LifeGard Research Station #4
by Carrie Harris
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a rodeo star. Back then, my worst problem was trying to talk my parents into driving me to my aunt’s horse farm so I could practice breakaway roping. I imagined myself roping cattle with a deft flick of my wrist or flying around barrels while the crowd cheered my name. Rodeo was the only thing I cared about.
Then the dead began to rise.
My family moved to the farm, where the remote location and cold weather kept the zombie attacks thin. At first, I was thrilled, but it was a hard and lonely childhood. It’s not easy to be a rodeo star when the only audience is in your head. I was seventeen when the LifeGard Corporation came knocking, recruiting for their new Safe Zone Compounds, and I volunteered without a second thought. I never expected that my rodeo skills would be the thing that got me in. I was housed. Educated. Safe.
For fifteen years, zombies were a controllable menace. But that all changed one fateful day.
I hopped atop my horse, my lab coat flapping. My partner, Cantrell, gave me the kind of grin that ensured his bunk was never lonely at night, the one that crinkled the corners of his eyes, despite knowing that it had never worked on me and never would.
“’Bout time you got here, Senior Biochemist,” he said in his slow drawl as his horse, Ladybell, shied away from me. She’d always been skittish. “Didja fall asleep at your lab table?”
“Who got your panties all in a bunch?” I asked, settling myself more firmly in my saddle and patting Frost’s neck. He tossed his head, wanting to get this over with so he could get back to his warm stall. The weather kept teetering on the cusp of winter without quite committing. I was already yearning for spring.
Cantrell grinned. The other techs always talked about how dreamy he was, but I couldn’t get there. He was like my brother. Plus, it was hard to get worked up over someone after you saw him sweaty and wild-eyed, puking his guts out after going hand-to-hand with a zombie schoolgirl. Much better to not get involved. Much better to stick with witty banter and verbal one-upmanship.
“I’d answer that, but you always say you don’t want the details,” he said, flashing his ID badge at the barn scanner and leading the way out.
I decided to ignore that statement. “So what’s the situation? I had to finish processing my samples or they’d over-fixate by the time we got back. I missed the radio alert.”
“I don’t speak lab rat, Grant,” he said. “You know that. We’ve got an OP breach. Approximately five zombies on site.”
“Ooooh. They actually made it through the outer perimeter? We got us some talented undead this time.”
I let out a huff of impressed breath and brought Frost up to a canter. All 200 residents of the Safe Zone pulled double duty. Everyone—scientists, janitors, farmers, the whole kit and kaboodle—was combat trained. That was the price we paid for safety. We always followed the rules, because when you didn’t people died.
It was a tough thing, but we all knew what we were up against. We’d known when we volunteered to staff the new post located well beyond the safety borders, in the hopes of creating a cure or an immunization or something. We weren’t the only ones. There was an Envirogeneics compound about five miles up the road. But the two groups, working for competing companies, didn’t mix well at all.
Cantrell and I were floaters. The best combatants were assigned to two-person roaming teams. We went where the action was hottest. With only five walkers, one of the other teams had probably neutralized them by now, but there might still be a live one. I’d spread the word last night at mess that I needed a new test specimen; hopefully someone had remembered.
The base was quiet as we closed on the inner perimeter. I released my rope from the pommel just in case, gripping it loosely in one hand as I checked for kinks. Cantrell fell back, flanking me, rifle at the ready. He’d been a sniper in the military, back when the United States was a thing. If any zeds got too close, he’d deal with it, but that rarely happened.
I always got a rush of adrenaline when we got a call, but I’d never felt afraid.
Not until that day, anyway.
We rounded the med building just as the sentry on the inner fence—the research director of my lab—raised a gun to her shoulder. I could see the lurching forms of the undead on the other side of the fence, trying desperately to get at her through the chain link. The muzzle of the gun dipped and swerved as panic interfered with her weapons training. Littleton had never been a natural combatant, but she was a whiz with viral transmission theories.
I dug my heels into Frost’s ribcage, and he responded instantly to my silent command, surging forward into a smooth gallop. I kept the lasso out, hoping that I wouldn’t have to use it on someone I considered a friend, but if Littleton got infected.... I didn’t kill zombies—that was Cantrell’s job. I captured them when I could, used them to test potential cures. I didn’t want to use Littleton as a test subject. It was hard to see people you knew reduced to shells. I’d done it plenty and didn’t like it at all.
The fence rattled, and she squeezed off a shot. One of the zombies on the other side toppled over in slow, jerky stages. But they kept coming, all mindless hunger and parched flesh and hungry, searching mouths. Where were the other teams? How had these walkers gotten so far into the compound? None of these questions could have good answers, but there was no time to dwell. Undead fingers twined in the chain link, pulling and twisting the metal as Littleton froze.
