10,000 Dungeon Masters

“You know what I hate about zombie movies?” Perry paused and looked around the table then pushed a folded slice of pizza into his mouth. He chewed slowly; his lips slightly parted and he took deep, whistling breaths around the mass of cheese, dough and sausage. “This supposedly badass virus that has no cure and spreads like wildfire across the globe, bringing about the collapse of humanity and the end of the world as we know it doesn’t affect animals. That’s just lazy film-mak…”

“What about Return of the Living Dead?”

Perry swallowed. “Excuse me?”

The kitchen lights flickered and shadows twitched across the pale green walls and IKEA cabinetry. Owls dominated the room: salt and pepper shakers, magnets, dish towels, and needlepoint. The family dog, Pansy, was barking in the backyard at something unseen in the deepening shadows of twilight.

Barton shrugged and looked around the table at the rest of the gang. “Return of the Living Dead had a zombie dog.”

“Yeah, whatever, there are probably a couple movies with zombie animals but my point is that in MOST movies the virus only affects humans.” Perry dusted some crumbs from his beard.

Wilson sat forward, bumping the table with his stomach sending dice and lead miniatures tumbling, tinkling against bottles of beer and across the map of Alantrea and the Underwood. He was breathing deeply, a low hum from somewhere deep in his sinus. “Ooh, did you guys ever see Re-animator?  That has a re-animated cat!”

“Shit Wilson, be careful!” Barton shot him quick glare over his glasses and began placing the miniatures back into position. “Does anyone remember where the leader of the Troll horde was positioned?”

Perry rolled his eyes and ignored the question, “Re-animated creatures are totally different from zombies, Wilson. What the hell, you should know better.” He cracked a Diet Pepsi and took a loud sip. “Okay, so there are a couple movies with zombie cats and dogs but most of them ignore the idea that the zombie virus would probably be trans-species. I’m thinking it would be something like the H1N1 and would affect all kinds of creatu…”

“Oh man,” Barton blurted, “it’s a virus within a virus!”

Perry turned to face him, “What?”

“Check this.” Barton was waving his hands and bouncing in his chair. “Viruses are like, living creatures right? Or bacteria, or something. But what if the virus, each bit of bacteria, was zombified? It’s like the struggle of humanity is the macro-story running in parallel to the conflict waged on the bacteria level!”

Luke nodded.

“That’s pretty fucking intense.” Wilson said.

“Seriously?” Perry spread his hands, addressing the room, “Are you guys kidding me? Thank God I’m the Dungeon Master, I’m like the only intelligent being in the room right now. First of all, what could possibly be small enough to be the carrier of the virus between bacteria? Atoms? Secondly, a virus can’t get sick.”

Barton leaned back in his chair and picked at his shirt, which proclaimed him, in cracked and peeling silkscreen, an 8-bit Hero. “Then what’s a retrovirus?”

They all looked at one another, except for Luke, who was staring into the yard through the sliding glass door.

“Good point,” offered Wilson, “a retrovirus is a kind of sickness for infected bacteria.”

“And maybe,” Barton said, “zombies aren’t dead at all. Maybe you become a zombie on the cellular level. As the cells are infected the flesh begins to die, right? Creating an initial impression of decay but death doesn’t come for a long while. It’s like Class IV possession.”

Wilson nodded vigorously and Perry was quiet, staring intently at Barton while he followed the train of thought.

The grandfather clock in the living room ticked ponderously and Barton continued, “So the human isn’t really dead but they're possessed on a cellular level, which explains why zombies are so slow and stupid. The human brain just kinda loses control of the muscles, which are being led by this viral hive mind. It’s like playing a game with 10,000 Dungeon Masters who all know rules and work collectively to create this new living thing.”

“Whoa,” Wilson closed his eyes and tilted his face to the ceiling, “that would mean the infected human might be forced to eat brains before he’s lost his mind to virus. That’s totally crazy.

“Yeah, imagine losing control of your body and being forced to eat human flesh.” Barton looked at Perry. “Can you imagine that?”

