I placed a hand on the small of the pharmacist’s back, feeling the skin dimpling there, as she shifted nearer towards me. I slid my hand lower, and pressed my breasts to her back, hearing her hiss softly between her teeth. I was about to ease my hand to the front of her dress, when she stopped me.
“Let me,” she murmured.
I allowed myself to be eased onto the bed and undressed, her calm and calloused hands relaxing every inch they pressed into the mattress. Very easy when you’re sprawled across a 300-thread count king bed, in one of this city’s most expensive hotels. She kissed me, caressing my cheeks, tracing the shell of my earlobe, my breasts, dipping into my navel. Her hand slid lower and deeper, into the space between my legs.
She touched me there, warming my body almost immediately, flushing me with a heat that had, until now, been kept a low glow in my heart. She kissed me again, and her breasts pressed insistently against mine. My arms wrapped around her back, as I brought her mouth to mine, and from there, it seemed as if I moved to a synchrony that I had not known existed, let alone be a part of. Breath began to leave me in panting gasps, while her own breaths stuttered only occasionally against my skin. Her fingers stroked me faster, deeper, harder. I tried to breathe, my body tensing, trying to keep from losing the control I already wanted to surrender. Finally I shuddered, soaring on the peak of pleasure; her kisses on my lips are the last memory as I shut away the world around me.
Sexual ecstasy: the actual thing is the perfect drug, and none of the narcotics I could name like the children I will never have could compare. It was how I had managed dreamless sleep for a few hours. While the virus continued to ruin everything, it was the only free drug I could have. We both had not much else to do but keep ourselves occupied, together. It was safer, she said, as if she needed an excuse. It was, in a way, beyond the safety of having another living body lying next to you, not intent on eating you; it stopped me from being sucked into the void that being alone opened in my mind. It was her idea to stay at the Makati Shangri-la. Who was left to stop us? It was a small rebellion on our part, albeit a pathetic one. Back when things were normal and sane, I wouldn’t have even set foot in the Shang, the crown jewel of the capitalist crown of a city this country liked touting, even in the lobby. In a city that discreetly liked to put people in their place, this was not where we belonged.
That was not so long ago.
I’m in what’s left of the mega-shopping complex, the Ayala Center. This was the business district’s most important grid, and in rush hour, every square inch of it would be teeming with people. There aren’t many of the living left here. The few who are here don’t need tardants. Mercury Drug and Watson’s pharmacy are merely distribution points; the emergency governing body did not have enough equipment and supplies needed to make more of the pills, pills that nullified the effects. That was one thing that came to glaring focus amidst the crisis, the one thing that this country and I shared: it is never really enough.
I haven’t been a real doctor since I became an organ harvester. In a twisted way, it’s easier; in an ironic way, closer to what I imagined myself doing: scrubbing up, getting down and dirty, putting people together, saving lives. Except the actual job was brokering peoples’ parts in the backdoors of hospital transactions. It made me feel like the Igor to Dr. Frankenstein (and nobody remembers the ‘doctor’ title when they talk about the monster). Our “clinic” is small, on the second floor of a hardware shop, and if you didn’t know it was there, then it wasn’t. Oh, we’ve moved several times here and there, when some negotiation went wrong, but I could count them with the fingers of my hands. Yes, I do dream of being a “proper doctor” in a “proper” workplace, but the minute I set foot in a real hospital, I’ll be arrested for illegal practice. It’s a small industry in a bustling city; the white coats can smell who doesn’t belong.
And then the virus came, then the martial law order to stay indoors, the lock-down and the quarantine. The virus came, and like a vacuum it sucked up the future. Suddenly there was no time, not even to dream, not even to live. I had nowhere else to go and no relatives to shelter me. I didn’t want to be stuck in seedy Quiapo when the end came; I’d been there long enough. If I had to breathe my last, I thought, I wanted to do it looking at five-figure silk blouses draped on the impossible anatomies of shopfront mannequins, designer bags, and expensive Italian shoes. The things I never got for myself, passing them everyday to connect with the MRT, even when the business was as its height. There had been no time.
