“Maternal Instinct” by Robert Bloch, which was published in Mondo Zombie edited by John Skipp
It wasn’t at all what Jill expected.
To begin with, there was no sign or inscription-nothing to identify that this was 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
And of course it couldn’t be, technically speaking, because you had to circle around blocks away on a side street, toward what looked like the kind of abandoned warehouse the hero always goes to in a cop picture.
Only Jill wasn’t a hero or a heroine or anything in between. She was just her usual self, but caught in a bind halfway between uncomfortable and unprepared. She sat silently as her driver halted the limo on the driveway before a double door and took out a beeper, some kind of subsonic item. For that matter the driver had been pretty subsonic himself; not one word out of him since he’d picked her up at the hotel. Soul of discretion, right?
But suppose he wasn’t a driver? Sure, he’d flashed his papers and wore a uniform, and the limo had the look and feel of a military vehicle. But papers can be forged, uniforms faked and vehicles stolen.
Maybe she was being taken to an abandoned warehouse after all, and the bad guys were waiting in ambush behind the packing-crates or on the catwalks.
A sudden whirring sound jarred Jill’s thoughts as the double door slid upward and the limo moved through the opening, headlight beams tunneling through darkness. In their periphery Jill couldn’t see either crates or catwalks; the structure was an empty shell concealing the route.
Now the stretch ahead slanted down. Down into the dark, down and dirty. Thank God the limo was air conditioned. Jill wondered how this tunnel was ventilated, if at all. And why no lights? Creepy down here. Welcome to the White House, heh-heh-heh. This is your host, Satan, broadcasting to you from the Evil Office-
Jill tensed, uptight. Why were they stopping?
Another beam of light bobbing toward the limo from ahead, fanning the windshield and hood. She could see him now, another uniformidable figure with a flashlight. And behind him, in shadowy silhouette, a carbon copy carrying an Uzi.
Lots of gesturing. And the driver’s window going down, his hand extending to exhibit some plastic. The gun-barrel dipped toward him, monitoring his movements. When the flash-beam invaded the car to flood her face she already had her plastic ready. She moved very slowly, because a sudden shot would probably damage her contact lenses and everything behind them.
Inspection completed, the driver rolled up windows and the car moved on, rounding a corner into a lighted white walled tunnel angling upward. Another sliding door automatically activated ahead, and they wheeled past into a neon-lit underground parking area. Two clean-cut thirty-ish clones in suits with shoulder-holsters were approaching the limo as it pulled into a vacant slot. One positioned himself at the driver’s door and the other walked up to hers. As he signaled she unlocked it and he nodded, smiling. When she opened the door he helped her out of the car; always the perfect gentleman, but don’t forget that shoulder-holster.
“Welcome to the White House,” he said. But there was no heh-heh-heh, and no pretense of an introduction. “Follow me, please,” was all she got as he led her to an elevator on the far wall.
Her driver started up the limo and made a U-turn in the direction from which they’d come; apparently he hadn’t been invited to spend the night in Lincoln’s bedroom. If there really was a Lincoln’s bedroom upstairs. Hey, so it wasn’t a warehouse, but that didn’t prove it was the White House either. Her heart began to thud: no world-class coronary, but noticeable.
Jill and her escort entered the elevator; its door closed and the car moved upward in silken silence. Then the door opened and her heart really started to pound.
Because she was in the White House. It stretched before her, beyond the opened elevator door. now the suit stepped forward, nodding. “This way,” he said.
The hall ahead seemed immense. Those high ceilings, that’s what did it, dwarfing Jill and her guide as they moved down the carpeted corridor between the fancy-framed portraits and the don’t-you-dare-sit-on-it furniture. Antiques. Antiques, priceless but impractical for use, like the high ceilings built in a time before everybody except the rich and famous became accustomed to living in cramped quarters. Under the bright lights everything here seemed spacious and gracious.
But where were the rich and famous?
The hall was deserted, side doors closed. Thick carpet muffled footsteps along an aisle empty of everything, even echoes. Yoohoo, where is everybody?