“I could, Bart, but I won’t waste my time because the idea is just stupid. Think.  Just think for a second what you’re saying. You’re suggesting the zombie virus is a decentralized infection that assumes control over the entire body.”

“Yeah, so?”

“But the core of the infection HAS to be in the head because trauma to the brain is the ONLY way to kill a zombie. Thereby the virus is centralized.”

The other three considered this while Perry smiled and lifted another slice of pizza, wet and drooping, to his face. They watched him miss his target and adjust the angle of the quivering slice so it could slip between his lips. He tore at it with his teeth and gulped repeatedly, breathing through his mouth, a shiny smear of grease ignored on his chin.

In the living room Wilson’s mother had turned on the TV and Anderson Cooper was talking about connections between Hezbollah and the Lebanese Canadian Bank. Outside the wind knocked over a trashcan and Pansy yipped. Luke pushed back his chair and shuffled towards the sliding glass doors until he stood, nose to nose with his reflection. The backyard was flooded with black and the moon rose above the treeline, thin and pale.

“So, what were you saying earlier?” Barton asked.

“As I was saying, “ Perry paused, “animal and insects seem impervious to the virus in most movies. This strikes me as scientifically unlikely and narratively uninteresting. Wouldn’t it be more exciting if animals could be infected? Think how much faster the virus would spread if birds were carriers!” Perry was getting excited. “Or, fuck it, cats and dogs even. Have you ever tried to outrun a dog? Even a zombie dog would run faster than a human.”

“I don’t know, Percival. I can’t explain the brain thing but I don’t think the virus would affect everything the same way.”

“I’m with Bart,” Wilson said. “Hey Luke, what the heck are you doing over there?”

Luke looked over his shoulder at Wilson and flicked on the light switch to the back patio. All three of his friends stared beyond him into the night. Perry’s eyes grew wide and he choked on a bite of food. His cough was automatic and uncovered, bits of half chewed pizza flecked the map and papers spread across the table. Barton stood quickly with his hands planted on the table and his chair fell backward onto the linoleum with a muffled thump. Wilson let out a small whimper.

Luke followed their eyes and turned back to face the yard. Pressed against the glass of the sliding glass door, inches from Luke, was a well-dressed man in a gray suit and in a partial state of decomposition. Flesh had sloughed away from his face exposing sub dermal tissue and, in some places, bone. His eyes were yellowed and milky. His mouth was a smear of fresh red blood.

On the patio, just behind the man was Pansy, running in small, tight circles. Her fur was matted with blood and her eyes were yellow.

Wilson spoke first, very quietly, “Dang, that was really fast. I fed her, like, an hour ago and she was fine.”

Perry snorted and pounded one fist against the table and gestured towards the patio. “See, I fucking knew it.”

“Okay, so you were right about the animal thing but this doesn’t disprove the my hive-mind theory.”

Barton and Perry stared at each across the table. Barton was still standing and Perry’s arms were crossed. Wilson looked back and forth between them and Luke watched the dead man slowly pawing the door leaving wide red smears across the glass. Pansy began chewing through her own leg.    

“You are unbelievable, Bart. You just don’t give up. Here’s what we’ll do. Wilson!”

Wilson snapped to attention, “What?”

“Get me a baseball bat or something. I think your dad’s a golfer so maybe an iron will do. Actually, you better get the whole set of clubs.”

Wilson squeezed his bulk away from the table then ran out of the kitchen and they heard him wheeze something to his mother on his way upstairs.

“I propose we do a test, Bart. We go for this guy’s head and, if he drops, then we agree the virus is centralized and not some kind of collective mind.”

“Seems fair to me.”

Wilson returned with a golf bag and each of them, except Luke, selected a club and they took turns making practice swings in the middle of the kitchen. Luke had drawn a heavy butchers knife from the knife rack next to the stove and he held it loose at his side.

“Nobody touches Pansy but me. Understood?” Wilson looked at each of them in turn.

Perry nodded, “Understood, Wilson of Underwood. May the gods bless your blade. And Bartholomew the Barbarian let us go down like brothers. Luke, open the door. We have work to do.”