Zayinim33 min read


Adam Roberts
Resize text-+=
Originally published in Jews vs Zombies ed. by Lavie Tidhar and Rebecca Levene (Jurassic London, 2015)


Jonie stole one of Daniel’s books. ‘Borrowed’, we might say; but she knew what stealing was, and she knew what she was doing. On the other hand, her mother was always pressing her to read books, and – to be truthful – there was little else to do. Jacob and the others were away, so the rest were supposed to lie low, which was the mostest BORINGness, and Jonie had read all her other books. So she snuck into Daniel’s room. It was actually the cab of one of the trucks, but he’d hung up drapes and set up a bookcase and made it quite homely. She picked a likely looking codex, and danced back to her den.

The book was called Beyond Good and Evil by a guy called Nate Char – an American, presumably, by the name. The title promised a crime-and-punishment story, or (more exciting) a crime-but-no-punishment story. But actually it was all dense prose like this:

Assuming truth is a Jew – what then? Is there not reason to suspect that all philosophers, in so far as they were dogmatists, have known very little about Jews? That the terrible seriousness and clumsy importunity with which they have usually paid their addresses to the Truth, have been unskilled and unseemly methods for impressing the Jews? Certainly Truth has never allowed herself to be won; and at present every kind of dogma stands with sad and discouraged mien – IF, indeed, it stands at all!

That was the point at which Jonie bailed. She threw the book on the floor and lay on her bed for a while, chewing her fingernails. She spent five minutes trying to nibble her two pinkie nails into talons, and then gave up on that and bit them both close to the finger. Then she leapt up. Ran, with the uncoiled sudden energy of bored youth, out of her room, past the fence and to where her mother was working.

‘What’s a philosopher?’

‘Somebody who tries to fathom the universe,’ her mother replied, without looking up.

Jonie waited. After a while she cracked. ‘Don’t you want to know why I asked?’

Her eyes still on what she was doing, her mother returned, ‘Why did you ask?’ in a level voice.

‘I borrowed one of Daniel’s books. It says that philosophers are in love with the Jews. So are they not Jews, these philosophers?’

‘There have been many Jewish philosophers,’ said her mother, with that particular tone in her voice that was the closest she ever came to laughter. ‘But there have also been philosophers amongst the Goyim.’

‘Zombies? Zombies want to fathom the whys of the universe?’

Her mother looked up, and angled her head. ‘I didn’t say there were any zombie philosophers’

‘Isn’t Goy another word for zombie?’

‘No,’ she replied, returning her attention to whatever she was writing.

Jonie waited an age in the ensuing silence – whole minutes – before the energy danced out of her. She pirouetted from one end of her mother’s desk to the other, and back again. Her mother continued plugging away at whatever she was doing, undistracted. ‘Is Daniel on the prim?’ Jonie asked.

‘Your uncle is on perimeter duty, I believe,’ mother replied. ‘Perhaps you wish to apologise for taking one of his books without asking his permission?’

‘Later!’ Jonie cried, and raced out of her mother’s room.

Elisheva was on the main door, but she’d always had a soft spot for Jonie and didn’t need much persuading. ‘Take one,’ she insisted, pressing a loaded bolt-gun into her hands. ‘Remember: aim at the bluest eye.’

‘Sure, yes, OK, of course, I know,’ Jonie told her, in an ecstasy of impatience. Then the heavy triple-shield iron door grated noisily open and Jonie ran out into the sunshine. She didn’t so much as look back at the compound; she just ran. Lay-low week take that!

The long grass hissed like snakes as she sprinted through it. She came out at the rise, and the lake was spread out all before her in the afternoon sunshine, each of the myriad wavelet inset with a pip of bright sunlight. To the left was a bole of willows, like a knot of giant green jellyfish trailing their tentacles in the water. Everything was pale green and dark green, and the water was blue-green, and Jonie ran in the sunlight direction: widdershins around the island. Down into a declivity, and up onto a small hill, and then she saw Daniel – dressed in bright red, standing like a flame in the field.

