Project RD – Part One
By: Michelle E. Lowe

I never thought something like going to the movies would destroy my life, much less turn me into a monster. I went alone that night, which was strongly advised against. Everyone always traveled in numbers for safety reasons.

It wasn't a bad idea, considering what we were up against. Traveling in packs made sense when it came to muggers or sexual predators, so it made just as much sense with these kinds of predators. My sense of security—and many others here in the town of Ground Zero—was a gun. My dad had given me a Glock 19 last year for my twentieth birthday. Mom was upset that he hadn't given me one sooner.

Having it didn't really do much for a cocky little piss-ant like me who strolled too leisurely through the shadows between streetlamps. It provided the opportunity for an Infected to jump out and bite me on the arm. But I hadn't been worried until that horrible moment. I mean, the last outbreak had been in 1989, when an infected drifter had visited town. My parents had been in the middle of it and had always lived with the paranoia of another pandemic.

Despite the attack, I remembered my gun and brought it out of my holster. Just like in strict Arizona, we were allowed to pack heat like twenty-first century cowboys. I remembered what my parents taught me—aim for the head—so I pressed the gun against the Infected and blew half his face open.

I'd killed the thing completely, but the damage had already been done.

Shortly afterwards came the painful transformation.

Every nerve felt hot and my stomach crumpled like paper. I couldn't even hold my gun and dropped it in the cold pool of blood where the Infected lay.

Before anyone saw me, I stumbled off and ducked into the theater alley. Tears stung my eyes; my skin tingled and itched like a wool sweater. I knew what was happening and I was powerless to stop it. I'd been infected with The Disease. It spread throughout my system, shoving me into the far corner of my mind. It took the helm of my body and became captain, demoting me to a mere passenger.

When the pain ended, my stomach ballooned. Foreign hunger pangs grumbled inside me, but what I craved wasn't a cheeseburger.

My first kill was a homeless man. He slept while I snuck up on him, although he snapped awake the minute I bit into his head. He tried fighting back. His dirty, ragged nails sliced my face. His breath reeked of cheap liquor and popcorn; he must've been eating the excess kernels out of the theater's trash bins. After struggling with him, I finally took a brick and smashed his head in. I was soaked in blood. My clothes stuck to me, but his juicy brain was mine at last. It sat in my mouth like Jell-O, tasting exotic.

After I'd scraped the last brain chunk from his broken skull, an immediate desire for more exploded inside me. I stumbled out of the alley and into the street, catching people's attention as they exited the theater. They screamed. Seeing me gave them the terrifying and certain awareness that the Living Dead had returned to Ground Zero.

Their disturbance attracted many other Infected. I recognized a couple of them as they emerged from the dark, like my best friend, Tony Wiker.

I wondered if he recognized me. He'd been missing and presumed dead, or possibly infected, since last week. He looked bad. His face was sunken in and his eyes were like murky white marbles.

We feasted on whoever we could grab. Once we had someone on the ground, we'd smash their heads open and eat their brains. We couldn't stop consuming. Nor would we have stopped until everyone's skulls had been licked clean—or unless the army trucks hadn't arrived.

Soldiers poured out of the back doors and began shooting. I wanted to run, but the Disease wanted to feed: Still!

Against my will, I charged a theater customer. He saw me coming and socked me dead in the face, sending me to meet Mr. Pavement. Inside my mind, I shouted at myself to stay down. Since I didn't get back up, I figured it worked. I mean, I was still there, inside myself. The Disease hadn't driven me completely out. I had some say in all this, dammit!

People scattered as soldiers picked us off. Spotting the variations between the Infected and Uninfected wasn't difficult. My old high school principal, Mr. Chambers, took a bullet in the chest just before a soldier wielding a machete ran up behind him and lopped off his head. This gruesome display made me attempt to reason with myself. I suggested it was better to run and hunt another day rather than stay and get killed tonight. In truth, I was technically dead anyway. They don't call us the living dead because it's catchy.

Even so, I didn't feel dead, perhaps since I'd just been bitten. Whatever the case, I wanted to live, but the Disease had taken over my body the instant that asshole bit me.

White CDC vans screeched to a halt nearby. Soldiers in black uniforms burst out and yelled for the others to stop firing. Few Infected were left at this point: only me, Tony, two women I didn't know, and our paper boy, Scott. One of the women was the last to get shot by an actual bullet before the other soldiers used their weapons on us.

Tony got hit first, forcing him to perform some kind of labyrinthine boogie dance. Bloodred foam oozed from his mouth. A flickering wire connected his chest to the weapon the gunman held. They were only packing stun guns. Their intention wasn't to kill but capture us.

Two soldiers leapt into action when Tony dropped, first securing his mouth with a muzzle and then cuffing his hands behind him. I could've sworn I heard a bone crack. They hoisted him off the ground and threw him inside one of the vans. The same thing happened to Scott and the remaining woman.