“Veer right,” barked Cantrell.
We’d worked together long enough; I knew what he wanted. I peeled off to the side, out of his line of fire. He made quick work of it. Zombies went down like dominoes. Easy peasy.
Muzzle pointed carefully at the ground, Littleton turned to face me. My grin faded when I saw her expression. Her brow was lined with fear, her eyes wide, her normally sallow cheeks blotchy. She held her hand up toward me, the palm dripping onto the ground. Staining it red.
“Stay back!” she said. “Don’t come any closer!”
“Grant, stay back!” Cantrell echoed, his voice high with worry. His usual unflappability was replaced with borderline panic. He’d gotten like this before when he’d thought I was in danger, and I couldn’t decide whether to be offended at his lack of faith in my ability to handle myself or whether to think he cared about me after all.
“Were you bit or sprayed?” I demanded, holding my lasso at the ready. If the change began, I wouldn’t have much time. My eyes were scanning her body, looking for the telltale tremor.
“I don’t think so,” she said, her voice shaking anyway. “I didn’t put my fingers through the fence. I got hit by shrapnel.”
“Sorry about that,” said Cantrell, but he didn’t drop his rifle. None of us expected him to.
“So you’re good, then,” I said, relaxing a little bit. “Hallelujah.”
“Not sure about that,” Cantrell put in roughly. “No offense, Littleton. But you know how easy it is to get contaminated.”
“No offense taken,” she said. “There’s no harm in waiting.”
But there was. A flash of movement over her shoulder caught my eye. I blinked, trying to make sense of what I was seeing. A zombie was running at the fence. Fast. Like, fast enough to give Frost a run for his money. I’d never seen a zed run before. And it wore a LifeGard jacket. Blue. Whoever that had been, they’d worked in Mechanics with Cantrell. It was hard to make a firm ID, though, what with all the blood and gore on its face.
“Oh shit,” I said as the thing threw itself at the fence with enough force to put a dent in the post.
“Down!” yelled Cantrell.
He didn’t hesitate despite the fact that the zed must have been one of his friends. I went to ground as the gun roared over my head. I was far enough away from the fence to avoid the spray of blood as the shot hit home.
Littleton was all too close.
Contaminated fluids spattered her face.
“I want to be a test subject,” she gasped, but she didn’t get much further than that.
Her mouth locked itself into a grimace as the virus exploded through her system. I whipped my lasso out, swung it, and released with mechanical precision. The reinforced rope slipped over her torso as she jittered and jerked with the force of the biological changes taking over her body. We only had moments before she attacked. Every second was precious.
“Frost, cage!” I shouted, leaping to the ground. The stallion bolted for the containment cages, dragging the still-changing zombie behind him through the dirt. Cantrell cantered past me, holding out an arm, and I swung up to ride pillion behind him. We followed along to make sure Littleton didn’t get loose. It happened sometimes.
I radioed an update in to Command, trying to sound calm. But I wasn’t. The virus had mutated again. Which meant that PB-17, our promising new inoculation, probably wasn’t going to do shit. I’d try, of course. But I knew better than to get my hopes up.
Frost entered the cages, dragging Littleton through the dirt and slamming her into one of the posts anchoring the gate. For a tense moment, I thought the lasso was going to break, but it didn’t happen. Littleton rolled into the containment pen. The gates clanged shut, trapping her inside. She snarled and threw herself against the reinforced mesh, teething working hungrily. She wasn’t as strong as the other zed had been. Not yet.
I dropped off Ladybell’s back and hurried around the pen to Frost, patting him with soothing hands, but he didn’t quiet until I detached him from the thing on the other side of the fence.
“Stand guard,” I shouted to Cantrell. “I’m going for the new inoculation!”
It wasn’t standard protocol, but I knew the PB-16 in the cage box wasn’t going to work. PB-17, which I’d been testing just a few minutes earlier, probably wouldn’t do any better. But the information I’d get analyzing the cells in the lab might lead me to PB-18. Littleton’s samples might be essential to our survival, especially if zeds infected with the new strain could break down our perimeter fences like they were straws.
My card at the ready, I flashed through the auto-checkpoint without slowing, threw open the door, and stopped short. The lab was in shambles. Delicate and expensive machinery shattered on the ground. Glass everywhere, surrounded by puddles of what was probably infectious material. I took an instinctive step back.
And then he charged me.
The most frightening part wasn’t that there was a zombie in my lab. It was that I didn’t recognize him, and when you live in a compound with only 200 other people, you recognize everyone. He was rugged, all slabs of muscle and dark hair, dressed in a black shirt and pants. In one hand, he clutched a file folder.
He charged me.
