Project RD Part Three
By: Michelle E. Lowe
"My name is Alex," I said to my group. "Hi, Alex," everyone replied. "It's been 352 days since I've eaten human brains."
"How do you feel about that?" Gia asked.
"I feel great about it," I answered truthfully. "I've only two weeks left in this program, and I can honestly say, I have no urge to eat brains."
"What is your major accomplishment since being in Project RD?" Gia asked.
"That I've beaten the Disease."
"What are you most thankful for?"
"Being alive. And also, for the support I've received while being here. In this place, I haven't been judged for what I did as an Infected."
"What's your goal once you get out?"
"I'd like to start college this fall and live a normal life again."
"What's your worst fear once you're out?"
I was almost too afraid to speak it out loud.
"When you're out on your own, you'll be constantly tested. Do you think you'll relapse?"
"No," I said confidently. "I may have to carry this disease with me for the rest of my life, but it doesn't control me."
Everyone clapped again. Gia looked pleased.
"Thank you for sharing, Alex."
I had made it. I was almost at the finish line. I finally came to terms with living with my unholy actions. Not a day had gone by that I hadn't thought about the people I'd killed. Before, when I used to think about what I did, I'd reminisce on how sweet their brains tasted. Now my grief was a source of comfort.
Once we'd reached Step Seven, we were allowed to go outside, to a secured yard where we could run, walk, or chat with others. Nearby was a playground where the Infected children played. I'd spotted Scott many times. He seemed well. Seeing those children always gave me hope.
"Not running today?" Sahila said, sitting beside me. "Nah, my body has gotten stiff and achy."
My five senses had bailed on me in recent months. I could probably stand in the arctic cold and not get one goose bump; even hearing sound was a challenge.
"Me too," she said, taking off her squareframe glasses. "I've been feeling like an old woman lately and my eyesight is getting worse. I asked the doctors about it, and they just prescribed these uglyass glasses to wear."
They were ugly, just like mine. The lenses were as thick as the glass of a fishbowl. I kept mine in my pocket because I felt embarrassed and pathetic when I wore them, like a dog with a cone around his head.
"They keep telling me to give my body time," I said. "Jeez, it's been almost a year already." I craned my neck towards Jeff sitting on my other side. "What about you? How are you functioning?"
He'd spaced out again, staring off into nothing. He'd been doing that a lot recently, like his brain wasn't registering anymore. I'd once caught him eyeing an orderly and licking his lips. I wondered if I ought to report it.
"I feel fine," he answered softly but crystal clear.
The sunlight really brought out the truth of our exterior. Like the rest of us, Jeff looked dreadful. Razorthin veins had risen, creating navy blue roadways on his yellowish skin. There was a potent smell about us that was a cross between sour milk and unattended pool water. It wasn't appealing and didn't go away, even after showering. I looked over at the tower. I'd seen it every time I'd been to the yard. It was the only tower in the place. It sat at the building's back corner in a section I'd never been to. To the best of my knowledge, none of us had.
"Do you think this place is rigged with explosives like Shelton said?" Sahila asked.
"Believe it or not, I hope so," I replied. "If a zombie riot ever happens, it'd be for the best if this place did blow up and took everyone out before any of us escaped and started killing again."
Jeff breathed heavily. My attention switched to him just as he lunged. He got me to the ground and snapped his jaws like Cujo. I held him up just enough to keep him from biting my face, which became drenched in saliva. His eyes were hungry and red. I thought he was going to tear into me when Sahila managed to push him off. His weak condition made him as easy to tip over as a sickly cow.
"Run!" she shouted, taking her own advice and heading back inside. I got to my feet with every bone cracking and dashed across the yard.
I would've followed her, but Jeff had gotten up and blocked my escape. He chased after me with surprising agility. Apparently, his physical therapy had worked really well. My stiff body couldn't outrun him, and his breath was soon on the back of my neck.
A gunshot took care of that.
I stopped and saw Jeff on the ground, his head bleeding. A sharpshooter had gotten him right in the temple.
Blackwood came to my room that evening. After the attack, I'd wanted solitude, but it was nice to see her.
"Are you alright?" she asked, sitting on a chair across from my bed.
"Am I going to end up like Jeff?"
"Mr. Byrne had great potential for full recovery, he really did. However, his overpowering addiction drove him into relapse."
"But he'd never eaten a brain."