Jill tried to remember things she’d been told in childhood. About a time the alphabet had been used solely for language, not to designate an FBI, a CIA and other bureaucratic alphabet-soup. A time when ordinary citizens visited the White House without special invitations to participate in some planned political photo-opportunities. They came because it was their desire to spend Sunday afternoon pressing the flesh of a Harding or Coolidge, but now such innocent events were history.
True, she was here by invitation herself, but not for a photo-opportunity. And there was nothing innocent about this meeting with the President.
Her heart started thumping again, just thinking about him, just as it always had since the days when she first got this thing about him. They were both juniors then-she in college, he in the U.S. Senate. After that she graduated and got the dream-job in the think-tank and he got re-elected; then there was that Clancy woman, thank God he didn’t marry her, the silly little bitch would have ruined his chances for nomination for sure, she was just like all the others, those publicized, glorified one-night stands. Long ago-yes, way back in college when she’d first framed his picture from the magazine cover, Jill knew the kind of woman the President should marry. Somebody with looks and smarts, that was obvious, but he needed more than that. He needed someone with a real depth of devotion, who could make the White House a home; somebody fit to bear his children. And long ago, when she fitted that magazine cover photo into a frame, she knew who that woman should be. The magazine had picked him as the ideal candidate for President. Right then and there she’d nominated herself as First Lady.
Talk about silly bitches-okay, so he’d been elected, he was not halfway into his second term, and he’d never married. He wasn’t gay, that’s for sure, but there’s been no lasting relationships. Just as there’d been none for Jill, immersed in the deep end of the think-tank all these years because she was waiting for Mr. Right, that White Knight in the White House; someone who’d never set eyes on her in his life, let alone put her picture on the stand next to Lincoln’s bed or Nixon’s shredder.
Knock it off, Jill. It’s not politically correct. You’re thirty-two and he’s forty-seven, and you’re not on your way to make schoolgirl dreams come true. This is nightmare time.
No sense worrying about her biological clock; she had a job to do. Right now the politically correct Secret Service man was reaching out to open the door at the end of the corridor. They passed through an entryway-probably equipped with sensors and metal detectors, although the SS man’s weapon didn’t trigger a buzz because he halted behind her, then backed out, closing the door and leaving her alone to enter the big room beyond the entry.
At first glance it looked only vaguely office-like, furnished in a style she labeled Early Middle Management-no file cabinets or business machines, just a couch and a couple of comfortable chairs grouped around the coffee table in the corner, and a solitary desk before the window at the center of the room. The setting didn’t seem very presidential, and neither did the man behind the desk.
He was plump, balding, and as Jill observed when he rose from his chair, quite short. His eyes, captive behind thick glasses, peered out at her without expression. Jill hoped her own gaze was noncommittal, offering no hint of her surprise and disappointment. Her heart wasn’t pounding now; it was sinking.
And he was coming toward her, holding out a pudgy hand, smiling an avuncular smile, saying, “Pleasure to see you, I’m Hubertus-”
“No names, Doctor.”
He had entered the room from a side door at the left, and at the sound of the familiar voice she looked up and saw the familiar figure, the familiar face. His figure and face, not something lighted and made-up for the cameras as she’d feared when she first saw the man behind the desk who might have undergone such tricks of transformation in order to project a youthful image.
But the President was youthful in his own right-a young forty-seven with no wrinkles except those around his eyes when he smiled.
He was smiling now and taking her hand, his grip firm, warm, electric. Electric enough to set off the ringing of her biological time-clock.
Ought to ask the Doctor about that, Jill thought. Dr. Hubertus. She knew that name. Surgeon-General of the United States. Here with her and the President.
He was gesturing toward the furniture grouping at the coffee table. “Please make yourself comfortable,” he said.
Jill seated herself. “Thank you, Mr. President.”
“No formalities, please.” Smiling, he took the chair across from her as Dr. Hubertus moved to the couch. “We don’t have time for that.” He paused, smile dimming. “Or does it matter now?”
“I’m afraid it does,” Jill said. “It matters very much…” She was conscious of something ticking, but not her biological clock. This was more like a time-bomb. A time-bomb ready to explode.
