There’s a sharp ring of metal against…what? A gravestone? A coffin?
I jerk upright, listening over the moan of the wind. Then I’m out of my cot, reaching for the greatcoat slung across the back of the wicker chair, stooping to lift the army rifle from the bench. It’s been a while since I’ve had to chase grave robbers from these grounds. Once, it was my reputation as a marksman that stayed them from their sordid task, now…now there are other concerns and the risks far outweigh the meager rewards.
As I ease the door of the gatehouse open, cold air whistles in, ruffling the folds of my unbuttoned coat. From the depths of the dark room behind me, a sudden voice commands: “Wait.”
I turn and level the rifle at the slim figure that steps into the slanted rectangle of bright moonlight. So, I realize, that I might see him more clearly.
“You must give them longer,” he says, ignoring the firearm aimed at his midriff. “It will take them some time.”
The ringing is louder now that the door is open; a metallic beat over the familiar anguished howls. “Zombies?” I ask, certain already of the answer.
His lips purse in distaste. “This is 1913, Mr. Sanger, not the dark days of primitive superstition. They are not the undead. Never were, and, perhaps, never will be.”
I feel my grip tighten on the stock of the Lee-Enfield and ease a finger towards the safety. “What are they doing out there?”
“Merely digging up one of their own. You buried Elizabeth Marshall today, did you not?”
“I did,” I reply, defiantly.
“In chains and under concrete?”
“Then as I said, it will take them a while to release her from her binds. They are not, alas, as coordinated as you or I, Mr. Sanger.”
I stare at him, standing there, once again making free with my name. “And you are?”
He laughs. “Forgive my rudeness. I should have introduced myself. But then, I doubt you would be willing to shake my hand. Perhaps a lowering of that rifle will serve instead?”
I keep the rifle where it is. “You are one of them?”
He tilts his head slightly to one side. “If you like. They—we—are not all simple beasts. It depends on the exact progression of the virus. In some, indeed in most cases, it causes a rapid swelling of the brain, leading to coma and permanent damage to all but the most basic functions: the need to eat, the fear of pain, a desire for the company of their own kind. In others, the effects are less severe. They retain a basic level of intelligence, the ability to understand commands, a distorted and painful memory of what they once were. In rare cases, such as mine, the patient retains all the capacity for thought they ever had and gains much more besides.”
“Gains? What gains?”
“Come, Mr. Sanger. You have seen enough to know the answer to that. Immortality! Or as close as we are ever likely to get.” He takes a step forward, the rifle all but forgotten, daring me to disbelieve him. “Strange, is it not? Something medical experts have sought with such passion down the ages; how vehement their reaction against it, against us! They should be working to cure the unfortunate side-effects, rather than trying to eradicate the disease, rather than trying to destroy the afflicted. I’d hardly call that standing by their sacred oaths, would you?”
“The…afflicted are classed as legally dead,” I observe, neutrally.
“And yet unlike others of your increasingly numerous profession, who separate the head from the neck, burying it at the corpse’s feet, or who rush to cremate the comatose, you choose the infinitely more laborious method of internment. Why is that, Mr. Sanger?”
Is this why I am still alive? Is this the riddle that stays his hand, that stops him from killing me in my sleep?
“I am a gravedigger,” I reply. “It is not my place to pass judgement on those I bury. Merely to ensure that once buried, they stay buried. Hence the chains, hence the concrete. My usual precautions in these troubled times.”
He raises an eyebrow. “You do not approve of what my friends are doing out there?”
“No, I do not. Let no one say I do not do my solemn duty without the due care and diligence it deserves.”
“Don’t worry,” he says, “they will fill in the grave once they are done.”
“That,” I reply, grimly, “is hardly the point.”
“Is it not?” he muses. “Then perhaps we can save each other some effort in future. The people you are burying, they are not dead. If the bodies were not interred with such indecent haste, you would have evidence of that for yourself. But the law dictates that once some ill-informed quack unable or unwilling to detect the frail pulse of someone in a coma signs the notice of decease, then the services of a gravedigger must be employed. Very well. Employ them we shall. But if the coffin were empty?”
“I do not think the reverend—”
“The reverend will join our ranks by this time tomorrow,” he says. “The bandage he wore on his arm this afternoon covers a nasty bite. One he well deserved, Mr. Sanger. He is not as respectful of the dead, or the living, as you are.”
I take in this startling news. “May God rest his soul.”
