to die. It was just a matter of time.
Within a year of the first reported case, a billion people were gone.
There was no cure.
There was no antivirus.
There was no hope.
After so many deaths, there was no one left alive to study the virus and look for a cure, at least not as far as I was aware. Perhaps there was a bunker somewhere full of scientists working diligently to try and find a solution that would preserve humanity from extinction, but if there was, they hadn’t invited me. No great surprise there; I was eighteen years old when the plague devastated my world, just a useless kid who hadn’t even decided what she was going to do with her life. Now, I no longer had the choice. I was a survivor, and that was all I’d ever be.
The infected man in the store, he had been a person once, too. A good man, probably. An innocent man. In my imagination, it was his life’s dream to retire to this little town and spend his twilight years running that tiny store.
I wondered if his wife was dead, too. His children. His grandchildren. Thinking about it made what I had to do so much harder.
I couldn’t just leave him like this, though. It wouldn’t be right. There was no way for me to know if he was in pain, but it sure as hell looked like he was suffering. No one would want to spend the rest of their existence shuffling around mindlessly until their legs finally fell off. As one of the lucky few that had won the genetic lottery, I felt like I had an obligation to free him from his torment and let him move on to whatever came next.
With silent care, I slipped my backpack from my shoulders and set it on the ground at my feet, then paused to check if anyone had seen the motion. Nothing else moved except me. Me, and my decomposing friend across the street.
I rose to my feet and crossed the cracked roadway in a dozen quick steps, drawing from my pocket the single most effective weapon in my arsenal: a small hand taser. In most cases, it was enough to put down the infected once and for all. Why was a non-lethal weapon lethal to the pseudo-dead? I had no idea, but what I did know is that it was quick, bloodless, and hopefully painless – that was what was important to me.
I thumbed the switch to the on position as I entered the store; the taser crackled to life in my hand, ready to discharge its high-voltage payload. The clerk did nothing. He just stood there, helpless, shuffling the one lone DVD case left on the shelf back and forth with a limp hand.
“Hey,” I called softly, hoping to draw his attention. “You okay, buddy?”
Of course he wasn’t, but I had to be sure in case the old man wasn’t really undead. Sometimes a survivor just went completely off his nut. It happened occasionally in our short and brutal existence. The old man just stood there, staring off into space, oblivious. I let out a soft whistle, trying a different frequency to get his attention.
That time, it worked.
His head rose and turned to look at me with blind eyes, worn over by cataracts long before the virus compounded his problems. His brow knitted into a frown, and he opened his mouth as though to speak but no sound came out.
I cringed. He looked so much like my grandfather, who had died when I was a little girl. Even after all these years, I still remembered holding my Poppa’s wrinkled old hand as he lay on his deathbed, gazing up at me with those sad, blind eyes. In retrospect, I could take comfort from the fact that Poppa didn’t have to watch the world crumble into ruin, but that didn’t ease the pain.
Slowly, cautiously, I circled around the old man. His head jerked side to side, seeking the sound that had drawn his attention.
Most of the infected weren’t really dangerous. I’d yet to see a strain of the disease turn them into violent monsters, like the ones in the movies. They had been stripped of their awareness but they still resembled the people they’d been in life. A gentle person was still gentle; a violent one was still violent. The virus took away the laws of civility that had once helped them to fit into a neat and well-ordered society, but it didn’t change who they were.
“It’s okay, buddy. I’m just going to put you to sleep.” I kept my voice low and calm; like animals, the pseudo-dead responded more to tone of voice than the words themselves. “I’ll make the pain go away.”
He didn’t turn to face me, but just stood there shuffling his limbs listlessly. One of his hands moved absently in mid-air, shifting a non-existent video case towards a better imaginary location. Crushed plastic and cracked discs crunched ominously under my feet, like dry old bones picked clean and left brittle in the sun. The taser made a soft crackling sound when I pressed it to the nape of the old man’s neck, and he collapsed like a sack of potatoes at my feet. I knelt beside him to check, but he was already gone. To Heaven, I hoped, or whatever came next. Anything was better than lingering in purgatory while your body rotted away around you.
I hung my head to reflect and to offer a silent prayer for the old man’s soul. Although I had been raised as an atheist, spending so much time surrounded by violence and death made me wonder if there was something more. I hoped so. It hurt too much to think about so many good people just ceasing to be.
I’d been alone for a very long time. Even so, killing someone who looked like a person that I loved still affected me more deeply than I could express. I sometimes wondered if it would be easier to feel nothing at all, but at least the pain kept me grounded in reality. They weren’t monsters, they were people. Just like me, just like my family, just like everyone else. The day I stopped feeling something towards them was the day that I became the monster.
Years ago, I had made myself a promise: if the day ever came when I stopped feeling grief and remorse for what I had to do to survive, then I would put my gun against my head and join my family in the hereafter.
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