When Dean showed up for work dead, wearing a bright yellow jumpsuit, Vincenzo understood why he had been unable to get hold of his ex-boyfriend.
“Left,” said Dean’s handler, tapping the zombie with a prod. A faint crackle cut through the air, followed by a blue flash. Dean shuffled past, staring blankly.
Vincenzo’s breath caught. His stomach churned, and a chill went down his spine.
“Did you see Dean?” whispered a voice in the next cubicle.
“Zeed,” said Ray in a low voice. “Was he in debt?”
“It was a car accident. Read it in the paper,” said Raj.
Vincenzo stepped into the corridor and glared at the gaggle of co-workers huddled next to a support pillar. They blinked at him and looked away. “Nice way to talk about the guy you were bugging for free tax advice last week,” he said. He turned away from their murmured apologies and barricaded himself in the communal washroom. Selfish bastards. He splashed away hot, salty tears with cold water.
He blotted his face dry with a paper towel. Dean. A zombie. Zombies had been created by accident years before, as a side effect of a drug designed to prevent stillbirths. Hollywood had been wrong; they turned out to be placid creatures that could follow simple instructions. It didn’t take long for companies to lobby governments to accept them as the solution to the labor shortage problem. Then the banks got into the game, and now even death was no escape from debt. But Dean had always been good with his money.
The clicking of high heels on ceramic tile interrupted his thoughts. Hiroko rounded the corner and stopped. “I heard what happened. Someone said you came in here. Do you…want to talk?”
Vincenzo shook his head. “Not now,” he said.
Hiroko edged closer and gave his arm a light squeeze. “I know it’s a lot to handle, on top of you and Dean…splitting…but I’m sure he’ll only be a zombie for a little while, and then you can put him to rest. He’d want that.”
Vincenzo shook his head. “He’d have asked me for money if he needed it,” he said, his voice shaking, “even after we—”
Hiroko looked at her feet. “Okay. Just…be careful. If you want to talk, let me know.” She patted his shoulder and left.
Vincenzo leaned against a stall and closed his eyes. One month ago, Dean had been a dynamo on the dance floor, and now he was a plodding slab of meat. He didn’t deserve this.
Vincenzo wrestled with the quarterly figures, cursing under his breath. When he had joined the head office of EcoLogic (“Greener than Greenpeace!”), he had hoped it was still the same grassroots organization he had volunteered for in university. He leaned back. A giant poster of a virgin forest surrounding a crystal lake covered much of the ceiling over his cubicle. “A healthy planet = investor value,” said the caption. Sellouts, like every other corporation.
A low moan, followed by the slow clattering of keys, issued from the next cubicle. Vincenzo shuddered. He and Dean had worked in accounting together, and someone had just decided that his brain remained functional enough to do basic data entry. Vincenzo called up Dean’s latest tabulations on his monitor and cursed. He walked into the next cubicle.
“Um…Dean…this dataset has so many garbage characters that I’ll have to—”
Vincenzo met Dean’s glassy stare. The zombie’s thin blue lips parted. “Vvvvvvv,” Dean said.
Vincenzo buried his face in his hand. Stupidstupidstupid. “Sorry, Dean, I’ll fix it myself.”
He walked back to his cubicle, dodging a woman loaded with folders. He grumbled an apology. Her lip curled. “You actually talked to it?”
His eyes lit with recognition. Gladys. Worked in Marketing. Dean had helped her with her taxes a few times. “His name is Dean. You know, the guy who got you a nice refund.”
Gladys lowered her eyes. “Yeah, whatever. He’s dead now. Mourn and move on.”
“They say zombies remember things after they die.”
Gladys tsked. “Next thing, you’ll tell me he’s still a person. Just like those ‘Dead Rights’ retards.” She strode off.
Vincenzo sank into his chair and stared at Dean’s tabulations. The data was salvageable, but cleaning it up would take hours. He set himself to work, examining the cells one at a time. Time slowed to a trickle, and a cell with one word, “read,” passed through his vision. He sat up and re-checked it. The word was still there. He checked the other pages, and found other words. He jotted them down on a back of a printout in the order they appeared. “Vin chek offis upr dror undr desk gt stik read.” Like a text message. Or written phonetically to make it easy to remember.
Vincenzo strode to Dean’s old office, which management had not yet reassigned. He glanced up and down the corridor. Just a cleaning zombie vacuuming the carpet. He stepped inside. Only the desk had escaped the depredations of office scavengers. He opened the top drawer of the desk. A mass of paper clips and rubber bands tumbled to the floor.
Did someone take it? He reached inside the drawer and felt the underside of the desk. Nothing but smooth fiberboard. He reached further. His fingers brushed a tiny, flat cylinder taped to the underside. He pocketed the memory stick.
Vincenzo sipped chai latté on the patio of the Bean Counter, a coffee bar he visited often, frowning. The urge to run away from the office with the memory stick had been overwhelming. What was on the stick that was important enough to hide? The back of his head prickled as he glanced around the packed room. A babbling mass of university students, businesspeople, and old men reminiscing about days gone by surrounded him. He plugged the stick into his phone.
