Hey there, readers!
So LTUE 2016 is still going on, but the other day in a panel I had a wonderful idea for a piece of flash fiction inspired by—of all things—the apocalypse! I couldn’t resist typing it over the last hour or so, and now I offer the whole thing to you for a bit of fun. It’s a whole, complete story—though much, much shorter than what I usually write.
Anyway, enjoy! Oh, and as expected, this story is copyright 2016 Max Florschutz. All rights reserved, please do not reprint, reproduce, or copy. Etc, etc, basically this is mine, for my use. If you want to share it, please link.
By Max Florschutz
Sam groaned as the gentle tone of his alarm pulled him from sleep, pushing away dreams and scattering his subconscious. Reality built itself around him with a dull, menial snap, coming together piece by piece as he became aware of his surroundings.
Bed. Bedsheets. Covers. There was something else on the edge of his mind, nipping at the edges of his consciousness over and over and over—
Oh. Right. He stuck his arm out from under the blankets, shivering as the cool air raised goosebumps against his skin, and fumbled for the cheap, plastic alarm clock next to his bed. Moments later the beeping stopped, and he sank back into the sheets with a sigh.
Morning again. He didn’t want to get up. Maybe I don’t have to. Maybe I can just roll over and take a day.
He snuggled deeper under the covers, trying to put as much space as possible between his body and the withering cold outside his blankets. Let’s see, yesterday was my day to help with the laundry so … Oh no.
His shoulders slumped. There was no way he could be late. Not today. Adrien would read him the riot act if he was. As would the camp doc. He was healthy, and he was fit. There was no backing out.
Today was his day to be the rabbit.
He rolled out of bed, ignoring the sting against his skin brought on by the cool winter air. He let out a shuddering breath, his fingers already going numb as he fumbled for the light. The bare bulb came alive as he hit the switch, light flooding the room and forcing him to squint.
That’s it, he thought as he reached out and flicked the switch on the small portable electric heater he’d stashed by the foot of his bed. It came to life with a faint hum, the looped metal wire quickly letting off a rosy, warm glow. As soon as the weather warms up, I’m getting myself some insulation. Bare concrete in the winter is just too much.
He should’ve listened to Adrien when she’d suggested better insulating the room. At the time, freshly arrived at the camp and thrilled to just have a room to call his own, to be out of the back of a pickup truck, he’d put the idea off, declaring that he had a whole summer ahead of him to take care of it. But somehow, he’d never quite gotten around to it.
Maybe I could get some rugs, he thought as he rummaged around on the icy floor for a pair of socks. I could do a supply run, stop by a store somewhere. Assuming he could find one where the rugs were still in good shape. In the five years or so since the outbreak a lot of things had stopped working.
At least we have hot water, he thought as he beat a hasty retreat to the shower. According to what Dan had told him, the same hadn’t always been true for the camp. Early on, the only way to heat water had been to do so manually, on the electric stoves. Which, for the power-starved camp, wasn’t always a possibility. Even after they’d gotten the current system up and running, they’d still had to spend time converting the water heaters over to an electric system, and then expanding the camp’s reservoir.
The shower was a quick one; designed to wake him up, not clean him off. The results were clear on that front: A smelly, sweaty rabbit was a better rabbit. If he cleaned himself off, or worse, used too much soap, the reaction just wasn’t the same.
Fully awake at last he stepped out of the shower and fumbled with the electric heater, spinning it around so that it was facing him. He stood there for a moment, letting the heat air dry his skin and examining himself in the mirror.
I never thought I’d be this lean. A thin, toned body was in the mirror, skin darkened from hours of harsh exposure to the sun, hands worn with callouses. Gone was the extra weight he’d carried around his middle for so long. Gone, too, was much of his hair. Stress, the doc had told him. And maybe a bit of malnutrition.
At least that part of his old look had left him. The first year after the outbreak had been the worst, and he’d barely survived, though he’d learned quickly enough. Others hadn’t been so lucky. They’d survived the rising dead, only to die from malnutrition or disease.
A quick look out the window showed him that he didn’t have much time to waste. Outside the squat, heavy apartment building, an empty city sat motionless under a thin layer of frost. Well, he conceded. Not quite motionless. There were guards along the distant wall, walking back and forth in case something unusual happened, but their paces were sedate and slow. Nothing had happened in months.
Word had it that the apocalypse was finally over, that the dead were thinning out. Starving, dying again, whatever. Even the scavenger crews were reporting fewer and fewer sightings of the things. Adrien had reminded them that there were plenty of other reasons why the sightings could be shrinking, but the hope was still there. Maybe mankind really had beaten their own dead. Maybe the war was over.
Sam shook his head. I’ll believe it when I see it, he thought, his eyes moving to the distant trees. After seeing the dead rise and rush for the living, it was a lot harder to simply assume that things were always so easy.
He ran his eyes over the camp grounds and frowned. No wind. That and the clouded skies overhead meant that he couldn’t be late. The solar panels, as advanced as they were, would only be drawing a trickle, and the windmills would be completely out of order.
Which meant it was entirely on him to keep the camp’s batteries going, to be the rabbit for the next four hours.
