7th Combat Sciences Group, McLean, Virginia.
A secretary seats me in a conference room on the floor of the Biological Analysis Division, where I’m to meet Joseph Gartner, Director of the Combat Sciences Group. She explains that, as is typical of his scheduling, Mr. Gartner is running late. When he arrives fifteen minutes later carrying a thick manila folder, he apologizes profusely, explaining that he was gathering the file in his hands for our discussion. “Not sure how geeked you wanted to get with this interview,” Gartner says. He is an unassuming man, balding, and wears thick, dark-rimmed glasses. His demeanor is gentle, with an underlying hint of sadness in his voice.
To tell the truth, I ignored the email when I first received it. This was when the Internet was still functioning on a sporadic basis, and I assumed it was either a joke from one of my associates or some new Nigerian spam circulating the Web. Even though the age-modified draft had been in effect for over four months, I thought my specialization would keep me 4F, and well, you can see that I’m hardly built for the front line effort.
Gartner pats his paunchy belly.
It was only after receiving the certified letter that read “Failure to appear constitutes a violation of the War Powers Act, and will result in immediate incarceration and termination of medical licenses,” that I figured I should show up. Still, I couldn’t believe that I would be of any use to them, given my specialty.
And what was your specialty?
Pediatrics. One week I was knee deep in cavities and overbites and extracting chewing gum from braces, the next I’m sitting in front of the Surgeon General, the Assistant Defense Secretary, and the Director of the CDC, discussing this new division of the Combat Sciences Group. I’d heard of the CSG from what I read in the papers, mostly about the work done to analyze the virus’ pathology and it’s neurological pathways, but the more the ADS discussed the concept of the new group, the more it made sense.
He unfolds the manila envelope, and removes several x-rays.
Working with the teeth of children, you’re privy to the evolution of their dental history - how the molars are forming, anomalies arising from new growth, how the bicuspids are developing. One of the things the team realized with the virus was that once a human was first infected, the brain wasn’t the only thing that underwent an evolution. The same way Z’s can freeze rock solid in the winter, and return in the spring like the cherry blossoms, the fundamental cellular composition of an undead specimen was altered after infection, including the teeth. See here, this is the dental x-ray of a normal non-infected adult. Now take a look at this one a human, six hours after infection. Here…
He pulls out a magnifying glass and holds it over x-ray base of the upper jawline.
See these tiny protrusions at the root of each tooth? Amazing. What do they look like to you?
Correct! Or anchors, if you will. Even before the victim has fully turned, this is already taking place. What this also doesn’t show you is the level of enamel on his maxillaries, which is significantly thicker than a typical human. Can you fathom the implications of this discovery? We realized that whatever this virus does, it isn’t as simplistic as bringing a dead body back to life. It alters the infected’s anatomy to withstand cellular destruction in freezing cold, resist salt water decomposition at sea, and reinforce its fundamental weapon, it’s teeth. Whether out of lack of interest, resources, or funding, no other group, government or NGO, took full advantage of this data. It is for this reason that our division was formed, to determine if we could approach the battle from a different angle, by fighting the enemy’s primary means of attack and infection.
What ideas were you expected to develop?
What weren’t we expected to develop! If I could tell you some of the esoteric, exotic, and straight up crazy ideas we kicked around, I tell you, feeding them candy wasn’t too far off the mark. Our marching orders were to attempt to do the opposite of what I was trained to do, and have done all my life. Instead of protecting and nurturing enamel and dentin, we were now attempting to reverse engineer and potentially accelerate their decay.
So, the government wanted to rot zombies’ teeth?
Don’t laugh, it isn’t as crazy as it sounds. At the point our group was developed, infections were reported on five continents, briefs were coming in that showed for every one zombie that was killed, four were created. The brass thought if we really get our heads underwater on eliminating them outright, is there any way to slow the rate of infection. This was just one of many tactics.
At first, it was all about analysis; what happens two hours, six hours, 12 hours after infection. After we determined that post-reanimation, cellular evolution seems to cease, we went on the offensive. We worked closely with the chemical weapons division at first, on what was called “Operation Methuselah.” We worked for months to develop an airborne accelerant could be that could be airdropped on a hot zone that would ‘defang’ nests within 30 days. We never really got it to work effectively - either the gas would be ineffective, or the dispersal agent wouldn’t dissipate, and would drift into neighboring safe zones. Plus, any isolated humans in the area would also be affected. That’s when the brass drew the line. “Fighting the undead is bad enough, but having to do it toothless is too much for anyone to bear,” is what the SG said. The only compound we created that seemed to work was a topical agent that caused extremely rapid decay within 48 hours. The Infected Subjects Research division used it for awhile on their cases. I hate to think of the poor intern whose job it was to brush those bastards’ teeth with the stuff. This is before we developed the “Tommy.”
A nickname the team came up with for the TME, or Tactical Mandible Extractor. Once the higher-ups put the thumb screws to us about our “unacceptable failure rate” on chemical initiatives, our department head decided to change direction and have us work closer with the Manufacturing and Engineering Division. In hindsight, it was the right move, particularly because of the extensive use of tools like the Tommy. It’s probably easier if I just show you.
We walk down the corridor from his office through a set of double doors that opens up to a hallway with a thick glass partition, separating us from a large open examination room. In it, five zombies stand several feet apart, a steel cable runs from an eyehook in the wall and connects to a carabiner lashed to a leather belt around their waists.
Here, put these on.
He hands me a set of Tyvek coveralls, a face shield, and nose clips. We enter the room and Gartner picks up a long fiberglass staff with what looks like a miniature bear trap on one end, and pruning shears on the other.
The trickiest part is getting the timing right.
As Gartner steps closer to one of the subjects, it extends its arms and moans. He uses the shears end of the device and snaps off all four fingers of the creature’s left hand. The digits scatter to the ground like bloated caterpillars. With another snap, the fingers on the right hand fall to the floor. Finally, as the ghoul continues to moan, Gartner jams the trap end of the device into its mouth. He pulls a lever on the handle, which releases a spike through bottom of its jaw. With a single yank, Gartner pulls the ghoul’s jawbone clean off the skull. It skitters across the floor. Gartner casually picks it up, along with its fingers, using the trap end and tosses them into a red, plastic-lined bin marked “Biohazard.” I look back at the creature. What remains of its tongue now lolls out of its mouth, quivering back and forth.
No muss, no fuss.
Who uses this tool?
Research groups, mostly - any division of the armed forces that conducts regular experimentation on ambulatory subjects. I also heard that SF uses it when they want to conduct some realistic live-fire, CQB, or mob control exercises. There was a plan at one point to start air-dropping them into semi-safe zones for the defending population. I guess the logic was if they can’t eliminate the threat, can they make them less hazardous. I couldn’t imagine how that would work - people walking around town, going about their normal, every-day lives, with fingerless, jawless ghouls meandering about. That idea got nixed pretty quickly, but some of the Tommy’s did make it into civilian hands through some black market and backwoods channels.
My wife put me through medical school. Worked as an executive secretary for this private equity asshole for years while I finished my residency. If she were alive to see this, I don’t know what she’d think. I was supposed to help, not hurt, even if it is these damned souls. I know what I’ve done has been valuable to the effort, but still…
They tell me I’ll be cycled out soon, that given the declaration in the States and all, and that they’ll call me back if additional projects “require my expertise.” But at this point, I’m not sure what I’ll be going back to. I guess there’s my practice. But I have to wonder, what are the people in town going to benefit from more: my skills working with children, or my experience with the living dead?