"That's precisely my point. He'd never experienced such gruesome pleasures and it ultimately consumed him."
"Like teenage virgins?" I put in, speaking from experience. "Most are always wanting sex even though they have no idea what it feels like."
She considered my analysis.
"More like a child who's born an addict but has never touched a drug. He didn't kill, but the addiction was there all the same. His body told him he needed brains and eventually his mind believed it. You and Sahila are different because you've tasted the forbidden fruit. The pain of your sins has kept you on the road to recovery."
"But why did he come after me?"
"That's the good news."
"The good news?"
She didn't explain anything more until we arrived at a ward four stories below our floor, where none of the Infected were ever allowed to go. We were met by plenty of Shelton's guards and security doors along the way. No one challenged Blackwood's presence.
We came into a dark hallway with shiny black walls and glass cells. Inside those cells were more Infected. Real Infected. I'm talking, moaning, screeching, jawsnapping, tookawrongturn into DeadEndsvilleandputitinpark Infected!
"We call them the Incurable," Blackwood explained. "The ones who have no hope of returning to the life they once knew."
"Why are they here?"
I swallowed the dry lump in my throat.
"Why haven't they been beheaded?"
"We need to study them to find an antidote strong enough to cure even those who've been infected a long time."
We walked through the shiny, yet gloomy hallway. It stretched for what seemed like miles. Guards stood on either side of each cell. I looked at the Incurables as we passed. They all came from Ground Zero; at least, the ones I recognized who hadn't decomposed beyond repair. I really didn't want to see this.
"Why did you bring me here?" I asked weakly.
She stopped and turned to face me.
"You asked me why Mr. Byrne went after you."
"Yeah?" I said, standing for the longawaited answer.
"If Mr. Byrne had been near one of these Incurables, he wouldn't have attacked them because the Disease has completely taken them over. Understand?"
"He came after you because the Disease is leaving your body. You're actually reversing what has been done to you." It was like she'd told me I won the lottery.
"Yes, you and Miss Taylor are the most promising patients at Project RD."
She placed her hands on both sides of my face. It was the first time I had hands that weren't in latex gloves touch me.
"The both of you are pure successes. You needn't worry about relapsing. You're more human than you think."
I grinned like a madman. Then my eyes snagged on an Incurable in a cell behind her. I stepped over to the glass wall. To see the patient more clearly, I had to wear my glasses, which was even more embarrassing because they'd broken after the altercation with Jeff. They now had tape wrapped around the bridge. Steve Urkel, the Zombie. Inside was my best friend, Tony. He was in a wheelchair, his head lolling on his shoulder while a stream of drool hung from his bottom lip. He looked half rotten, a little worse than he did that night at the theater. In the cell with him were an orderly and a doctor. The orderly wiped Tony's mouth and gave him water he sucked through a straw. The doctor prepared to give him an injection.
"Tony Wiker," Blackwood said, coming up to stand beside me. "Even though he's been infected for so long and his body is badly decomposed, we're still trying to save him. He's receiving daily nanotech injections and we're giving him stem cells to rebuild his dead tissue, but his brain is too far gone. I'm afraid he'll spend the rest of his life confined to a wheelchair."
It hurt to see Tony like this, especially when I remembered all the good times we'd shared.
He shifted his milky eyes to me after I tapped lightly on the glass to get his attention. I waved and gave a fake smile. He seemed to recognize me, and his moans breezed through the air holes above me.
"Calm yourself," the doctor ordered.
He had his back turned to Tony while he loaded the syringe. Unexpectedly, Tony stood and grabbed the orderly. Faster than anyone could cry for help, he bit through the man's neck and tore out a fistsized chunk of flesh. The doctor reached for his Taser, caught offguard by the sudden animation of his braindead patient. He fumbled for it, but Tony was on top of him and pushed him to the floor. A guard swiped a keycard to get inside, but before the light turned green, Tony had smashed the doctor's head open and had begun hollowing out his skull. The look on his putrid face as he shoveled brain into his mouth screamed of ecstasy. In the midst of my shock, an envious feeling squeezed in.
Blackwood yelled for the guards to get inside. When they did, Tony received more volts than a lightning strike.
He went down while the guards pounced with cuffs and a restricting mask. Blackwood's eyes turned on me. She looked surprised, as if she'd forgotten I was still standing there.
"Get him out!" she ordered a guard.