Watching all this distracted me from the control I had over myself. Before I knew it, I stood up and ran. A soldier shouted as I charged her, and I received my own electrical charge, muzzle, cuffs, and free ride to the unknown.

I lied on the floor of the van, my body still fatigued from the Taser. The other Infected had been taken in separate vehicles. Soldiers were with me, holding me down with their boot heels. One man stared at me sympathetically.

The muzzle bounded tightly around my head, as were the cuffs on my wrists. I felt the Disease in me going mad. It wanted to feed, not escape. I couldn't believe I still craved brains. I was stuffed.

Lying there, I realized what sat in my gut; a full belly of raw human brains. The blood in my mouth stained my taste buds. Whenever my tongue ran over my teeth, I felt meat wedged in between them. I nearly got sick.

I tried distracting myself from this realization before I puked into the muzzle. I listened to the steady sound of asphalt passing beneath the van's undercarriage. The soothing rhythm almost worked until I thrashed to life, gaining me another Taser hit.

When the van stopped, I was hauled into a rectangular, windowless gray building that could've been mistaken for a giant cinderblock. It sat on a hill just outside the town's limits. As kids, we'd never known what it was and our parents didn't talk about it. We made up stories of a secret FBI storage facility where space aliens were kept, or a maximum-security prison that held the world's most dangerous criminals. It had been protected by a high voltage fence and guards armed with big guns. Trying to go near the place was stupid, if not impossible. Out of all my friends, I was the least curious about it. Ironic that I was going inside now.

The guards took me, Tony, the woman, and Scott down a long stairwell, inside a midnight blue tiled room, where we were stripped naked. They shackled us against the wall like BDSM dolls and sprayed us with hoses by people in white scrubs—orderlies, I later found out.

The floor melted into watery red ink as blood and chunks of flesh from our victims washed away. The frigid water snapped our bodies to life like an electric charge and we lunged futilely. All that did was give the guards another excuse to Taser us again.

A woman in a lab coat appeared. She didn't say much, only injected us with something and told the orderlies to put us "in the rooms." They took us soaking and butt naked into individual rooms, where I was locked into my own.

Only a dim yellow light smoldered above me. The room had an iron door and padded walls. When my body regained feeling, I stood up, screaming and howling. Others did the same from inside their cells. I was thankful for the padded walls when I kept slamming against them. Someone slid open a peephole to observe and I charged the door. My head struck iron, whistling goodbye to consciousness.

Time blurred together after that. Honestly, I couldn't say what happened when or in what sequence. I think the injections had something to do with the confusion. I received three hot meals daily, which I rejected because it wasn't brains. Once a day, I was bound to a chair in a little black room—with a restricting mask on—and forced to watch a slide show. The first images were beautiful scenery and landscapes. My reaction was mild to say the least. The next set was of old black and white photos of destruction, mass murder, and piles of bodies from the Holocaust.

Again, it had little affected on me. The third set was of living people doing ordinary things, sports fans sitting on bleachers, children at a playground, and a couple kissing. I went wild and tried breaking free. I wanted brains. All those images of heads containing fat juicy brains made me crazy. After the slide show, my chair automatically swung one hundred and eighty degrees. The same woman in the lab coat stood inside a separate room, behind a glass shield. "What's your name?" she asked into a microphone. When my answer only consisted of more thrashing, she said, "I'm sure you've noticed the injections you've received. It's nanotechnology in medicine. Do you know what that is? What it can do for you?" I didn't answer. "It'll target the Disease in your blood cells and eventually kill it. What do you think about that?"

Again silence.

She told the orderlies to take me back to my room.

The routine was carried out each day; injections, slide show, and the woman inquiring about my name.

Then, one day during the slide show, I had an urge to travel to those beautiful locations. I felt saddened and sympathetic toward the Holocaust victims, and my body didn't jolt so much when I saw living people. I was becoming me again.

On the second to the last day of this routine, the woman asked me for my name. In my head, I screamed it, but all that came out was mumbles and moans. She seemed to understand that I was trying to answer and told me that if I wanted to get through this, I had to fight the Disease on my own.

I did. I lay there on the floor inside my padded room and thought back to when I'd kept myself on the ground during the shooting in front of the theater.

I didn't know how I'd had that kind of control, but I had to reclaim it. I worked to bring myself from the corner of my mind, where I'd been cringing, and to push my way to the front again. I didn't know how long I'd been doing it, but when I was able to move my arm when I wanted to, it appeared there was hope for success. I was overpowering the Disease. I didn't stop there. When my daily lunch arrived, I ate it, regardless of my protest. I hadn't eaten in so long the food had no taste.