The moonlit figure tuts. “You forget. He is not dead. He will not die. And though God has nothing to do with it, I, a mere mortal, may yet influence his fate. Decide if he should retain his faculties, or join those unfortunates he lacked the compassion to pray for and who are incapable of praying for themselves.”
“And how would you go about that?” I ask, intrigued. “How do you play at being God?”
He ignores my jibe. “I was a medical man, before. I would be again, given the chance. Prompt action is required. Ice! Cooling the body reduces the swelling of the brain, prevents the injury it causes before the virus puts a stop to apoptosis.”
I look at him blankly. “I don’t—”
There’s a pause, a moment of silence, from both within the gatehouse and without. Then the ringing begins again, erratic now.
“Apoptosis, the Greek for falling away. What your cells are programmed to do, Mr. Sanger, when damaged, when attacked. It is not the lack of oxygen, the invasion by a virus, or the cold grip of winter that kills. It is the cells themselves, choosing to die. An imperfect and outdated process, surpassed by modern science and one which this virus arrests.
“If you shoot me, you will do physical damage. You will destroy a small number of cells directly in the path of the bullet. A few thousands, at most. Maybe a million. But why should the death of so few cells lead to the death of the whole? Even if for a while there is no blood reaching my lungs, my brain, why should these organs not spring back to life the moment oxygen-rich blood does reach them? That is the blessing of this virus. One no doubt it employs for purely selfish reasons, protecting its host to guarantee its survival, its spread.”
“God’s will—” I mutter, but again he swiftly interrupts.
“Is tuberculosis God’s will? Is cholera? If so, then this virus is also his will and it is the duty of all who have the capacity of thought to treat the infected with respect. And yet, the country convulses with fear, with hate! There is little I can do about that, Mr. Sanger. The number of us who, like me, can discourse rationally, who might argue our case, is few. So, I ask for your help. And knowing that those you bury are not dead, how can you carry on as before? How can you still claim to be a reputable man?”
I bristle at that, this stranger in the night passing judgement on me, on my profession. If I were to let fly the bullets in my rifle, no court would convict me; to them, I would be shooting a dead man.
I think for a moment. His intent is obvious. He aims to hold me here, by talking, while the foul creatures in the graveyard go about their mindless business. He aims to allay my fears by allowing me to train my rifle on him. I wonder if it is even still loaded; how silently he must have crept into my room! If he wanted to dispatch me, he has already had plenty of opportunity.
“You understand,” I say, “I cannot be seen to—”
“Do not worry. We will be discreet. And when the time comes—if your time comes—we will move Heaven and Earth to make sure that you yourself are treated with the utmost care.”
I shudder, a reaction that amuses him.
“Come,” he says, “lower your weapon. Go back to sleep, if you can. We will be gone well before sunrise and you may consider this night a bad dream. In the morning, when the reverend falls ill, you will offer to take over the duties of laying him and other unfortunates to rest. You will order in supplies of ice; money will be provided. And you will leave me a set of keys to the Chapel of Rest.”
He takes a step forward, his eyes trained on me, and another step, until the barrel of the rifle is a hand’s width from his waistcoat. I lower the weapon, though I keep my hands firmly on it. “What will you, and your companions, do?” I ask. “You will never be accepted here.”
“Even when we outnumber the uninfected?” He smiles. “But you are right. We will leave these lands. There is a turmoil in Europe, the death throes of imperialistic empires. There will be war, Mr. Sanger. A war unlike any seen before. A war that cries out for a race of men less prone to injury, less fearful of death. Our war. We will prove our worth on the battlefields.”
I look on him in renewed horror. I saw action in the second Boer War, learned my trade there, and though this doctor claims to be a rational man, I find his posturing more frightening than even the thought of his lumbering friends out in the graveyard.
“Do you really think you are so indestructible?” I ask. “Have you no weaknesses at all?”
A cloud darkens his countenance, whether cast by my scornful tone, or perhaps I had chanced upon a sore spot, I could not tell.
“Medicine will catch up. There is already a cure for syphilis and more will surely follow. Science will conquer all of the ills, Mr. Sanger, even influenza! Even, perhaps, the virus that gifts us immortality. But then, why would we want to do that?”
There’s a peal of staccato thunder as five metal shells drop to the floor around his feet, and my finger convulses on the trigger of the empty rifle. When I look up again he is at the door, staring at me with those eyes, those very distinctive eyes.
“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to attend to poor Lizzie. The woman you buried alive today is my sister. Did I mention that?”
He steps backwards into the night.
“I do hope she’s not in too bad a state, Mr. Sanger. I really do. For your sake.”
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