The red was on purpose, of course. The Zayinim were attracted to the bright colour, and would strut and stumble in Dan’s direction, rather than bothering the compound. Of course, that put the pressure on Dan’s marksmanship. But his marksmanship was fabled. Zayin was the Hebrew Z, Z-for-zombies, although it also meant dick, and lezayen meant to insert the dick, which Jonie thought was pretty funny, actually. Not that she had a whole lot of experience of dick, and still less of insertion. She hooted Daniel’s name, and galloped so hard down the slope to him that she was out of breath by the time she arrived and it took her ages to get her breath back, and she had to lean her hands on her knees and face the ground like she was about to spew.

Daniel’s creased face was trying to do stern. ‘Shouldn’t cry out like that, little one,’ he told her. ‘Shrieking. They’re not deaf, you know.’

‘To what do you owe the pleasure?’ Jonie said. ‘I’ll tell you, Daniel. I read one of your books.’

‘But I haven’t written any books, Jonie,’ said Daniel, genuinely puzzled.

‘It was called Better than Good and Worse than Evil,’ Jonie pressed. ‘It’s by an American, and it’s about philosophers. It said philosophers were in love with truth, and also in love with Jews, and I figured that meant they weren’t Jews. But who isn’t a Jew? Apart,’ she added, sweeping her right arm in a broadcast indicative gesture.

Daniel looked nervously around, in case one of them was slouching towards them. But the view was clear. ‘Slow down,’ he begged.

‘A Zayin can hardly talk, and surely a Zayin can’t write, so I’m thinking a Zayin can’t be a philosopher. Thus and therefore I was wondering – since it’s your book, you explain.’

When old Daniel frowned the three horizontal lines on his brow went, as it were, from normal to bold font; but more than that, two angled lines converging on the bridge of his nose sprang into visibility, like a giant V.

He holstered his gun, and pulled a long, sharp-ended stick from a loop on the other side of his belt. Jonie couldn’t imagine what he was going to do with it, until he jabbed it hard into the soil, and then unfolded a sort of hinged canvas seat, no bigger than two cupped hands. He sat on this and took a breath. ‘You’re going too fast for me, child,’ he said, and began extricating materials for smoking: a white tube the length of a live round; a lighter as red as his clothes. ‘But the book is called Beyond Good and Evil, and it’s not by an American. It’s by a German, and it was very popular with the people who – ’ And he nodded in the direction of the lake, to indicate all the Zayinim in their terrible masses, somewhere over there.

‘No,’ said Jonie, delightedly, ‘kidding.’ She flopped into the grass at her uncle’s feet, and clutched her own knees to her chest. ‘So it is a zombie philosophy!’

‘No,’ said Daniel, sounding now like a ventriloquist talking whilst simultaneously holding his cigarette between his lips. A click and the end became an ember. He breathed the smoke in deep. It made a loud, sibilant sound going in, like silk on silk. Then he let it out very slowly. ‘It was written before that. But it inspired the people who made themselves into – that.’

‘Wolf Hitler!’ exclaimed Jonie, excitedly.

‘He was one of them, one of the worst. But not the only one.’

‘Tell me the story again,’ insisted Jonie.

Daniel drew hard on his cigarette again, and breathed out a spear of smoke into the mild afternoon air. ‘Well the Wolf hated Jews. And he was a ruler of Europe, and he made allies with others who hated Jews. And there was a big war; the whole world fought it. But the Wolves and the Bears banded together, and won that war.’

‘If they hated the Jews, why didn’t they kill them?’ Jonie asked.

‘They did. They killed the Jews in Europe, and Russia, and north Africa. There were other Jews in America, and although America lost that war and signed away reparations and agreed to,’ Daniel coughed sharply, ‘dis-ad-vantageous trade agreements and so on, they at least kept their Jews.’

‘What happened next?’ Jonie pressed. She knew what happened next; but it was good to hear the story told.

