This is the first short story I was ever paid for, and it’s the first piece I ever wrote to a prompt. It was originally published as part of Stitched Smile Publications’ anothology Unleashed: Monsters Vs Zombies Vol. 1 in January 2017. The prompt, as you may have guessed, was for stories that squared classic monsters against the living dead. I had just finished reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at the time, and I wanted to explore how the Creature, the O.G. undead, would behave in a modern zombie story.
The rifle barks and bucks in my hand. As the first of the creatures stumbles backward and falls into the crowd, another takes its place. While the hole in the one beast’s chest pulsates, spitting black, noxious fluid into the air and slopping atrophied organs onto the ground, the ones nearest it in the scrum descend like hawks. They plunge their hands—with their waxy, almost candle-like fingers and their dirty yellow nails—into the wounded one and open the gap wider. They scoop in and pull out their brother’s sweetbreads. Not to eat. No, never to eat. To save. To preserve. There is always some part of them that is breaking down, that could use a tune-up. They will salvage whatever flesh they can, whenever they can, however they can, to preserve their own interminable lives just a few days longer.
As the fallen creature—the smorgasbord—wails its own anguished funeral dirge, the second creature advances. It is in much better shape than the others: I saw firsthand how it tore apart two joggers in Stanley Park mere hours ago, harvesting a very healthy set of lungs and some powerful leg muscles. It has no interest in the festering, half-rotted offal the others are squabbling over. I can see its brain working behind its enlarged, almost simian skull. (I make a mental note: Enlarged jaw, prominent cheekbones possible indicators of acromegaly? Inquire further if additional study is possible.) It watches me carefully, and I see something in its eyes that I do not see in the eyes of the other creatures.
The rest of the horde’s eyes are milky and distant. They are unattached, simple things. Hastily fished out of a jar of formaldehyde and then connected to a dense, subhuman brain without a second thought spared. The horde’s eyes do not observe. Their brains do not think. They see meat and meat alone, and the only thing they know is survival.
But this beast before me is not of the horde. It travels with them, yes, and it looks them, but it is not of them. It is taller, its build is more muscular, and its eyes are a cold, clear, icy blue. They water a little, and it occurs to me they must be fresh. Not fished from a jar of formaldehyde or scooped from a dead man’s skull, but plucked from the head of a living person. (Well, he won’t be living anymore, but he certainly was when the resident Prometheus stole his eyes.)
The eyes of this beast are focused on me. It has been observing my movements, calculating my defensive patterns. Its synapses are firing inside its skull, sending signals to its brain, and planning an offensive strategy against me. This creature has intelligence that its brethren do not. I feel a vicious, vindictive smile creeping onto my face. Intelligence means a challenge.
As the beast rushes me, and I rush it, some deep and primal part of me starts to laugh.
You do not know my name, you who sit there reading this in your coffee shop, or on your morning commute. If I am lucky, you will never know my name. But you will, I suspect, be familiar with my story.
Many years ago in Europe, a young man was born into a wealthy Genevese family. In school, this young man excelled in natural philosophy, particularly in the field of chemistry. The sciences became his singular obsession, and he began to theorize that he could, through science, alter the natural course of life and death.
So this latter-day Prometheus, through means which I shall not disclose here, took the tissue of one deceased, and animated it, making a new kind of man who existed in a crude state of proto-life. That man’s heart pumped blood, and his lungs took in air, but he did not think. He was a savage, primitive brute who repaid the Prometheus who created him with violence and hatred. It was only after the man and his maker had been locked in a private war for some time that the brute saw the error of his ways. He observed humanity from a distance, and he learned to speak. To think critically. To feel something other than savagery.
Prometheus learned to regret his hubris, and sought to destroy his creation. Meanwhile his creation felt the pain of loneliness when humankind rejected him. The war reached its height as the creature tried to force Prometheus to make him a mate, and before long man stood over the dead body of his maker.
I thought to kill myself when my maker died. I saw what I had become, what pain I had caused by being, and I could not let it continue. But at the last moment, I hesitated.