“Then let’s get started. You brought the data?”
“Forget the sir business.” The President eyed her expectantly. “What have you got for me-is it in microchip?”
“I’m your microchip,” Jill said.
Both men raised their eyebrows, but it was Jill who raised her voice, quickly. “Safer this way. Anything that can be stored can be stolen. Copied, duplicated, faked, you name it. I’ve had eight separate task teams on this project, each with different approaches to the problem. Five of them don’t even know the other exist. And I’m the only one with total input from all eight. All the findings, all the projections, all the hard stats.”
The President was staring at her. “Why you?”
“Why not? I have close to eidetic memory. And more important, nobody remembers me at all. I’m low-profile, even in my own field, which makes me right for the job.”
“What if the wrong people got hold of you?”
“Don’t worry, I’d keep my mouth shut.”
“And if they tried to make you talk?”
“I’d shut my mouth harder,” Jill said. “Bit down on the capsule I planted in a crown. Old fashioned, but very effective.”
The President glanced at Dr. Hubertus, who shrugged. “Suppose we get down to essentials,” he said. “We can cover details later on. Right now I’d like to play questions and answers.”
“Ready,” Jill said.
“Still unknown. Undetectable micro-organisms from an as-yet untraceable source, possibly long-latent in certain mammalian life forms but presently only observed in humans when recently energized by undetermined-”
“Skip it,” said Dr. Hubertus. “We get all that mumbo jumbo from our own witch doctors. Idiots don’t have a clue, probably never will. They still haven’t even been able to pinpoint the source of the AIDS virus, let alone this one. Besides, its source doesn’t matter now. What matters is that it’s here.”
“Here, there and everywhere,” the President said. “That damned, elusive pimpernel.” His light tone was forced, quickly disappearing as he faced Jill. “What are the current stats? Not the press-release stuff-do you have a handle on real figures?”
“Latest computation places the domestic total in the neighborhood of one-and-a-half percent.” Jill leaned forward. “Which doesn’t sound all that threatening until you realize this translates into almost four million people.”
“Former people.” Dr. Hubertus nodded, eyes grim behind glass. “Dead people. Dead-alive. Who stay alive by eating the living. Who in turn become dead, and they in turn re-animate to eat more of the living who-”
“Food-chain,” said the President. “That much we do know. And you don’t need more than grade-school math to figure what happens once the exponential growth factor really kicks in.”
“It may be worse, worldwide,” Jill said. “Hard to project on a global level because we’re still getting denials and censorship. But our medics team estimates domestic cases doubling in three months, doubling again a month later. In China, India, Indonesia, Latin America, the rate of increase could be much greater. If we don’t come up with a solution-”
The President scowled. “How much longer have we got? I’m talking cover-up. Bottom line.”
“It’s cropping up all over, and there’s no way of our controlling the spread. And word-of-mouth transmits faster than mouth-to-mouth. Gossip spreads an epidemic of its own.”
“We’ve done our best,” the President said. “But censorship can’t contain it, even if we could jam every broadcast frequency in the world and ban checkout-counter journalism. Not with terminal patients jumping out of deathbeds and morgues running on empty. Of course cemeteries are the real problems. Empty graves are dead giveaways. So far these-these uprisings-seem to take place in rural areas where old-fashioned interments are still common. But once the cities start to go with their Forest Lawns and the kind of places you find in Long Island-” He sighed. “We’ve had meetings with the funeral-director people. They can’t explain why these things are taking place almost at random. It isn’t all that easy to break out of a modern coffin, maybe sealed and imbedded in concrete, then burrow up through six feet of earth to the surface. Even if the grave’s in sandy soil-”
Jill broke in. “You’ve talked to undertakers. We asked seismologists. Underground temblors are common everywhere. Earth moves, rock formations shift enough to splinter cheap caskets, loosen dry soil, even if the quake never damages anything on the surface. So wherever and whenever there’s enough subterranean movement, the necros may claw their way out.”
The President frowned, “Necros?”
Jill shrugged. “It sounds better than ‘ghoul.’”