After the slide show the following day, the woman again asked my name, and I answered, "Alex." Her smile stretched from ear to ear, showing long crow's feet around her eyes.

"Breakthrough," she proclaimed.

When I returned to my room, I slept. I hadn't slept for a while. I don't know how long I was in a dream world before I finally came around. My eyelids stuck together, and I had to pry them apart. Once they opened, my eyes stung in the silvery light. Voices were all about me, distant, yet the faces were close enough to show the creases in the medical masks they wore. I saw three people—two men and the woman.

She shifted her dark eyes down to me. "What's your name?"

"Alex," I answered weakly. My lips smacked.

"Hello, Alex. I'm Doctor Jennifer Blackwood, founder of Project RD." She pointed to one of the masked men. "This is Phil Bristow, one of the Collectors who brought you here. He wanted to check in on you."

I remembered Phil. He'd been in the van that night, the one with the sorrowful face. "And this is General Mike Shelton."

"What do you remember?" Shelton barked abruptly.

I didn't answer him. Instead, I simply croaked, "Water."

"He's thirsty," Blackwood said.

"It can drink after it talks," Shelton argued. He turned his electric green eyes on me. "We need to know what it remembers. How many people it ate?"

I didn't like General Shelton.

"Stop it, General," Blackwood snapped. "You're position in security does not extend to interrogation."

Stored away inside his glowing eyes, I saw a history that might explain his razor-thin tolerance towards me.

"Besides, he's not one of them anymore. He . . ."

"I know what it is," he interrupted, his voice rumbling like low thunder.

"Water," I requested again.

Blackwood heard me. She turned her attention to me. Those long crow's feet appeared around her eyes again. I suppose she was smiling.

"Of course," she said gently. "Phil, get him a bottle of water, please."

Shelton leaned his face near mine. He had crusty balls of junk in the corners of his eyes and his eyebrows were unkempt his bushy. His oily skin and pitch-black pores were also less than desirable. Thank God he wore a mask. I could imagination how his breath smelled, though I had no reason to talk.

"Do you realize what you've done, freak?" he whispered hotly.

"It wasn't my fault," I justified.

"You do remember, eh?"

Blackwood turned back to us. Her eyes narrowed and her eyebrows formed a little wrinkle between them.

"General Shelton, if you don't stop interrogating the patient, I must ask you to leave the room."

Patient?

"This thing can tell us what went through its head when it killed and breakfasted on people's brains. It must be interrogated."

"And he will be questioned in due time," she promised as Phil entered the room, water bottle in hand. "It's part of our program. Again, it's not your job to make inquiries. You're only here to protect us in case something goes wrong. That's it."

I liked her.

Shelton grunted. She was unaffected by him, as if she had to constantly deal with his cruel attitude. Phil cracked the bottle cap. I instinctively reached for the bottle, but my hands were strapped down, along with my ankles. I'd been fastened to the bed like a monster.

"It's for our protection," Blackwood explained, taking the bottle from Phil. "As well as your own."

I shuddered when the cold water touched my desert dry lips. It might have been the first taste of water I'd had since that night. I hadn't even showered since then, either. What I really wanted, though, was to brush my teeth with all the antibacterial toothpastes available.

"You're doing very well," she said, taking the bottle away. "Your vitals are stable and the pigment in your eyes has returned to normal. You're lucky we got to you before the decay."

"What's Project RD?" I asked. My words sounded more lubricated.

"Rescued from Damnation," she explained, twisting the cap back on the bottle. "You have just made it through Step One—detox."

"Detox?"

"Yes. For the past month, you've been in solitary confinement."

I blinked rapidly. Surely, I look confused.

"Everything you've gone through, the padded room, the slide show, it was a part of detox."

"Oh."

"Mr. Wiesel, you're not out of the woods just yet. The Disease is still inside you. However, with our help, you can become whole again."

It surprised me that she knew my last name. Then I thought, duh, of course she would; my wallet had been with me on the night I'd been bitten.

"How?"

"You'll stay here for a year, during which time, you'll go through a twelve-step program to help wean you away from your hunger for human brains. For example, you'll go to group therapy with others like you to discuss your feelings."

Shelton snorted. "Why call it Project RD? Should be called Zombie Rehab."

"General, please," Blackwood begged.

She'd grown as tired of him as I had. It'd be worth losing the ground I'd gained just to mutilate him and eat his brain. I kept that to myself, of course. She returned her focus to me. "Here you can be helped, but you have to want it."

Was she kidding? Did she think I wanted to stay a flesh-eating freak until my body fell apart? I wasn't going to say all that, but I thought it all the same.

"Okay," I mumbled.

She lowered her mask. I supposed she wasn't concerned with whatever contagion she guarded against.

"I'm happy to hear that. Now, let's get you cleaned up. It's time you began Step Two."

to be continued…

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