When I studied mankind, I had discovered also their god. I discovered the loving Father who had saved Noah from the flood and sent His Son to redeem the sinners at their lowest point. And I could not kill myself. I was not a man in the traditional sense, but was I not still made in the Father’s image? I still had a brain and a heart, though they were given to me second-hand. I still felt. And if I felt, if I was in the Father’s image, would He not ultimately accept me, though He had no say in my birth? I decided that He would. He loves all things, whether He meant to make them or not.
I dedicated myself instead to redemption. Repaying the world for all the trouble I had caused it. My efforts were small at first—a few hot meals pilfered from the homes of the wealthy, and given to children on the street; shedding the coat on my back when I saw a man shiver, who had no coat. I could not do much, in my state of half-humanity, but I tried.
But today, I have a new calling. Someone, somehow, has unearthed my maker’s old research, the notes and journals he kept while he tried to give me life. Someone has found these blueprints for blasphemy and they have co-opted it for their own hideous ends.
Within the last five years, an entire black market industry has risen, dedicated to reanimating dead tissue. Criminals and degenerates the world over are animating dead men, women, and even children, and selling them to the highest bidder for whatever purpose their owners see fit. In the 21st century, the face of the international slave trade is a reanimated corpse. And thanks to advances in industrialization and computing technology, it now takes only hours to do what once took months to accomplish. The most well-polished factories can produce upwards of a hundred reanimates in a single day. They don’t even have to exhume bodies from graveyards any more: the most unscrupulous of these enterprises simply kill vagrants and drifters—dispossessed people with nobody to fight for them—just so they can reanimate them as slaves.
But these slaves are as I was when I was first made: savage, angry creatures with no understanding of morality. I have seen these beasts revolt, and kill those they were meant to serve, more times than I can count. I have tried to reason with some of them, to teach them goodness as man taught it to me, but I have always failed. The modern reanimate is too primitive, too cruel. They are little more than wild animals, and they must be put down like wild animals. They and the latter-day Prometheuses who make them.
So I have dedicated myself to doing exactly that. I stem the tide of the reanimate industry wherever I see it. I burn factories. I destroy monsters. I shred blueprints and schematics. And I hunt the ones who cause this. I am always on the hunt for Prometheus.
Tonight I have found one of these reanimate factories in the city of Vancouver, on the west coast of Canada. I infiltrated the premises via a hole in the southwestern corner of the perimeter fence. My studies of this area had led me to believe that this was the least-guarded part of the factory, and that I would have the smallest chance of detection by entering here.
I was wrong in this assumption. I had barely made it a hundred yards past the fence before the first alarm sounded. And that is how I found myself standing in a moonlit grass field, surrounded by two dozen mindless undead drones who want to eviscerate me.
The clear-eyed, thinking reanimate with the apelike skull rushes me, and I raise the rifle in my hands. Four rounds remain in the magazine of my prized Norinco M14, so I must make them count. As the reanimate opens its mouth and snarls, I hold the gun close against my body and fire.
The reanimate jerks its head at the last moment. The shot whistles past its ear and strikes one of the creatures in the crowd behind. The ones who are still feverishly harvesting the first of their dead.
The bullet hits the reanimate in the crowd in the side of the head, just behind the ethmoid bone. It shreds the creature’s eyeball on entry and comes bursting out the other side, accompanied by a spray of hand-me-down brains, blood, ocular fluid, and whatever chemicals the resident Prometheus is using to preserve these beasts.
The creature falls and the horde descends upon it. They must be ecstatic. Two new sources of parts in the last five minutes.
But that does not help me. The big fellow is still coming. I prepare to fire again, but he ducks under me. With one hand he grabs the barrel of the gun, with the other the stock, and drives one powerful leg into my stomach.
I feel the impact more than I expect to. I was made from only the sturdiest, strongest flesh. I have more pain tolerance and a higher capacity for endurance than do other men. I am a brick wall. I should be a brick wall. This reanimate’s attack should be inconsequential to me.
But it is not. The breath goes out of me all at once and I fall backward. I land on my back, a sharp stone on the ground piercing through my coat and digging into my spine. I gasp for air as the reanimate takes the gun in two hands. It is examining it, trying to understand its mysteries.
As I get to my feet, the beast solves the mystery. Elementary, Watson. Simply elementary, it seems to say as it points the gun at me and bares its teeth.
