It’s been a while since I wrote you a story, so what better time to make things right than during the London Horror Festival in the lead up to Halloween? Here we go…
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Gordon Ramona had been obsessed with death since that day when he walked home from school and witnessed a man being thrown over the roof of a car. Passers-by had screamed and rushed to the man, who lay on the road with his head twisted at an impossible angle. Apart from the trickle of blood running from his nose, he barely looked injured. Gordon had knelt down to talk to the man and he had twitched, lifted one of his arms, then let out a long, rattling groan. The dead man’s eyes had stared back at him, glassy, unmoving, yet his body remained unchanged. Gordon had stared at the man until the ambulance had arrived and the paramedics had pulled him back and wrapped him in a blanket. He never forgot those eyes. That moment when the light behind them had grown fainter and fainter like someone turning down a dimmer switch.
Gordon left school with straight ‘A’s but no friends. He wanted to become a doctor. His school work, and the endless hours of spare-time research into mortality had left him cast out from the crowd, branded a ‘freak’ and a ‘weirdo’. But all he wanted was to find away to stop people from dying. Medical researchers spent years trying to crack the code of eternal life, and Gordon wanted to be the one to make the breakthrough. He took an elective year in Africa, working with the sick and the poor and the hopeless. Studying them, watching them die. Taking samples of their blood to analyse their DNA and find out some way to switch off the death gene. It was on a three-month stint in Haiti that he met the infamous Doctor Davis.
Doctor Wade Davis had spent years researching the phenomenon of ‘zombies’. He found that giving a living person a mixture of tetratoxins, isolated from pufferfish and an extract of the Moonflower plant, Datura, could leave them in a dissociated, death-like state. A state, that handled correctly, could leave them under control of the administrating doctor. These ‘zombies’ could not think for themselves. Their state of psychosis led them to believe that they were dead, that they no longer had a place in society. They congregated around graveyards, lurching and shuffling, looking for the place where they thought they should be but weren’t allowed to go to. Doctor Davis kept them from their graves in this pharmacologically induced death while he performed experiments on them and tried to unlock the secrets of life and death.
Gordon was a good student. Soon, he had formulated his own combination of the pufferfish and Moonflower toxins that would lead to the longest periods of the ‘un-dead’ state. But he needed to know more. He needed to try out his drug on a fresh, new population. People with higher intelligence, people with the ability to fight the psychosis. Gordon wanted to know if he could force a ‘zombie’ to think for themselves, take what they needed to sustain their own ‘lives’. And he wanted to know if the phenomenon could be spread from one individual to another. He needed to perform a proper clinical trial.
Gordon returned to London with two boxes: one housed a tank containing a pair of mating pufferfish, and the other a batch of dormant Datura roots. Soon, he’d set up a small biolab and recreated the concoction he called TTXD. Then he got himself a job as the physician in charge of a flu research clinic. The company had jumped at the chance to have him. His experiences of epidemiology – the spread of disease – in Africa would be extremely useful, they’d said.
‘So how does it work?’ Gordon asked the clinic manager. ‘Who are we testing the flu drugs on?’
‘Students, mainly. They’ve got the time off. They’re desperate for the cash. Plus, they quite like the way it works – at first, they’re left in their rooms in isolation, we feed them, monitor them, take blood draws every two hours. The rest of the time they read or watch TV or play on the games consoles we leave in the rooms for them. Some of them catch up on their studies, but mainly they’re just here for the money.’
Gordon frowned. ‘So they’re alone the whole time? In isolation for the whole week of the trial?’
‘Oh no – the next part is the exciting bit. You see, we’ve given them all a very low dose of the flu. Then half of them get given the drug we’re testing, and the other half get given an injection of saline. None of them know if they’re being given the real drug or not. We get to analyse whether the drug works, or if it’s just the thought of the drug that makes them feel better – you know, the placebo effect.’
‘Of course,’ said Gordon. He was a doctor. He’d studied clinical trials. But he didn’t want to make the clinic manager look stupid; he was essentially just an administrator and had no medical training.
‘Then,’ the clinic manager continued, ‘then, we get them all in the one place. Group dinners, watching movies, playing games. We want them to socialise in a ‘normal’ way. They form relationships. They touch each other, shake hands, pat backs. The sick ones cough and splutter and don’t wash their hands.’ A pause. ‘They don’t all get sick though. Some of them have a natural immunity. Those are the ones we’re most interested in, of course. We want to know what it is that stops them from getting ill. So we give them additional blood tests, check their antibodies, that sort of thing.’