I awoke slowly, the daze of lovemaking softly lifted. She was still asleep, her gentle breaths pressing her back against my chest, my arms around her hips. I gazed at the sheathed Asian swords mounted over one of the drawers, at the foot of our bed. I wondered if they were real, or some interior designer’s clichéd approach to decorating “Oriental” themes with useless weapons.
I slipped away quietly and tucked her in, planting a kiss on her forehead creased with worry lines. She breathed softly, stray hairs stirring where they were pressed between her cheek and the pillow. She was breathing. I dressed, and, after a few silent minutes just watching her sleep, slipped away to the hallway and up the stairwell.
I headed to the top floor. It was dark in the building, even during the day, now that electricity everywhere was out. The elevators stayed stuck on whatever floor they were waiting to service. I trudged up the long stairs, breath starting to come heavy, but not stopping.
The helipad was deserted. I crossed it, and leaned over the ledge that overlooked the hotel’s pool, full of dirty water. There were white, people-like lumps scattered all along the sunning area, but none of them shuffled or crawled. All of them were inanimate, justifiably dead. The distance would suffice, and the ledge would make for a nice drop. A satisfying free fall, and a definite end. Good. It would be better to die my way, than through that virus. Broken in several major places (the more the better), and if I angle myself right, hopefully the neck would be the first to go in that split second before everything else followed. For a split second I felt what Rizal must have felt as he calmly (maybe with a small patronizing lilt) instructed his jailers how to position him in the firing range. A dry chuckle escaped inadvertently. Well, there’s something else I can do with knowing bodies.
At first I’d thought it was the wind blowing in my ears, but the whirring sound of blades cutting the air became louder, and interrupted my thoughts. A grey indistinct helicopter was weaving its way through the vertical maze of buildings towards the general direction of the hotel. It didn’t look like a businessman’s helicopter, but it looked much newer than the usual military helicopter. Search parties? my mind offered vaguely, but no, these had gone weeks ago, abandoning the stricken lot it could not carry to its fate. Not that it mattered at this point. It wouldn’t take us.
The helicopter flew directly overhead, and the wind of its passing whipped my hair around my face, making me crouch low and turn against it. A side-door opened, and several people in military fatigues jumped out, all with large guns strapped to their backs. They surrounded the helipad, making vague hand gestures to each other, clicking their tongues cryptically, then circled me. A girl (five feet two, possibly East Asian, forty-eight kilos give or take, sixteen to seventeen years old, possibly insomniac, currently caffeine-saturated my mind supplied, as if writing it down on a medical report), came up to me in a strut befitting soldiers bigger than her stature, her movements precise, her eyes wary. She did not even look a day past senior year high school. There were two guns holstered around her hip, and indents beneath her leather jacket suggested magazines fitted into some sort of body armor. The kid was armed to the teeth. How could she move in that, I thought. I felt suddenly very naked.
She came to a stop in front of me, intent written clearly on her face. They’d probably come after me, finally, locating me in the list of suspected black market organ dealers. They were here to apprehend me. In the middle of the pandemic that had trimmed the country’s population down, it would have been easier to locate rogues. A despairing chuckle surged up my chest. They were here to arrest me.
I backed up, felt the ledge against the small of my back. I could still tumble over, this fiasco be damned.
“Doctor Ertha Basilio?” Accented English, maybe Korean or Chinese.
I immediately raised my hands over my head. “I’ll come quietly…”
“I am not here to arrest you,” the girl said, frowning slightly. She looked at me as if I had gone mad.
Maybe I had.
“I’m with the UN Auxillary Search and Rescue Unit, Southeast Asia,” she said, and there was a brief flash of an ID card beneath her jacket. “We’ve come to get you out of here, doctor.”
“United Nations.” I raised an eyebrow. I wished she hadn’t called me ‘doc’. “What would the UN want with me?”
She lifted her chin slightly, a light command to follow her into the chopper. “They want the brain who created the zombie tardants.”
I found it hard to believe they knew.
“You are Ertha Basilio, MD, aren’t you? Surgeon and general practitioner, working under Doctor Anton Sandimán, who runs a black market organ exchange business?” As if she could read my trepidation simply by the way I stood, the girl raised an eyebrow. “It was your clinic that shipped the thirty units to the Nuestra Señora—” her pronunciation faltered here, confirming what I thought of her ethnicity— “del Pilar Hospital in Cagayan de Oro in the last quarter of 2011, consigned to—” she pulled out some papers, which fluttered in the wind, reading aloud— “a Mister Norman Valencia?”