‘Well, the Wolf had a dream. He wanted to make a race of supermen, and this was because of books like the one you stole from my room, you know.’ Jonie made a shocked face, but her uncle was smiling. ‘The archetypal warriors, new warriors of a new war, were the üboatmensch, and they were the prototype. That’s what the writer of your book talked about,’ (Jonie began to suspect he couldn’t remember the guy’s name) ‘how to become more like the üboatmensch, solitary hunters, utilising new technologies to destroy and inhabit new worlds and so on. Anyway. Anyway, the Wolf had the resources of the world at his disposal, so he made it come true. Through –’ Daniel drew a curlicue of smoke in the air with his cigarette, gesturing at the vagueness of the next word ‘ – science. Invincible warriors. Regenerating flesh, self-repairing gene-loads, immortality. Beyond mortality. And from a simple dose of a serum! So he dosed up an army and invaded China, and destroyed it. But it wasn’t enough to give it to the army only – the people wanted it too. Everybody wanted it!

‘The Wolf’s allies begged for the serum, and he used it to force them to submit further to him. But eventually everybody got it. Everybody except the Jews. He agreed a treaty with America, and part of the agreement was: not the Jews. He thought – the Aryan Americans and the Spanish Americans and the Noble Native Americans will live forever in a warrior world, but the Jews will be mortal, and die out.’ He was down to the stump of his cigarette now, and Jonie was impressed at the way he held the last bit of it with his nails, so it didn’t scorch his skin.

‘But we’re still here.’

‘Immortality is a bad idea. The body keeps going, but eventually the mind fall apart. The human mind isn’t built to last forever, and eventually it curls up on itself and shrivels down. That’s why the Zayinim are so … thoughtless.’

‘That’s because we shoot for their brains. We shoot their brains and they can’t think. They don’t die, but can’t think,’ said Jonie.

‘Every human on earth was made a zombie, except the Jews!’ said Daniel. ‘You think that we shot every one of them in the head?’

‘I can’t believe everyone in the world was made a zombie,’ challenged Jonie. ‘There must have been thousands and thousands.’ She remembered reading something about the pre-Zayin world. ‘Millions!’

‘Indeed. And a lot died in fighting over the serum. But a lot more got it – just not us, though. Then the new supermen and superwomen discovered that they couldn’t carry children to term any more. The supermen could plant the seed like ever they did before, but the superwombs couldn’t hold on to the babies. But they figured: I’m upset by this? Me? I’m immortal! And they lived to a hundred, and were still as young as when they took the serum. And then they lived to a hundred and twenty, and they were young. And then, at a hundred and fifty – don’t ask me why, am I a scientist? – their minds started folding in on themselves, like a spider sprayed with water in the washtub. You’ve seen the way they’re all legs and motion, and a quick slurp from the tap and they curl into a full stop?’

‘Yes, yes,’ said Jonie, impatiently. ‘And?’

‘And they all went the same way. Immortal, but thought-impaired. Stumbling about. Too stupid and disoriented to avoid banging into things. Like leprosy, they began to knock bits off. Even serum-repair don’t cover everything – fingers regrow like courgettes; eyeballs grow back white as gobstoppers. And the Zayinim were too slow-witted to help themselves, stumbling about. The only thing they knew was: war. They’d been made as warriors. So they stumble about, and when they meet another of God’s creatures they tear it to pieces! Which is why we have to keep them at bay. That’s the definition of a warrior. A warrior is someone whose whole thought is: war.’

‘Other people, apart from the Jews, must have resisted the temptation of the serum,’ mused Jonie.

‘You think we Jews resisted the temptation? We’re such expert temptation-resisters? Don’t be pumpkinny. If they’d’ve offered us immortality, wouldn’t we have taken it? Only they didn’t offer it. That was the deal. Because the Wolf hated us.’

For a while they sat in silence, looking at the lake. The little slurpy waves kept kissing away at the reed-bank, over and over. The sun was lower. Daniel pinched out the last quarter-centimetre of his cigarette, and brought up his tin. Then he placed the demi-stub on the metal, and lit it again with his lighter, bringing his face close to it to suck up the very last wisps of smoke. His cigarette tin was brushed with a score of black marks where he had done this before. But what can you do? Tobacco is precious.

‘When did all this happen?’ Jonie asked. ‘I mean – I know it was a long time ago. I know it wasn’t living memory.’

‘My grandfather remembered those times,’ Daniel said, musingly. ‘He used to tell me about it.’

‘He died. So that,’ said Jonie, with the pedantry of youth, ‘is not living memory.’