BANG! I duck and run as the gun discharges. The shot goes wild and strikes a tree. I feel the splinters it kicks up, rapping against my arm. Never mind the security, I think. Get to the factory. Stop any further reanimates before they start.
The reanimate with the gun—what do I call him? If I am to save time when contemplating him, I should name him. I am chief among the undead, says a voice in my head. The Adam of his labours. I was and am the first among this new race of men. And this beast pursuing me is the first killer among the new race of men. It does not want me dead simply so it can harvest me. It wants to prove its superiority. It wants to stop me from killing it and the others. It wants to kill me because it is vengeful. It wants to kill me, I suspect, because it enjoys killing. It has a spiteful, violent streak.
It is the first killer. It is Cain.
Cain turns his head and shouts to the horde. He has not yet lived enough of a life to master speech, so his commands come out as guttural barks and growls, but I can understand his meaning. Was I not the same way once?
Cain roars at the horde to cease their harvest and attack me. Don’t let him get to the factory! I imagine him saying. As I quickly look back, I catch a glimpse of the undead picking up their heads like meerkats to look at me. There is a brief pause while their weak, inherited brains do the arithmetic, and then they start after me. They come in a furious sprint, crawling and stumbling over each other, with their outstretched hands bent into vicious, snatching claws. They bare their teeth and foam at the mouth, growling like panthers or hissing like gibbons.
A patch of wet grass is my downfall. My foot slides out from under me and I fall to the ground, nearly biting my tongue in half when I land. I turn around just in time to see a reanimate break from the pack and come at me. It crouches and tenses its powerful leg muscles, then springs. I try to escape, but it lands on my chest with bone-shattering force. Two strong hands wrap around my throat, and the creature starts to strangle me.
I grab its wrists and try to pull its hands away, but to no avail. I have lived for centuries, while this creature cannot be more than a few weeks old. It is the new model, and I am obsolete.
I feel the pressure on my windpipe, and a memory, thick with the dust of centuries, comes to mind. Is this how the child felt in his last moments? Or Henry Clerval or my maker’s bride?
Hot anger surges inside me. No, I shall not go to my death like this. I am not Clerval. These beasts are not me. My lower body jerks, and I propel my knee upward into the reanimate’s middle. Its grip on me slackens as I punch the air out of it, and then I roll. With both hands, I kick out and push the creature off me. My hands are as stone when I position myself atop my attacker and hammer my fists into its face. I break the nose, the jaw, and the orbital bone, and I only stop hitting the creature long enough to take its head in both my hands and twist with all my strength. The vertebrae splinter and snap under my might, and I keep twisting. Muscle and sinew tear, the skin separates, and I soon lift the head free of the body.
I stand, with the reanimate’s blood trickling down my arm, and throw the head to the horde. As the front rank dives upon it, I sprint toward a large oak tree nearby. I take a low hanging branch in both my hands and rip it free of the trunk, then I run back toward the horde. Before they quite know what has happened, I have felled three more of them. I shatter skulls, spines, and ribs in my rage, and when one of the reanimates grabs my branch from me and snaps it in two over its knee, I grab that creature by the throat. And I scream at the heavens as I lift the beast up, and snap it over my knee.
Cain advances again and fires the gun at me. I throw the reanimate I am holding at him, and hear a dull phut as the corpse absorbs the bullet. I count back in my head, and determine that one bullet remains in the magazine. I hope this has not occurred to Cain. But why should it have? He only conquered the mystery of how to fire the damn thing mere minutes ago. What does he know of ammunition, of reloading?
It never occurs to me that I might be letting my guard down for too long. When another reanimate leaps onto my back and sinks its teeth into my shoulder, only then do I take my attention away from Cain.
My blood dribbles down the front of my shirt as the beast digs into me. I put all my power into my hips and my shoulders and begin to thrash, bucking and weaving this way and that so that I might throw the creature off. I reach behind me with both hands to try and find it, when I inadvertently strike it behind the ear with my left forearm.
I feel the creature go momentarily slack, and I grab at it. Then I pull it over my head and throw it to the ground. Its feet flail wildly and catch another two reanimates on the head as it falls. When all three are down, I jump on the first one, driving the heel of my boot into its skull. I do the same to the other two, and they all crunch satisfyingly underneath me.