I snatched up the mallet from the emergency box near the door and threw it. It was a delaying tactic at best; the hardened rubber bounced off his forehead. Made him stagger. It bought me enough time to retreat as far back as I could.
I drew my sidearm, stooped behind the arching plastic of the fume hood, and fired. The zed’s head exploded, spraying infectious material all over the place. On the hood. But not—after a thorough examination—on me.
That had been too close, and it took me a moment to get a hold of myself. None of this made sense. How had a zed gotten in here? And what was he doing with one of my research files?
I tamped down the panic and made myself think. He must have gotten infected after he entered the lab. Maybe with one of my samples? It looked like the careless fool had been trying to make off with…it looked like the test results on PB-17. I could imagine how it had gone—the man hurrying through the unfamiliar lab, worried he might get caught, and knocking over the samples I’d been working on right before the alert. The infection blazing through his system. The wild flailing of his body, dashing delicate equipment to the floor.
And that guy did look familiar the more I thought about it. I’d seen him at the Envirogeneics compound. We’d gone there for a meeting that almost ended in bloodshed. I didn’t understand how we could be fighting each other when there were so few humans left, but it seemed like I was in the minority.
Only one explanation made sense. This man caused the breach, just to steal my research. If I could have kicked him without infecting myself, I would have. How many people had he killed today? And all because they’d accused Littleton of stealing their research, and she’d scoffed, and…
The whole thing disgusted me. I wished I could ask her about it, but the destruction of my lab had doomed her. Maybe her predicament was even her own fault. Maybe we’d been fighting each other just as much as we had the zombies.
I snorted and said out loud, “That’s ridiculous,” as if speaking the words might make them true. Except that I knew how much money a cure was worth. And there were weird things about life here that I’d never been able to explain. The off-limits areas at the Central Office. The way rule-breakers disappeared without a word. The way Research Director Littleton had suddenly changed the direction of our research to this new and promising formula.
If I’d been following protocol, I would have sealed myself in the lab and waited for a decon team to release me, but if I hadn’t changed yet, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t. And I hadn’t really entered the lab, not all the way. I sprinted back toward the pen. As I grew closer, I heard the blast of Cantrell’s gun. His face went slack with relief as I ran up.
“Thank god,” he said. “I was just coming for you. I thought something must have happened.”
“No, no, no!” I yelled, looking at Littleton’s lifeless body slumped inside the cage.
“It’s okay, Phoebe,” said Cantrell, pulling me up against him.
I could feel his heartbeat, soothing and strong. But I refused to be lulled into complacency. There was too much mourning to do, too much to reconstruct. Too many questions to ask. I was beginning to suspect that LifeGard wasn’t the sanctuary I thought it was. There was no way Littleton had been working on her own. Envirogeneics wasn’t blameless either. Were we all just pawns in a power struggle to them? Did they care less about our survival than they did about the bottom line?
Innocent people had died today, all in the name of greed. I tilted my head to look up at Cantrell. I wanted to confide my suspicions to him. I wanted to trust him.
But could I?
He’d saved my life too many times not to. So I took a chance. I took a deep breath.
I said, “I have a theory, and you’re not going to like it.”
He didn’t. But he listened. And I knew that whatever happened next, we would face it together.
High Concept: Zombie Hunting Biochemist
Trouble: Idealist in a Capitalist World
Other: Not My First Rodeo Must Find a Cure • My Trusty Steed
Great (+4) Investigate
Good (+3) Lore, Ride
Fair (+2) Athletics, Shoot, Will
Average (+1) Empathy, Notice, Physique, Rapport
Quick Analysis. Because Grant understands the infectious stages of the zombie virus, no zombie she can see can act before her in an exchange.
Well-Stocked Lab. +2 to overcome actions made in her lab with Investigate and Lore.
Wannabe Rodeo Star. Grant can use her Ride skill when attempting to lasso zombies.
Physical □□□ Mental □□□
Mild (2) | Moderate (4) | Major (6)
High Concept: Zombie Sniper
Trouble: Soft Spot for Phoebe
Other: Former Military Man Disarming Grin • Fight First, Puke Later
Great (+4) Shoot
Good (+3) Rapport, Stealth
Fair (+2) Fight, Notice, Physique
Average (+1) Athletics, Crafts, Ride, Will
Sniper Rifle. Cantrell gains a +2 bonus to attacks made with a rifle.
Dreamy Ex-Soldier. Cantrell can use Rapport in place of Contacts when interacting with other ex-military or with people who might be attracted to him.
Tactical Teamwork. Cantrell gets a +2 bonus to create an advantage using Shoot when working with an ally in combat.
Physical □□□ Mental □□□
Mild (2) | Moderate (4) | Major (6)