At least I don’t have a midnight shift this month, he thought as he collected his gear and left the room. Dawn’s not so bad, but I hate pulling a shift after a long day. Technically, the one advantage to being the rabbit was that you were supposed to get the rest of the day off, but that said nothing for the day before. Once or twice they’d had someone choke, a leg cramping up and grinding the whole operation to a halt.
You could have a motionless rabbit, of course. And since they’d installed a freewheel clutch on the main flywheel, they didn’t have to worry as much about the consequences of suddenly slowing down. But unless it was both sunny out and there was a decent breeze, the rabbit had to remain mobile. There simply wasn’t enough power to keep the camp running and charge the batteries at the same time.
He’d heard rumblings of a hydroelectric project once the winter was over, but he wasn’t sure it was going to happen. There just wasn’t enough fast-flowing water nearby. And despite how much everyone hated it … the rabbit system worked. Sure, it needed a living volunteer, but it worked all the same.
He ate a light breakfast in the camp cafeteria, waving hello to a few early-risers before jogging over to what most rabbits had started calling the “Graveyard Gym,” his breath leaving small, cloudy puffs in the air like wisps of cotton candy. Originally, the gym had been a warehouse of some kind, and the camp had extended the wall around it with hope of using it for supplies. But as more stragglers had drifted in and the power demands had grown, some enterprising soul had suggested a more creative use for the structure. Unfortunately, she hadn’t lived to see the fruits of her labor, an unfortunate victim of her own power generators during an early test run.
They’d refined the system since then, though. There was almost no chance of someone getting eaten now. He slipped in the front door and into the heated entryway, pausing for a moment to stretch his legs and prep himself for the shift ahead. A pair of running shoes—nice ones he’d found in a high-end shop several miles from the camp—lay in his gym bag, and he slipped them over his feet, replacing his regular shoes. A clock in the corner of the room told him he had a minute more.
It was funny what a little human ingenuity could do when faced with a problem. The living dead defied all known science and physics—not that there were many left who could dispute such things. But the zombies didn’t decay at nearly the speeds they should have, and they never grew tired, no matter how far they wandered or for how long. Somehow, in some way, they disobeyed the fundamental energies of the universe.
Maybe it was magic. Or maybe science had just been really wrong.
Heck, Sam thought as he took one last, long stretch. Maybe they’re run by alien nanomachines controlled from orbit. Or a supervillain’s lair.
Whatever the reason, the zombies never stopped coming, never stopped moving, and never died until they were too damaged to go further. No one knew how or why it worked. A zombie, focused on its target, would never stop trying to reach it.
And that was where the rabbit came in.
The clock in the corner clicked over and Sam tugged the door open, stepping into the gym. The smell hit him first, like desiccated leather, and he winced. He’d long since grown used to it, but there was still a faint sense of something being off behind the stench.
The sounds came right after that, a chorus of moans and clicks as dozens of jaws opened and shut, mixing with the labored breaths of the rabbit in front of him. The rabbit’s eyes widened slightly as she saw him.
“Hey Sam,” she said, slapping a button on the side of the treadmill and slowing from a jog to a quick walk. Her skin was flushed with sweat, her clothes long since soaked, and she let out a shaky sigh as her pace slowed. “Glad to see you.”
“Long shift?” he asked, stepping up to the side of the treadmill. Veronica nodded.
“I forgot my iPod,” she said, hopping off of the treadmill and flexing one leg. “It was a long night.”
“I’ll bet,” he said, grimacing. Behind the treadmill, and past two layers of heavy-duty chain-link fencing, several dozen dead eyes stared at him, grasping hands already torn between the new arrival and the old, exhausted rabbit. He reached into the pocket of his shorts and found his own mp3 player there.
“I’d best get started with my shift,” he said, and Veronica nodded, moving for the door. It clicked shut a moment later, and then it was just him alone in the room, watched by almost a hundred zombies.
“Well boys,” he said, sticking an earbud into one ear as the shambling mass of zombies began to move. “Time to give you something to chase.” He turned and hopped onto the treadmill, a chill spreading across his skin as he moved into the path of the fans mounted on the ceiling.
They were recent addition. The zombies ran faster if they could smell sweat, and the fans helped spread the scent through the room.
He hit the start button and the treadmill began to move, slowly at first but then picking up speed. There was a mirror mounted on the corner of the control panel, and he eyed it, watching as behind him the zombie horde began to run forward.
Then the chains around their waists went tight, and the treadmills they were standing on began to move. He picked up his pace, and so did the zombies, groaning as they shambled faster and faster before breaking out into a run.
And with each step, somewhere below them the flywheel picked up speed, whizzing faster and faster as it powered the electric generators that kept the camp supplied with power.
He watched for a moment, checking to make sure that he had the attention of every zombie, that each one of them was running after him, endlessly pushing against their treadmills with that inexplicable, never-ending zombie energy.
He slipped the other earbud in and started his running playlist, letting his mind relax as his feet thudded against the belt in a steady rhythm.
And behind him, the world’s most energy-efficient power generator pushed on, goaded on by the sight of the rabbit.
Welcome, he thought, as he did almost every shift, to the green revolution.