As the next reanimate rushes, I fold my arm and launch an elbow into its face. It snarls as the blood drips down into its mouth, and then delivers a low kick to my knee. I turn at the last minute, and the blow glances off my shin. It still hurts, but not as badly as it could have. I duck and pick up a large rock in my hand. This I swing upwards, striking the reanimate below the chin. As its jaw shatters, the force of the blow lifts it off the ground. It flies in a magnificent arc and lands in a crumpled pile at my feet.
I lift the rock up high to finish the job, but Cain fires the rifle again. The bullet strikes the rock at an angle, and sparks flitter down toward me.
That is a moment of clarity for me. I had lost myself in the fight, lost sense of my purpose. But now I remember why I am here. I drop the rock and abandon the fight against the mob of reanimates, and I renew my flight toward the factory.
My footsteps are like thunder as I tramp over the wet grass. I am sprinting toward the factory at full speed, and the constant pound pound pound of my feet and the feet of the horde behind me is like the rhythm of an earthquake. A tremendous cataclysm that would crack the very earth and topple Prometheus’ rock on top of him.
I reach the factory’s exterior, and inside I can hear the sounds of industry. Machines grind and hum. Chemicals bubble. Monsters wake from eternal rest.
There are exterior stairs on the eastern wall. I begin to climb them and the horde tries to pull me down. I kick away their scrabbling, groping hands, with the yellow, cracked fingernails. A reanimate leaps and wraps both hands around my calf, and then, with a hungry roar, it sinks its teeth into my ankle.
I stifle a scream, and as I swallow it, it ferments into pure rage. If this animal wants to play dirty, then I will be happy to play dirty. I raise my free leg and stomp on the reanimate’s head. It tears away from my ankle with a strip of my bloody flesh in its jaws. It looks up at me, its blank white eyes full of hate, and howls furiously. My half-chewed skin and tendon slop messily down its chin and onto its collar, and its teeth are streaked red. I raise my leg again, and drive my heel right into the creature’s open mouth. Its nose crunches underneath my boot, and when I lift my leg for the third time, I see a misshapen red lump in the centre of the creature’s face. Two teeth are broken, two more are missing, and one eye is squinted shut.
I deliver the third kick low, coming up underneath the chin. The reanimate launches backward off the stairs and topples the rest of the group when it lands. I take the rest of the stairs two at a time while the horde stumbles and falls over itself. Some are still busily harvesting the fallen, and some recognize me as a greater threat that must be put down, and now they are furiously fighting amongst themselves trying to make a decision. On the ground below me, they bite and punch and kick at each other, and eventually they forget me entirely.
But Cain does not.
At the top of the stairs, there is a ladder leading to the roof of the factory. As I climb this, I see Cain on the stairs. He still holds my now-empty rifle, but he is swinging it like a club. I reach the top of the ladder just as he reaches the top of the stairs, and he swings the rifle at me, holding it by the barrel. He misses my leg by centimetres, and roars in frustration.
On the roof, I see a skylight. As I run toward it, I hear Cain ascending the ladder behind me, followed by another roar.
I turn to look, and I see him complete his ascent. He waves the gun around above his head and then throws it toward me. It strikes me in the back of the knee and tangles up my legs, and I fall like a tree.
I turn over onto my back and immediately see Cain descending upon me. His arms are flexed before him, and the muscles in his hands are tense, ready.
No, I insist. I will not die like this. I am not Clerval in this scenario. Have I not already told you? I! AM NOT! CLERVAL!
I tuck my legs into my chest and wait until Cain is near enough. Then I kick him in the chest. As I hop to my feet, I see him clutching a hand to his breast. I suspect I have broken his rib.
I do not give him a chance to recover. While he is distracted, I curl my hand into a fist and swing at his head. He tries to duck in the last minute, but the pain in his chest slows him. The punch lands on the side of his head, and he twirls to the right, stumbling and falling to the ground. He kicks out at me a few seconds after he lands, but I jump back.
Cain stands and lunges at me, swinging his fists like a blind boxer. I dodge the blows easily, and launch a powerful cross at him. He stumbles back a step and lowers his fists, and then I elbow him in the nose.
I don’t notice the manoeuvre until too late. Before I can draw my elbow back, Cain grabs my arm with both hands and kicks me in the knee. As I fall, he throws himself on top of me and closes his hands into fists.