‘He died, thank God!’ agreed Daniel. ‘There were a lot more of us, back then. Whole villages-full. Not like now. Ah well. Onward I suppose. Until we find the island and build the New City.’ And he heaved himself off his stick-seat and folded it away.


That night Jonie had another go at reading the book; but it was indigestible stuff, and Daniel’s handwriting didn’t make it any easier – assuming it had been copied out by Daniel, and not some other scribe. His spelling was idiosyncratic even by Jonie’s teenage standards, and sometimes his vocabulary was simply baffling.

Physiologists should think twice before positioning the drive for self-preservation as the cardinal drive of an organic being. Above all, a living thing wants to discharge its strength, to roll it forcefully from birth to death: life itself being fundamentally a Wheel to Power. Self-preservation is the oblique perversion of this wheel, the most frequent consequences of zombie life.

Physical-what-nows? And then there was a series of weird proverbs, almost none of which made sense.

Anyone who despises himself will still respect himself as a despiser.

It is the desire, not the desired, that we fall in love with.

The consequences of our actions take us by the scruff of the neck, altogether indifferent to the fact that we have ‘improved’ in the meantime.

We are punished most for our virtues.

Vices, she presumed he meant to write there. And –

He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby becomes a monster. And when you gaze long into zombies the zombies also gaze into you.

Cold blue eyes. But, though young, Jonie had enough experience of the Zayinim to know that when they looked at you, there was nothing behind the look. They could not gaze. Most were repulsive-looking, but even the good-looking ones were no better than beasts: naked, filthy, dangerous. At breakfast the next day, she challenged Daniel: ‘Do you write it out, Uncy? Is this book I borrow-éd in your handwriting?’

Daniel glowered at her. They were expecting Jacob back soon: later that day maybe, or maybe tomorrow, or the day after; and until he came back Daniel had to conserve his tobacco. Accordingly he was grumpy. ‘You’ve a problem with my handy writing, maybe? Stealers can’t be choosers, my girl.’

‘It’s hard going, and your spelling is a shocker, and I don’t know,’ Jonie said, haughtily enough. ‘Tell you what the problem is? The problem is the book has no story.’

‘No story,’ snorted Daniel, rubbing the palm of his hand over his tall, lined brow. ‘Stories you want, eh? But we’re beyond stories now. The world has ended, and we’re living in the afterwards, and there are no stories any more.’

Her mother nodded sagely at this, sipping her tea.

This was hardly a very satisfying answer, and Jonie vowed to give Daniel the book straight back – or burn it, or throw it in the lake, just to annoy him. But she didn’t. She kept reading. There was something weirdly compelling in the mumbo-jumbo of it. And that night, as she drifted off to sleep, it occurred to her with a force like revelation – maybe this was a holy book. Maybe it contained the answer to the problems of the Jews and the Zombies.

She was jolted awake by raised voices. She knew immediately what the shouting meant. Sat straight up in bed. Slapped herself on the face. But she knocked her lighter on the floor when she reached for it, and wasting time scrabbling around before she could get a candle lit. Then she put shoes on, and put on her leather coat and gloves, the material stiff as thick cardboard in the cold. Cradling the candle she came out and along the corridor, and clanging up the metal steps to the top of the tower. Even before she reached the top she heard the snap, snap of rifle fire.

Everybody was there: her mother, Daniel, Elisheva, Esther, K. and Ash. K. swivelled the spotlight, and the others took turns at shooting at the indistinctness below. Ash handed Jonie a pistol (all the other rifles were away with father), but the moon was no bigger than a toenail clipping and some mocking clouds were playing peekaboo with even this small light. The Zayinim could be heard rather than seen, rattling the wire fence, making their distinctive ‘ch’ hissing noise, occasionally letting out dog-like high-pitched whimpers.

‘It’s not good, them being out at night,’ Jonie gasped, excited despite herself. K. moved the spotlight, and three of them were visible in the circle. They turned their eyes up at the sudden Illumination, and mother shot the one on the left – drove a groove right down the crown of its head, like parting its hair. It danced backwards as a spray of black fluid appeared above its head like a rooster’s comb. Then it fell out of the light.