While Vincenzo waited for the stick’s data to load, he scoured the Net for stories about zombies communicating as Dean had done. He pulled up a short article from the local paper about the car accident that had killed Dean. The picture showed a twisted pile of red metal that had been his car. Dean looked pretty good if he had died in that.
A chime announced that the data had finished loading. Vincenzo tapped the screen to open the directory, which contained several spreadsheets, an article from an academic journal, and a list. The dense text of the article swam before his eyes, but the abstract said that intelligent people whose brains were intact at death could be turned into zombies capable of performing complicated tasks.
The spreadsheets showed financial and stock transactions whose numbers crowded his phone’s screen, so he checked out the list. The leftmost of the three columns had dates, in chronological order, starting almost three years earlier and continuing to the end of next year. The middle column had names, and the right column had corporate divisions. The bottom entry read, “Stewart, Dean—10/16/21—Accounting.” The date matched the estimated time of the accident in the newspaper article. According to the file properties, the list had last been edited four months earlier.
He jumped, yelping as he spilled his latté. He scanned the list further and found the names of two guys in Marketing who had died in a skiing accident the year before. He placed the empty mug onto a tray held by a waiting zombie barista and left the shop. He had to talk to someone.
Vincenzo paced at the street corner. Why isn’t she answering my text? He checked his phone again. Ten minutes. Come on! The sound of footsteps reached his ears. He turned to see Hiroko approaching. Her face was blank.
“I didn’t bother replying,” she said. “What’s up?”
“I need to talk,” replied Vincenzo. “Let’s walk.”
They strolled past busy shops and dodged a zombie street sweeper. “I did some digging,” said Vincenzo. “I found some internal corporate stuff that scares the hell out of me. You’re in HR, so if anyone knows what’s going on, it’s you.”
“What is it?”
Vincenzo looked over his shoulder and leaned closer. “I think I have proof that Dean wasn’t zeed because he was in debt. They planned it.”
Hiroko leaned back and stared. “Who?”
“People at the top. Dean wasn’t the only one, either.”
Hiroko shook her head and walked briskly. “That’s nuts,” she said. “Why turn a healthy person into a zombie when there are so many candidates out there already?”
“To make investors happy,” said Vincenzo bitterly. “Haven’t you noticed that ever since things went corporate a few years ago, management doesn’t talk about ‘donors’ anymore? And when those stupid motivational posters went up, we were told to focus on projects that have profitable spinoffs, rather than helping the world for its own sake? Have you also noticed more zombies at the office than last year?”
Hiroko shrugged. “Times are tough, Vin. Doing good for its own sake doesn’t pay the bills. Zombies save companies from bringing in low-skilled immigrants, or buying robots. The dead give our economy new life, as the commercials say.”
“I don’t buy it,” said Vincenzo. “All the janitors and mail clerks are zombies now, but even the best-trained zombie doesn’t perform like a living person.”
“So? They’re menial jobs that no one wants, anyway. I don’t see a conspiracy.”
“Then read the article and list I’m sending to you,” said Vincenzo, tapping some buttons, “and then explain what happened to Dean.”
Hiroko pulled out her phone. Her eyes darted back and forth as she scanned the documents. When she was finished, she lowered her phone and stared into Vincenzo’s eyes. She cleared her throat. “You need to back away from this,” she said.
“I can’t. If that article is right and the list isn’t faked, then Dean was murdered.”
“Vin, I’m speaking to you as someone who cares. Walk away. I don’t—”
“No,” Vincenzo interrupted. “Dean deserves justice. I found other files, too, and I’ll bet there’s even more evidence. I’m going public with this. Let me know if you want to help.” He turned and stalked back to the office.
Vincenzo sat on his couch, hunched over his laptop. The spreadsheets on the memory stick were huge, and revealed EcoLogic’s finances in exhaustive detail. The “gentle troughs” described in the annual report were more like deep sea chasms. His employer had been bleeding red ink until it switched its focus to high-profile projects with profitable spinoffs and started using zombies. He checked the data against the list. Every time an employee on the list died, a six-figure overpayment of benefits was “discovered” by Accounting. EcoLogic’s overhead costs fell and it got a free zombie to work off its “debt.” Over and over again. The spreadsheet entry on the date of Dean’s death had a note, “Administered treatment—greater brain capacity noted. Will recalibrate for next subjects.”
Vincenzo ground his teeth. He had to get this information out there. A smirk crossed his face, and seconds later, a compressed data file was en route to the local university newspaper. They’d make some noise. The memory of Gladys and her diatribe bubbled up. Another information packet was on its way to Equality for the Undead. He searched for more advocacy groups.
The buzzer sounded. Vincenzo padded to the wall screen and pressed a button. Hiroko stood in the lobby, running a hand through her hair and looking around.
“You were right, Vin. I’ve found information that proves what you said. It’ll add to what you sent out. Can you let me up?”
“Really,” he said, his voice rising with excitement. “Come on up.” He pressed another button to let her in. He stopped. How did she know that I sent out information? He glanced back at the screen. Hiroko was holding the door open for four figures, who shuffled like every other zombie he had seen. His breath caught.