My cheek explodes with pain as Cain lands his first punch. He throws another into my eye, and two more into my nose. My ears are ringing from the pain, and all I can see is blinding whiteness as Cain tries to cave my head in with his fists.
The gun, I think. Where is the gun?
The gun is empty, another part of me retorts.
But it is heavier than Cain’s fists, I decide finally.
As Cain keeps hitting me, I grope around for the gun. It is nearby, surely. We are not far from where I initially fell.
My fingertip brushes the barrel somewhere to the right of me, and I stretch my arm out. Slowly, I start dragging the weapon toward me. Miraculously, Cain has not noticed yet.
I wrap my hand around the barrel and feel the weight of the gun. I can hardly see my opponent anymore, so I will have to do this by instinct.
I take a second to gauge where both Cain and the gun are, and I swing.
There is a delightful CRACK, and I feel Cain roll off of me. As I stand and take the gun in both hands, my vision starts to clear. I see Cain holding both hands to his head, covering a large, fresh gash above his ear. I aim the butt of the rifle downward, and smash the same ear into a red cauliflower. Cain hollers with pain, but I just drive the rifle butt into his head again. And again. Again and again and again, until his head no longer looks like a head. When Cain lies still, when his limbs have ceased their deathly twitching, and the eyes in the misshapen, fractured, bleeding skull have gone dark, only then do I drop the gun.
I listen for the horde, but I hear nothing. A glance back over the side of the roof shows me that they have utterly torn themselves apart with their infighting. Their bodies lie bloodied and broken, in a swollen mound on the earth.
Well, that means less work for me, anyway.
I look down into the skylight, and see the factory’s inner workings. I see the reanimates twitching on their slabs, blinking their eyes open for the first time. I see no people in the factory—no foremen or overseers. I suppose they only work in daylight.
Will the wonders of automation never cease? says a wry voice in my head.
I smash one of the panes of the skylight and jump down onto a high walkway. No point being delicate now. I am too tired, too angry, and too impatient to be delicate. I see some of the reanimates looking up at me, but there is nothing they can do. They are strapped to their slabs, as I was once strapped to mine. I presume that, other than the security forces, the humans who run this plant only let their creations walk during the day, when they are around to control them.
On the walkway, I overlook one of the great chemical vats that line the walls. These chemicals, when they are mixed together, are a key ingredient in creating this particular brand of life. (And I would know.)
But, these chemicals are also very volatile. Highly toxic, and highly flammable. When handled improperly, the results can be catastrophic. And I have destroyed enough of these factories to know precisely what “improperly” looks like.
As I descend to the floor, I make a mental checklist: how many vats I need to open, where to light the fires, which mixtures at what dosages are the most hazardous. It is a saboteur’s grocery list.
In the Greek myths of Homer and Aeschylus, Prometheus molded the first men from clay, and stole fire from Mount Olympus in order to give them an advantage in the world. These actions angered Zeus greatly, and for his crimes Prometheus was condemned, chained to a rock for eternity. Each day, a great eagle would tear out and eat his liver, but because Prometheus was an immortal Titan, it would grow back each night.
I slip out of the factory as the fire starts to build, and I need look no further than here to know that, yes, Prometheus is immortal. He is not one particular person anymore—there is no singularly obsessed genius stitching together every reanimate by hand—but he does exist. He exists in the hundreds, perhaps thousands of diseased, deranged criminals who have cast an eye toward this twisted trade of life and death. I may burn one factory, but there is always another to continue spreading this infection into the world. I am the eagle, and I may tear the Titan’s liver out a hundred times, but it will always grow back. The factories will always run, and there will always be more reanimates.
But I will not stop what I am doing. I will never give up this fight, even if I never truly win it. Because I am the only one who is fighting. I know better than anyone what a misery this reanimation business can be, and I cannot in good conscience allow it to go unimpeded.
To lie down and offer no resistance, to let these criminals steamroll right over me, would be just as bad as participating in their despicable trade. It would give them the impression that their actions are just. But if somebody sabotages them, and maims them, and slows their progress, then they may see their error. God is not on their side. Nature is not on their side. Goodness is not on their side.
And as long as Prometheus lives, the eagle will beat its wings.