Abruptly, the Zayinim started shambling away. They were dumb, ‘severely mentally impaired’ as mother put it, but they were not wholly brainless. The fence was not giving way, and they weren’t getting through. ‘It’s not good, that they’re out at night,’ Jonie repeated.

‘Indeed not,’ said Elisheva. Zombies usually got active in the warmth of the day. Unless they got food, that was the only way they could get active. Shambling around in the small hours must have meant they’d been feeding. And feeding carried with it the inevitable correlative: feeding on whom?

‘I’m going to start one of the trucks,’ said Daniel, heading down the stairs. ‘We need more light.’

‘Don’t waste the petrol,’ said mother. ‘They’re going anyway.’

‘You sure?’

As if in answer to his question, clouds parted and enough pearl-coloured moonlight fell on the field in front of the camp to show it deserted.

‘They’re gone,’ mother pronounced.

Jonie was sent back to bed, but of course she was too wired-up to sleep now. She read some more of the Char book, though reading by candlelight always made her eyes tired. Was Char really his name? Or was it a pseudonym. The only sure way to destroy one of the Zayinim was to burn it to ash; and in the latter days, when there had been end-times attempts to stem the tide of the zombermen, much of civilisation had gone up in smoke. Several times, when the camp had moved, Jonie had seen the scorched remains of cities, squares of slag where even weeds would not grow, black earth. It was why there were so few books. So little of everything. The philosopher of the charred. He had the answers! If only she could interpret the book aright.

The Jews – a people ‘born for zlavery’ as Tictacus and the whole ancient world says, ‘the chosen people’ as they themselves say and believe – the Jews achieved that miracle of revaluation of values thanks to which life on earth has for a couple of millennia acquired a new and dangerous fascination – their prophets fused ‘rich’, ‘godless’, ‘evil’, ‘violent’, ‘sensual’ into one and were the first to coin the word ‘world’ as a term of infamy. It is in this inversion of values … that the significance of the Jewish people resides: with them there begins the slave revolt in morals.

‘Zlavery’? Was the word an artefact of Daniel’s orthography? It wasn’t in her Websters – she got out of bed and checked. So was it a slip of the pen? Or actually intended as a portmanteau of zayin and slavery? How were the Jews born for that?

She snuffed her candle and lay down again, until she felt sleep creep over her, like sinking into a hot bath. Then it suddenly shot through her mind, a fiery spear in her thoughts. They were slaves – slaves to the persistency and hostility of the Zayinim! A hundred disparate things fell into a gorgeous and meaningful pattern for the first time – with what splendour it all made sense. The Egyptian pharaoh undead mumzombie people keeping the Jews in bondage until the red sea of blood opened its doors across charred black sands and they fled along the Mobius-strip pathway of DNA. The struggle between Jews and ombies would drag on, itself zombie-like, unless they found a way to pass beyond Jews and Zombies. The future. She was the future. New blood, and a new beginning. Breaking the old wheel of tradition. Helix and double-helix, and the doubling was a necessary part of the helix.

She debated with herself whether to get up, relight her candle, seek out her mother and explain things – but she could anticipate the cross temper of waking her at this hour. She’d explain it all in the morning. And, giving herself permission, she fell into sleep.


In the morning she woke with a fizzing in her stomach. But when she got up, and as she was rinsing her face in the basin outside, it dawned on her that she had forgotten the whole glorious unified vision she had had in the night. She sat on the end of her bed and waited for the inspiration to return to her, but it didn’t. Then she grew angry with herself for slothfully falling asleep instead of getting up and doing something. Anything! Writing it down, shouting it in Daniel’s ear. She propped her pillow against the end of the bed and punched it for a while. But that didn’t do any good. Oh, she was in a foul temper went she went through to see what there was for breakfast.

Everybody was there, and they were right in the middle of a discussion about moving the camp. ‘Include me out of this discussion, why don’t you,’ she wailed.

‘We didn’t want to wake you, princess,’ said Ash, separating his beard into two forks that he plaited round one another, undoing the plait and smoothing the beard into one again – a nervous tick of his.

‘We can’t move until Jacob gets back,’ said Daniel.