Cursing, Vincenzo snatched up his phone and stuffed his laptop, wallet, and car keys into his messenger bag. He darted to the balcony door, yanked it open, and went outside. Two storeys above the parking lot, but there was a dumpster he could land on, if he jumped just right.
There was a soft rapping at the door. “Vin, it’s me.”
Vincenzo stepped over the railing, heart pounding. Better a broken bone than spending time with that bunch. The knocking grew more insistent. Vincenzo leapt from the balcony and grunted as he landed on the dumpster. A burst of pain, followed by numbness, crept up his legs, but he could still move them. He rolled over and dropped to the ground, and hobbled towards his SmartCar. He reached the vehicle just as a splintering crash echoed from his apartment. He unlocked and opened the door. Something cool and hard clamped around his neck.
He reached up and felt ragged nails and cold flesh. Pain shot through his neck as he struggled to loosen the grip. He gurgled and his face tingled. Spots danced before his eyes. He stamped his feet frantically and connected with a foot. Silence. His attacker’s grip tightened. Everything started to go black around the edges.
Vincenzo braced his feet against his car door and shoved backwards into the next car with all his strength. He shook with the impact, and was rewarded by the sound of breaking glass. The grip loosened. Vincenzo tore himself free and turned to face his attacker. A zombie, wearing a janitorial uniform, flailed to free itself from a spike of broken glass that had pierced its neck.
“Sorry,” Vincenzo muttered as he sprang into his car. He drove out of the parking lot just as Hiroko stepped onto the balcony.
Downtown at night not only looks dead, Vincenzo thought, it is dead, thanks to all the zombies. He shuddered at the sight of the street cleaners, some of whose injuries could not be completely concealed by their coveralls, going about their work. Even the most damaged zombies were put to use, it seemed. At least they can’t call the cops if they see you doing something. He swiped his pass through the card reader and entered the office tower.
He wondered, as he walked down the corridor, how long it would take them to figure out he had come here. A door bearing a sign reading, “ZOMBIE STORAGE—AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY” loomed before him. He turned the knob, and the door opened with a soft click. A faint odor of bleach tickled his nose. No need to lock this door, he thought, grimacing. Vincenzo entered a large, square room lined with benches, all of which were occupied by inert zombies. Each zombie had a catheter running from its arm to a squat machine, comprised of a translucent tank of red fluid and a pump with a lit control panel, mounted on a trolley. A chorus of whirring and clicking broke the silence.
Dean, chalk-white in the glare of fluorescent lighting and dressed in a yellow jumpsuit bearing the EcoLogic logo, slouched in a corner, staring blankly at the floor. Vincenzo approached slowly, and ran his eyes up and down over his former lover.
Dean looked up at Vincenzo. His yellow eyes bulged. “Vvvvv,” he said.
Vincenzo stroked Dean’s cheek, biting his lip at the cool and dry sensation. “Yes, it’s me. I missed you, Dean. I still do.”
Dean blinked, and jerkily raised his hand to touch Vincenzo’s arm softly. “Sssss…ssst…sssstiiick,” he asked in a gurgling voice.
Vincenzo nodded. “I got it. I read it all. Other people know now.”
Dean leaned against the wall. A rattling sigh escaped his lungs.
The faint sound of screeching tires, followed by a shout, reached Vincenzo’s ears. He tensed. “I think they’re coming,” he said, biting his lip. Dean had always thought that was cute. “I have to go. I just wanted…to say goodbye, and thanks. I understand now why you broke it off. You always did look out for me.”
Vincenzo leaned forward to kiss Dean on the forehead, but the zombie grabbed his arm and gestured at the machine. It pumped preservatives into him and refreshed his blood. All zombies needed to use them for a few hours a day; otherwise, their body fluids would stagnate and rapid decay would set in. Vincenzo studied the control panel. Distant voices and footsteps echoed deep within the building.
Dean grunted and pointed at the controls. There was a knob to control the flow of fluids, a power switch, and a reverse button. “If I reverse the flow to drain you, you’ll die. Forever,” Vincenzo said quietly.
Dean gave Vincenzo’s arm a light squeeze, moaning softly.
“Check his office,” said a faint, deep male voice.
Vincenzo looked into Dean’s eyes, then down the hallway. How much time? He swallowed as he pressed the button to reverse the flow, and turned the knob to full. The machine buzzed and gurgled loudly. The tube leading from Dean’s arm turned dark red as the zombie’s skin tightened around his bones.
The footsteps became more distinct. “He’s not there,” said a female voice. “What’s that noise?”
“It’s coming from over there,” said the male voice, louder now.
The tube was now empty. Dean slumped against the wall like a rag doll, staring up at Vincenzo. His withered lips twitched.
Vincenzo leaned down and kissed Dean, ignoring the leathery feel of his lips. He pulled out the catheter. “I’ll be okay. I promise,” he murmured. He turned off the machine.
He crept out of the room and looked over his shoulder one last time. His eyes met Dean’s. “Goodbye,” he whispered.
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