‘What about side effects?’
The clinic manager laughed. ‘Well… no one has ever died, if that’s what you mean’.
Initially, Gordon just did his job as he was supposed to. Biding his time. He didn’t want to draw attention to his own experiments until he was sure he could get them to work. He was intrigued about the naturally immune students. They were the ones who were fighters. They were the ones he needed to give the highest doses of TTXD. After observing for two weeks, and in the evenings, putting the finishing touches to his drug – making sure it wouldn’t cause any injection site reactions that would arouse suspicion, making sure it didn’t cause nausea or anything else untoward – he decided to start the experiment.
He needed to know if the effects of TTXD could be transmitted from one individual to another.
It was easy to get into the drug store. The security in the clinic was reasonably low, which would have been of concern if he wasn’t trying to do his own thing there. He carefully injected varying doses of TTXD into each vial of the saline. But not the flu drug; the idea was to see if those who received his drug mixed with the saline would somehow manage to transfer it to the others when they were at the ‘flu party’, mixing with the others. He couldn’t mix his drug with the flu drug because he’d taken a vial home and tried it and it appeared that the flu drug was able to counteract the effects of the TTXD almost immediately – which was a bonus finding, actually, as it meant he now had a cure: in case anything should go wrong.
He had no idea how wrong things would go.
One of the first recipients of TTXD, a young man called Jimmy, had convulsed and gone into a coma immediately after the first injection. Jimmy was being treated in the high dependency unit, housed in a separate building, and was being monitored around the clock. Gordon was nervous, but it was too late to change things now. He’d administered TTXD to ten students, and the changes were slowly becoming apparent. The nurses were baffled, as the students started to become clumsy, bumping into things, slurring their words. Some of them complained that they couldn’t see properly. Others just wandered around with their arms outstretched, grabbing and clutching onto others in panic. The unaffected students were terrified, huddling in corners, trying to get away. They all knew something had gone very, very wrong.
Gordon watched from the other side of the two-way glass as events unfolded. The more they bumped into each other, the more they seem to become affected. Eventually, almost all of the students were affected to some degree or another and Gordon watched, fascinated, as the whole room became a shambling, writhing mass. Initially, the staff tried to calm the students down, but as the effects of the drug and the spread of the ‘disease’ became more widespread, they were all too scared to enter the room. There was nothing more to be done. The students had signed away their rights – they knew the risks.
As the first few students reached the advanced psychotic state that Gordon had been hoping for, the state he had seen in Haiti but had failed to mention to Dr Davis, the clinic manager and the nurses had fled the building and Gordon had smiled to himself, pleased that the experiment had been a success.
He didn’t notice that one of the nurses, in her haste, had left the door of the ‘flu room’ open.
Distracted by one of the students who was repeatedly banging her head against what she thought was a mirror, he also didn’t notice that one of the others had pinned one of the last few ‘unaffected’ to the floor with his knees and was taking large bites out of her face. He didn’t register the small flock of others that lurked nearby, salivating, preparing to do the same. He only realised that something had gone wrong when he heard the crash as the door flew open, and one by one, the students – or what it was they had become – began to stagger out of the room, looking for fresh meat.
Twenty-eight days later, a young man called Jimmy woke up in a hospital bed. Apart from himself, the ward was empty and he could hear nothing but the beeping machine attached by a clip to his finger. He scratched his head and frowned; no idea how he’d ended up there or how long he’d been there for. The movement caused the clip to ping off his finger and the machine wailed until he pulled out the plug. He yanked the drip out of the back of his hand and walked slowly over to the window; peered down at the car park below. Although it was still daylight, the place seemed unnaturally empty. Doors hung open on the few cars that were left, a solitary Coke can rolled across the tarmac. A strange feeling of emptiness engulfed him. The building cast shadows down into the deserted parking spaces below; and in the darkest corner, Jimmy could just make out the faint glow of dozens of pairs of unblinking red eyes.
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Hope you enjoyed my ‘alternative beginning’ to a certain film. Zombie fans may also have noticed similarities between ‘Gordon Ramona’ and a certain director… and the stuff about Wade Davis? Well, scarily, that’s almost all true… Feedback is always welcome – you can contact me via the usual channels (you’ll find the links to my twitter/facebook/email on my website: www.sjiholliday.com).
Until next time, Black Flaggers. Over and Out.