I remembered that shipment. Our small clinic had worked around the clock to fulfill the orders from the secondary hospital in the stricken region, our boss Sandimán breathing down our necks the promise of a hefty price. And by the time we had sealed the last padded crate with dry ice, there wasn’t an inch of me not covered in the blood of two dozen people I will never meet in my life. She had strained herself for my sake as well, and I remember her tired eyes welcoming me back home.
“Who told you…? Never mind.” I didn’t care anymore what they needed me for. I didn’t care if the UN was arresting me, actually. “That wasn’t me. It was Espinosa. She made them for me.”
“My…” Friend? Partner? Associate? “A pharmacist who works for me.”
We had none of the tardants at the moment, as far as I knew. Espinosa made them on a per-need basis, to avoid having incriminating excess stock. I didn’t know how we could be useful to them that way. I told the girl that.
“I’m just here to pick you up,” the girl said. She shrugged and put the paper away. “In any case, central traced it back to you.”
“Fair enough, Miss…”
But it’s Thursday, I thought, before I realized it was a handle. “What kind of name is that for a girl?” I muttered. Unbidden images of childhood TV shows came to mind.
She cocked her head again, shifted her stance. Not a girl then, a soldier. Not much of a talker, that one.
Tardants. Retrovirals. Encephalic restorers. Anti-zombie drugs. I don’t care what they’re called now. They were cover-up pills. They helped mask a mistake before people noticed.
CDC and WHO calls the pandemic “zoonotic opportunistic myelo-bulbar invasive encephalitis”. The virus locks into the nervous systems and overrides rational use of the brain, leaving the victim—not patient, victim—with limbs moving without awareness. Beheading is actually merciful for them. It disconnects the body from the useless brain and brainstem, working as it does with virus-induced instinctive commands. The super-virus attacks by any means—close-contact airborne, oro-fecal, animal-bite, human-bite, serum-based, blood-based, transplant-based.
‘Transplant-based’. Emphasis mine. Transplanting seemed to create the most viral load, thus creating the most virulent sources of infection. It’s the reason I was forced to make the tardants, to stop the odd side-effects we never saw before as organ harvesters. We needed them healthy so they would not ask for refunds. Others, of course, here and abroad, were not as scrupulous.
The pills were black-market stuff. I was hardly the ‘creator’ as I was a klutz who had discovered it by accident. Not all the organs available for operation came from 100% healthy donors, in the same way not all the second-hands in thrift shops were clothes in mint condition. Human bodies were meant to wear down, but higher prices could be demanded from units that were fresher than most. I found that some solutions the organs were immersed into often preserved them, yes, but did nothing to prevent what was already spreading in them even prior to extraction. But if it were injected with something that stopped both the decay of the organ and the spread of the infection within it, then we’d pick a higher price for it. Then the person the organ would go to would actually be healthier, and not simply carrying someone else’s illness. Then we would have enough on inventory, and wouldn’t resort to pulling our contacts in the surgical room to make unnecessary extractions. Then I would feel closer to being a proper health practitioner again, not a capitalist with a scalpel.
But even that was not enough. I was a doctor, not a chemist. She was the one who eventually formulated the proper solution, in her off-hours and with what supplies she could salvage from stock. She was the one who actually condensed it to pill form, and I simply suggested the idea. Essentially, it wasn’t me. I didn’t do it.
I would tell this girl that it was an accident, that it was entirely selfish; that it wasn’t me, that never, in my wildest dreams did I imagine them being used for an outbreak.
Espinosa was not there when I returned with the girl. She left a note.
I’ll try again at CEU. Don’t do anything stupid. Back for lunch.
The Makati branch of the Centro Escolar had a pharmacy college. It was on Pasong Tamo (or Chino Roces Avenue, but I’ve been around long enough to know the older name), a bicycle ride away. We had gone there before and were sure there was at least a basic tablet-making machine. She probably went to look for raw materials now. We managed to move through the city we lived and worked in like fugitives, keeping to corners we knew were cleared by the military onslaughts that centered around Makati in the past few months until, resources depleted, they withdrew entirely. The various blocks that the military erected around the areas that led to Makati did prevent the undead from other areas of Metro Manila from accumulating, but it did not mean the city was clean.