He took my arm and led me out of the ward, back to my room. I knew Tony's fate was sealed.
It just surprised me when Blackwood said he'd requested to speak with me before his execution.
"I thought he was brain dead."
"He's been deliberately unresponsive to make us believe he was brain dead, waiting to strike when it was convenient."
"What should I say to him?"
"These are his final moments, Mr. Wiesel. Just tell him goodbye."
Blackwood was upset about Tony. Not saddened, but pissed, like she'd gotten a D on a test she studied hard for.
The execution room was a long elevator ride down.
Two armed guards silently accompanied me. When the ride was over, we walked through a dark concrete hall, into a room where Tony was strapped face down on a board, under a guillotine. I didn't expect to see the execution method, and when I did, I wished I hadn't come. My only comfort was that I wouldn't actually witness seeing his head get chopped off.
As I approached, the guards stayed back to give me privacy. Tony remained motionless, as though in acceptance of what was going to happen. He didn't even move when I knelt beside him.
"Tony," I whispered. "It's me, Alex."
In a voice as raspy as a sixtyyearold chain smoker, he said, "Hey, dude." He rotated his head sideways toward me. "I knew you'd come. When I saw you earlier, I had to talk to you. That's why I attacked those guys."
That took me aback.
"You murdered them to get yourself put down here just to chat?"
"Well, that and to finally get them to kill me. I can't hack it here anymore."
My heart leapt into my throat.
"Why? You were improving."
He gurgled a laugh.
"I was better when I first got here. Now I'm a little worse. This place isn't what it seems. Project RD can't cure us."
"What do you mean? I'm cured. Blackwood told me the Disease is reversing itself. I'm going home for Christ's sake."
"And you'll relapse and bite someone, and then start the shit all over again, just like the last group in '89."
"Last group? I'm in the first success group."
"You're the third, after the second in the 80's and the first in the '50's. Project RD was called Project Study then. They collected zombies from Europe to do experiments on. But they got careless and the zombies started killing the staff. Eventually, they got loose and went straight for Ground Zero, where the Worldwide Outbreak began."
I didn't know what to say.
"Project Study was renamed in the 70's when Blackwood took over. She picked up where the first team left off, with the intention to find a cure. There weren't many zombies around by then and those left were dying off, so she deliberately let them loose to infect others. But it didn't spread like last time, because she made sure the whole thing was capped before it got out of control."
"No. Some drifter brought the Disease that time."
"Lies," he whispered. It sounded like he was about to fall asleep. "That was a cover. It was Blackwood who was responsible for the 80's outbreak just so she could have zombies to study. And now she did it to us. You're dying, just like me. Blackwood is obsessed with finding a cure, but what she doesn't realize is that once bitten we are the Disease and there's no cure from us. The injections are only slowing our decay. I'm telling you, dude, we're the living dead, and we can't go against our nature." He blinked slowly. "Ask yourself, d'you feel any better? D'you physically feel at all?"
In truth, I didn't feel anything, not even someone grabbing my arm and hoisted me to my feet.
"I'm glad you're here, freak," General Shelton said. "I want you to see this."
He delivered me into the hands of the guards who had escorted me into the room.
"Stop! What are you doing?" I cried, as guards held me by each arm.
"I love this part of my job," Shelton said, sliding Tony toward the guillotine.
His head went through the round opening. He looked at me. Shelton pulled the latch, and the slanted blade sliced through Tony's neck with flawless ease. His head dropped into a waiting basket. To my relief it was bloodless. To compensate for that, Shelton snatched Tony's head out by the hair and shoved it in my face.
"This is what needs to be done with all you braineating bastards!"
Tony's eyelids flickered, his mouth moving. I would've vomited if I could.
On our way back up, I told Shelton about what Tony had said and asked if it was true.
"Is that what you ghouls were talkin' bout? Yeah, it's true. That's why I signed up with Project RD, to make sure there ain't no more Worldwide Outbreaks."
"But you're part of it? Even after what happened to your family, you're still going along with the whole thing?"
"Remember the tower?" he asked deviously. "Don't think I don't have the balls to go through with it."
The entire experience had traumatized me. That night, I took a walk through the wide corridors and headed for Sahila's room. I needed to talk to someone. Witnessing Tony's death had disturbed me, but not as much as what he'd saidor how I felt when he ate the doctor's brain. Actually, seeing it in all its juicy glory had made me feel something I hadn't felt in a while: Hungry!