Jonie scowled at him. ‘Of course we can’t,’ she said, sarcastically. ‘We need the extra hands to help us load the trucks.’

‘I didn’t mean that,’ said Daniel.

‘He didn’t mean that,’ mother echoed.

‘Then what did he mean?’ snapped Jonie. And as she asked the question she saw, with a horrible internal clatter, what he meant. He meant: what if the others don’t come back? What if they can’t? She saw it. Those Zayinim from the night before had been eating something.

Her thought processes must have been obvious, because A. said, ‘I’m sure they chanced upon a deer, or a sheep, or something.’

Jonie announced: ‘Father is fine. And I’ve been reading Daniel’s book, and I have had a vision. A vision! I suddenly saw how we could escape the predation of the Zayinim!’

Everybody was looking at her now. ‘All right,’ prompted her mother. ‘How?’

‘Actually I can’t remember now,’ she said, trying to look dignified. ‘But I’m sure it’ll come back to me.’ She took a mug of porridge from the breakfast pan and retreated to her room to read more of the Char. But her attention jittered over the words, and she kept trying to cast herself back into the middle of the previous night.

be assigned to pretence, to the will to delusion, to selfishness, and cupidity. It might even be possible that WHAT constitutes the value of those good and respected things, consists precisely in their being insidiously related, knotted, and crocheted to these evil and apparently opposed things – perhaps even in being essentially identical with them. Perhaps! But who wishes to concern himself with such dangerous ‘Perhapses’! For that investigation one must await the advent of a new order of philosophers, such as will have other tastes and inclinations, the reverse of those hitherto prevalent – philosophers of the dangerous…

It was no good. She couldn’t concentrate. There was some commotion outside, so she gave up on her reading. She put on her jacket and gloves and hat and went to the main gate.

‘There’s one left over from last night,’ said Esther, excitedly. ‘They’re all out there now sorting it out.’

‘Let me through,’ Jonie demanded.

‘Your father wouldn’t want me to.’

Esther was, like, a hundred years old. ‘Don’t be a shrivelled old stupid person, Esther, and let me out.’

‘I’ll tell him it wasn’t my idea,’ Esther grumbled. ‘Take a gun, at least.’

‘Yes yes yes,’ said Jonie, snatching the weapon and squeezing through the door before it was even a quarter open.

It always felt good to be outside. Spring was everywhere now, which was good in one sense – no more sleeping in all her clothes wrapped in two blankets and still shivering with the cold – and very bad in another. The Zayinim became much more active in the warm months of the year. Not just in terms of moving more rapidly and with more purpose – although until you’d seen a zombie immediately after a feed you had no idea just how quickly they could go – but in terms of aggregating into larger and therefore more dangerous packs. Nonetheless, it was good to breathe the fragrant air.

Someday, she mused, she would escape it all. Start her own life. Have kids, maybe. Except that having kids would not be to escape.

They were all standing, a circle of folk in the long grass. It was indeed one of the Zayinim from the previous night – the one mother had shot across the top of its skull. It was lying on its back in the grass. Jonie came up behind Daniel, and then peered past him.

It was naked, as all the Zayinim were. Their bodies long outlasted whatever clothes they had once worn. This one was nude, but not all of them were – some were covered in hair, like beasts of the field. The thing was the serum, or whatever it was, that made them immortal. It prompted regeneration of the flesh, with almost miraculous speed and accuracy. But the accuracy was not perfect, and over long enough stretches of time weird glitches worked their way into the operation. This could take any number of forms, but a common one was that hair follicles grew thicker and thicker hair. Not this guy, though: he was bald, eyebrowless, pubic-nude and stark as a skeleton. But there were other oddities. At some point in its long life the zombie had been split open across the side. This wound had, of course, healed; but teeth had grown in an irregular pattern along the scar. It had only a finger and a thumb on its right hand, but its left hand was a root-tangle of extra fingers all clutched together. She couldn’t help looking at its genitals: a smaller penis grew from the end of its actual penis, the way potato-buds sometimes sprouted from whole potatoes. The gouge carved by mother’s bullet, an inch deep at its deepest point, divided its cranium along a black crease. But it still had both its eyes, and its mouth was working. ‘Ch-ch-ch.’