“Do you have a weapon?” Tuesday asked. “Dagger, sword, knife, club, baseball bat, lead pipe. Doesn’t need bullets.”
I shook my head.
“Find one. Do you have any of those tardants on you?”
I didn’t, but Espinosa probably had some with her. I began to rifle through her things. The girl wandered in the room with me, eyeing me from the doorway and keeping watch.
I went to the bed where we lay together and found her backpack beside it, emptying the contents on the floor. A comb, a cellphone, a wallet with useless money, toothbrush and toothpaste, a very small beauty kit. A pocket-sized Moleskine, (half-full to me, half-empty to her), and to my relief, the last packet of her tardants. I gave packet and journal to the girl, who took it without comment. She examined the small transparent bag of the pills, opened it and sniffed it (they gave off a very faint dead-leaves smell), putting it away when she was satisfied. I didn’t need the medicine. I couldn’t bear to look at the journal.
My eyes wandered back to where the obnoxious sword décor lay parallel to the commode top. I grabbed the longest one, unsheathed it. The blade, albeit blunt, nicked my finger and drew blood as it slid. Impressive souvenir. It wouldn’t be missed.
“Dr. Basilio.” The girl made me remember our situation. “We need to go as soon as we can. We’re needed elsewhere.”
“I can’t leave without Espinosa.”
She glanced very briefly at the empty backpack, and snorted through her nose. “We can’t wait long, doc…”
“I know, I know.”
I dragged with the packing. There wasn’t much to pack, but I stalled for her sake.
She was there when the business—it was not the most legal business around, but it was work and it paid—when the business began to fold. She was there when Anton ignored my warnings about early-onset transplant rejection. She took my side, made and checked the slides for me, helped narrow down the problem to a then-obscure virus, and made the tardant drugs for me. She ran away with me, away from Quiapo, pulled me away from a boss who punched and kicked me, who knew I couldn’t report him since we all were illegal together. She stayed, when all I wanted to do was curl up and do nothing. She stayed with me.
But she didn’t return. The sun had set and she hadn’t returned. I had waited all day at the hotel lobby, lounging in one of those huge upholstered seats that seemed to swallow people whole, or pacing the shiny marble floors. My heartbeats increased in speed proportional to the number of hours I waited. There was little light that filtered in through the boarded-up glass front, and what little did reminded me that we were losing daylight.
Tuesday’s footfalls in the marble floor from across the room were clipped, impatient. “Dr. Basilio. We need to go. We’ve waited two hours.”
Two hours? It couldn’t have been two hours. I stood up straight. “I’m not leaving without Espinosa!”
My voice in the empty lobby sounded high and childish. The child-soldier crossed her arms and gave me a pointed look, the kind given to unruly children, and something angry and desperate flared up in my gut at that, making my throat tighten. Something occurred to me then, and I slumped my shoulders in feigned resignation, moving to where Tuesday waited. She nodded in approval, and walked back from where she came, almost sure I would follow.
A kid, I thought. I turned on my heels and ran the opposite way, dashing through the hotel’s entrance and squeezed in through the various blockades put against it. Running out in the open like this would have been risky, but I didn’t care, I just needed to find her, and my mind was now locking in on a familiar head of curly hair somewhere…
My little UN friend was not far behind, and I wasn’t surprised she hadn’t, I don’t know, shot me already. She seemed the type to shoot at things that ran.
“Stop!” Tuesday shouted, and there was a curse in another language as she lost me at the corner with the 6750.
“Like I would listen to a little girl!”
I continued my desperate sprint through the empty lane, the small voice in my head hopefully sure Espinosa could be just around the corner. I turned into the main road, Ayala Avenue. It was as if the map of the city opened up in my mind, a Foursquare bird’s eyeview that marked out places in the immediate area: no supplies and AVOID TRAIN STATION and she is here and she MUST be here. The avenue was completely deserted. No cars, no motorcycles, no people. The Manila Peninsula fountain had ceased flowing. The Makati Stock Exchange building, at the Ayala Triangle, was a burnt-out hulk, from when government forces bombed it in the early stages of the crisis. For all of Makati bursting its seams on a regular workday, it made a perfect ghost town.