"I was just on my way to see you," Gia said. "I heard what happened. Blackwood gave Shelton an earful for what he did. Are you okay?"
I looked into her eyes and knew what was behind them. Her head cracked opened easily enough when I slammed it against the wall. I eagerly reached inside and pulled out her brain like pumpkin innards. I could taste again; in fact, all my senses charged up.
Sahila stepped out of her room and asked what that sound was. I didn't answer. I was too busy enjoying myself. Thundering footsteps from an orderly, pounded towards me. He yelled into a radio and held a Taser in his other hand. Sahila leapt on him as he passed and slammed him against the wall. She tore into him. Other patients came out of their rooms. I stood licking my fingers while Sahila kept feasting. Soldiers came but the sight of us eating had driven the rest into a feeding frenzy. They attacked the guards and chaos erupted.
Bomb, I thought.
There was an evil here and it wasn't the Infected; it was Project RD. I had to stop Blackwood from unleashing anymore Infected and continuing her experiments. To do so, I needed to destroy the facility. My brain lust returned but I didn't let it overwhelm me. I had to reach the tower. I jumped on a soldier and tasered him with his own gun. It was all I could do to keep from biting into him as I stripped him of his uniform. I didn't want blood on the clothes.
While everyone else fought, I disguised myself, took his pistol, and left him there to be eaten. The alarm began blaring and gunshots exploded in the night. I left the ward as fast as I could, pulling away from the madness I'd created. I jumped into an elevator and headed for the third floor, where I could reach the tower. I got to the fourth when the elevator stopped, and the doors reopened. I put on my, I'mnotazombiedressedlikeasoldier, persona.
"General, everything will be under control soon," Blackwood said into a radio, stepping inside. "No need to take drastic measures."
"It better be," he shouted. "I'm at the tower right now, ready to push the Doomsday button if"
"It'll be handled!" she fired back.
The second she took her finger off the TALK button, I shoved her against the wall. It took her a moment to recognize me.
"Mr. Wiesel?" She noticed the blood on my face. "Oh God!"
"You did this to us," I said, shaking her. "You let the Infected into Ground Zero so you could have more lab rats to work with."
"Tony told you? My staff talked too freely around him when we thought he was a useless lump of meat."
She didn't need to say anymore. I would've eaten her brain if I could have done it without becoming lost in the enjoyment of doing so; it would've compromised my mission. With great restraint, I avoided cracking her head open and merely slammed it against the wall. She let out a small cry before her body went limp.
The doors slid apart, opening a way to the third floor. I'd never been here but it looked like any other ward. Abandoned, dust on every surface, it appeared as if it hadn't been occupied in years. I ran around for a while before I found a locked door. Fortunate that I'd bumped into Blackwood; I could use her keycard to get into any of the rooms. The door led to another elevator that took me straight up to the tower. When I stepped out, Shelton was yelling. Good thing, too, because his volume covered the sound of my footsteps as I crept from the dark hall into the room where he was. He had his back to me as he shouted orders into a radio. As I snuck up on him, I noticed his hand on a key inserted in a lock on a control panel with dozens of switches and buttons. He never saw it coming. I raised my pistol and blew him away at pointblank range. His head exploded all over the place. I picked off a brain chunk and threw it into my mouth like popcorn shrimp.
It melted on my tongue and left my backbone tingling.
Beside the key was a green button. The control panel hummed. I guessed everything was in play for the big bang. All I needed to do was turn and press, or the other way around, I really didn't know. I prepared myself for my final moment. I didn't mind going down with the ship; after all, what else did an Infected like me have to offer? It was all for the best. I spit out a piece of skull fragment and turned the key. All the lights came on. It was go time. Every nerve in my body got fried just before I found myself on the ground beside the late General Shelton. Blackwood stared down at me with a face burning with fury. She held a Taser and shocked the holy hell out of me again, either out of caution or spite. I bet on spite.
"I've worked too hard to have you destroy this on a whim," she said through gritted teeth. She pressed her shoe onto my chest, holding me down. "You were so close, Mr. Wiesel. I had such faith in your success, my success! Now I see there's more work to be done." She removed her foot and stood over me like a fearless warrior. "You may be another one of my failures, but I'll keep you around to stand testament to my achievements."
And just like that, it started all over again.