Dr. Hubertus cleared his throat. “Your people must have made some projections about this thing going public. What happens then?”
“Panic. Hysteria. Right now government control is based on military power, but gunfire won’t kill the dead. And when people lose faith in government they turn to religion, but established beliefs in resurrection won’t offer much comfort. The consensus here is that there’ll be an explosion of crazy cults-Zombies For Jesus, The Church of the Living Dead, that kind of thing, which solves nothing.”
“What does?” said the President.
“Using what we already do know about the situation.”
“To begin with, studies indicate we may be dealing with two kinds of necros. Type A would be those recently deceased from causes which didn’t involve prolonged mental or physical malfunction. Such cases would still be driven by anthropophagism, and subject to necrosis, but at a much slower rate. We have no verified reports of any answering to this description, but the medics don’t rule out the possibility, if there was no major impairment prior to death or as a result of escaping from interment.
“The big problem is Type B-victims of violence, accidents, crippling disease, or injuries escaping from their graves. They’ll be most vulnerable to necrotic symptoms, and the longer they’ve been buried the faster they’ll decay. Trouble is, it won’t be fast enough. If their numbers increase at the present rate we’ll be dealing with millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions, all traumatized by their experiences but a majority simply brain dead, driven only by a mindless hunger to feed on living flesh. You’ve got to take steps to prevent this situation.” Jill paused, then took the plunge. “You’ve got to, or in a few years the earth will be blanketed with bodies-or body parts-of the living dead. The earth and the oceans. Clumps, islands, continents of wriggling corpses-”
Dr. Hubertus gestured his interruption. “Tiffany Thayer forecast it for us sixty years ago. Doctor Arnoldi, published by Julian Messner in 1934.” He nodded. “You think-tank people aren’t the only ones who do their homework. Our own researchers have covered everything in fiction which applies to this reality. Lots of scenarios, but no solutions.”
“That’s why you’re here,” the President said. “Solutions.”
Jill leaned forward once more, “We think we have one.”
“What is it?”
“Cremation,” Jill said.
Dr. Hubertus shook his head. “Won’t work.”
“It’d take years to build facilities. We’re facing an emergency.”
“Then use emergency facilities,” Jill said. “For starters, there are steel mills closed down all over the country, and industrial plants with blast furnaces. Modify present equipment and you’re in business.”
“That kind of business will stir up some real opposition,” Hubertus told her. “We’d need a lot of secrecy-and security-for such operations. Then there’s environmental pollution. Most of these installations are in large urban areas, and we can’t relocate them.”
“What about military bases? There are hundreds closed and idle.” The President and Dr. Hubertus were listening intently now as Jill continued. “They have everything we need. Airstrips, roads, rail access already in place. Housing and accommodations for personnel. Improvise some temporary crematoriums and build permanent structures as you go along.”
Jill watched the President out of the corner of her eye as she spoke. His profile was ruggedly handsome, granite-jawed. She imagined how it would look carved on Mt. Rushmore. Or, better still, lying on a pillow next to hers.
Dr. Hubertus was clearing his throat. “Sounds like a Nazi death camp.”
“I know, but do we have a choice?”
The President had risen, moving to the wall beside a portrait of Washington. Jill’s thought strayed. Father of his country. Father of my child-
“This-uh-final solution of yours,” the President said. “Did you come up with it yourself?”
“I told you there was input from each of the teams on the project. But I’m the only one with access to all of the data. What I did, you might say, was put the pieces together.”
“And came up with this.” The President flicked his forefinger along the side of the portrait frame. “Just wanted to make sure the picture was straight.”
He glanced at Dr. Hubertus who stood up, moving left to a point beyond the range of Jill’s peripheral vision. “What do you think?” the President said.
“It could work. In which case she’s right about there being no choice.” Dr. Hubertus’ voice sounded from behind her, and Jill started to turn, but the President was nodding, smiling to her, speaking to her.
“Well, then,” he said. “Welcome aboard.”
Jill felt a stinging sensation in her neck, so sharp and so swift that she never had time to bite down on her tooth.
She was dead before she hit the floor.