Winded, I stopped to catch my breath at the intersection of Makati Avenue. There was still no sign of Espinosa. There were bodies unmoving where they fell either living or undead, but we had become so used to them now, that they were simply unsavory debris in the road. Tuesday and her soldiers were the last thing on my mind now, and just as quickly as the adrenaline-inspired omniscience overcame me, so did it leave, and for a long moment I felt lost, standing in the grey area of what I knew was a part of the city I passed through everyday, but a place that had become so alien to me and suddenly so… so… large.
I think I smelled it before I saw it. I know the dead scent better than anyone.
Humans were shuffling toward the intersection, several hundred of them, victims, like another of the rallies this country and its politics liked to incite. But there were no banners, no yellow ribbons, no confetti, nothing of the loud provocations we were good at. The movement was slow yet convulsive, irregular and persistent, and the silence, the silence. There were soft voices, guttural and unearthly, occasionally punctuating the march, the Death March, yes, this was what it should be appropriately called.
Another, closer horde appeared. Somehow this one had breached a blockade somewhere. So far, we’d encountered them in small groups of five at most, easy to avoid and to run away from.
Estimating the directions they came from, the victims probably came from the lesser-seen parts of Makati, the areas toward Pasay, Taguig, and Guadalupe. They were reached too late, bitten or sneezed at or kissed or attacked. This horde was probably started by a kidney donor or transplantee. I kept telling myself it was a case that did not pass through me, but with a mass of humanity that size, there was no quick way to tell.
Among the horde, I saw a yellow blouse and loose jeans, hair tied back in a loose ponytail, worn by a face melting at the cheeks, burning into blackness by infection, decaying as it begged for release, but a face I knew so well.
She never needed to take those tardants. Even in our line of work, she had no reason to be infected. I was the one in contact with the transplant organs, and I had taken her pills as a preventive measure. She made me take them, when she was sure they were safe. She never thought of taking them herself. I never thought of asking if she did, to save herself. Now she got herself caught by some transplant victim, and got bitten.
I backed away, one foot at a time.
Damn you, Espinosa. If you’re going to take their side, take me with you. Don’t leave me alone. Bite me, kiss me. Come get me. Just don’t leave me.
A heavy breeze, a loud vrrrooom of a motorcycle engine. I was lifted off the ground and seated behind a rider. I was brought back to the mall complex, yanked into the Mercury Drug. I had kept staring at the horde, had kept staring at her.
“This is what we get for waiting so long,” Tuesday grumbled. She stopped at the middle of the park, assembled her men, rapidly pointed to the rooftops and open points around us. Ten men scattered and positioned themselves at the UCC Park Café’s roof, at the Steel Parking, at 6750, at the Shang’s driveway, at the Glorietta 3. Their guns pointed in all directions, but primarily at Ayala Avenue.
She tossed a pistol at me. “Do you know how to use this?”
I trembled as I held the cold metal. “I’m probably a bad shot.”
She groaned and strapped the pistol with its holster onto me.
The volley of heavy artillery began on North Drive from Ayala Avenue. Tuesday pulled me into the Park Café. I cowered and covered my ears, but the gunfire, the bloodspills, and the groans couldn’t be muffled.
The girl took out her rifle and loaded it. She dashed into the landing, leveled her rifle, and fired. She took down two victims with only one shot. She felled another two with the next. The other soldiers kept firing as well. Soon North Drive and Office Drive filled with piles of bodies, their stale blood spilling on the asphalt. I kept hiding behind the girl, covering my ears, shutting my eyes.
The victim. The patient. The body. It’s how we white-coats stay sane. White-coats can be cowards. They’re just better-trained at hiding fear. I’m not even well-trained. I don’t care if I’m obviously frightened.
Yet, when I peeked through the carnage, the victim with the yellow blouse still advanced, behind several other victims. I don’t know how. She had always been tenacious, but this was not her.
This wasn’t the co-worker who believed me when no one else would, who helped me get away from a man who hurt me. This wasn’t the person who took me away from the darkness of the Quiapo streets to a world where it wasn’t always under-the-table. This wasn’t the person who liked instant coffee instead of the expensive stuff. This wasn’t the person who collected unique little boxes and scattered them throughout her apartment. This wasn’t the person who smiled when I began to touch her like the lover she never had. This wasn’t the person who kissed back when I put my tongue inside hers. This wasn’t the person who gave me more pleasure than I ever experienced in a lifetime of mistakes.
This was not her.
Yet it kept advancing.
I took the sword out of its sheath. It was single-edge, Japanese-type, sharp, not a show-sword. I wanted it done before I could stop myself, because everything about me wanted to stop. I stood, took a deep breath, and walked toward the horde. I had the sword in front of me, a long heavy knife I did not know how to use. I’d been using scalpels for too long.
Tuesday turned, pulled me back. “What are you doing!”
“The yellow blouse is mine.” What I said was true. She just kept using that yellow blouse so much we both considered it hers.
I stepped into the street, my arms trembling, my knees knocking together.
The unearthly groans and the gunfire filled the air as I staggered toward that yellow blouse I knew so well. I had the sword straight up in front of me, like the complete newbie that I was.
I stabbed and smashed through the bodies, like so many oversized gross bugs, that blocked my way toward that yellow blouse. I let Tuesday and her men finish the job. I did not know the victims, and they were better off out of their misery. I hacked and slashed stupidly through them, pulling the sword out of them, the old blood spilling all over me, the dead cells splattering on me. I did not care. I had to get to the yellow blouse.
Why didn’t I tell her this morning that I love her? Why didn’t I love her more? Why didn’t I say ‘thank you’?
She now stood in front of me, ready to pounce. I raised the sword.
I shut my eyes and thrust as hard as I could. I hit the neck. Recovering from the shock, I pulled the blade away. I wore the doctor-face, tried to lose emotions for the case. Then I swung down over her head, once twice thrice, whack whack whack, until I broke through the skull and saw blood, cerebrospinal fluid, brain matter. But I couldn’t depersonalize completely. I screamed at myself as I angrily drove the sword through the heart.
I hacked at the neck, and kept hacking madly until I separated the head from the body. I watched as dirty blood spilled from veins and arteries, staining my shoes and my feet, soiling my favorite yellow blouse.
I dropped the bloody blade.
My associate, assistant, friend, lover…
She had been with me when the insanity started. She was there when the beatings began. She was there, and now she is gone, and now she would not be there…
“Dr. Basilio. We have to go. Now.”
“Dr. Basilio!” the girl said urgently.
I looked up at the hotel, looked up at its highest floor, high and inviting. It was too far and too tiring to go up there. But I had to be with her.
I took the pistol and raised it to my forehead.
The girl struck the back of my neck. I dropped and felt nothing.
The battle against the super-virus raged on, with me on the hidden frontlines. The girl brought me to the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine, in Alabang, and enforced my stay.
I guess they thought I talked sense. People came and talked to me about the tardants. For some reason, more and more people came to congratulate me. Something about a fighting chance against the zombie virus. Something about stopping the outbreak at last, before it killed every last human.
That was not me. It was her. Annie’s gone, and I’m still here.
The girl came more often. Until finally she gave the letter.
I looked down at the envelope she gave me, stern and official, stamped ‘confidential’ in too many places. I opened it. The timetable given would keep me busy for months, at least until the UN controlled this pandemic.
“You’re not running from this,” she said, holding the parcel in front of me. “You’re going to help us.”
“I don’t want to help you.”
“You have no choice.”
“I can choose to stop living.”
“You think you want it, but you don’t.”
I paused, stared at the girl. I saw in her eyes, a reflection of mine. They were wild and desperate.
“You want a reason to keep going. We’re giving you one.” She turned and left.
Oh, well. It was something to do. A reason to live.
EK Gonzales is an insecure scribbler better known for the Haya Project stories in Philippine Speculative Fiction 4, Philippine Genre Stories, and Ruin and Resolve. Her more recent writing is at http://activatedseries.wordpress.com .
The illustration is from the author’s friend, K, with grateful thanks.