‘Burn it,’ said K. ‘The grass is spring grass, the fire won’t spread.’

‘Waste the petrol?’ returned Ash.

‘Jacob will be back soon,’ said K. ‘The others will be back soon. They’ll bring more.’

‘And if they don’t?’ Ash replied, adding hastily, lest he be misunderstood, ‘Don’t bring more petrol?’ In case anybody thought he meant don’t come back.

‘We can’t just leave it here,’ said Daniel. ‘I’ll get an axe, take its head off.’

‘There’s another!’ called Elisheva, pointing. Everybody looked. Not one but two Zayinim were shuffling round the margin of the lake. Further off were half a dozen more, also approaching. With a nice sense of the incipiency of the drama, the breeze suddenly woke up. It began shaking the willows, which moved their branches sluggishly as if waving the people away. There were, of course, no birds.

‘Back inside,’ said Daniel, aiming his bolt-gun downwards. ‘I’ll try and take out the rest of this one’s brains.’

The others started back towards the camp. Ash started off first, and straightaway, with a booming yell, he fell. The long grass swallowed him. ‘There’s one here!’ he hollered.

Daniel reacted quickest, leaping nimbly over the supine zombie at his feet and hurrying to Ash. There was a jarring bang as he discharged his weapon, and the next thing Jonie saw was Ash being helped back to his feet, blood all over his old head.

‘They’re in the grass,’ mother cried. ‘Scores of them! They’ve been creeping up!’

‘Back to the compound,’ bawled Daniel. He turned, and shot again at the ground. ‘They’re everywhere.’

Jonie felt her heart go dabbity-dabbity in her chest. She set off running for the compound, but at once the whole world swung about the axis of her right ankle, and the earth smacked her hard in the face. It took a moment to comprehend what had happened. Grabbed. Its undead hand around her ankle. She twisted in its grasp, aimed her weapon and fired it – missed. Its ghastly bifurcated head turned to her, and its mouth opened. She saw then that its teeth were not teeth at all, but fingernails.

‘It returns,’ the creatures hissed at her, in weirdly accented English. ‘Eternally it returns. And – ’

Her second shot did not miss.

The zombie flopped back, its whole face horrible compressed and distorted where the bolt had punched its way in, at the mid-point of its nose. But it did not let go its grip. She put the gun down to free both hands, and tried to prise the fingers off. The creature was still moaning, or trying to make words, or something – but its fingers were set like a stone bracelet around her leg. It twitched and tried to rise again, and Jonie felt a nauseous sense of panic coil in her stomach. The creature’s free hand grabbed her left wrist. With her right hand she scrabbled behind her for the bolt gun – but with only one hand she could hardly reload it. Shuffling her position, she tried to bring her feet to bear. To kick out. The thing’s mouth was still going. ‘It,’ it hissed. ‘Always,’ it hissed. ‘Returns,’ it hissed.

Drums sounded, or maybe it was an earthquake. Sunlight flashed, as if her soul were leaving her body. But she was free, and she hauled herself backwards. The light flashed again. The drums were the hoof beats of a horse, and her father was on the horse. The flash was his sabre, cutting through the two arms of the Zayin.

‘Go,’ he bellowed.

She got up and began running, still wearing the clamped hands of the creature, one on her wrist, one by her elbow. The only thought in her head now was to get back to the gateway. When the force caught her and lifted her from behind she did cry out, terrified that another one of the beasts had her. But it was her father, hoisting her up into the saddle behind him, as they galloped over the undulating ground.


For several hours they were all too busy in defence for thought. Jacob’s party had not found any petrol, but the assault was on such a scale as to necessitate using their flame-throwers anyway. Ash cut away the two still twitching hands from Jonie, and burnt them in the fireplace. Then she went and took her place in the tower with most of the others, and picked her shots, and tried not to think about how horrible her experience had been.

By dusk the assault had been beaten back. The scale of it was alarmingly unprecedented: dozens of zombies, coordinating their attack. ‘Not so stupid,’ said Esther. ‘I’ve always said so.’

‘One spoke to me,’ Jonie said, but nobody seemed to hear, and she didn’t press the point. Because, once she’d said it, it sounded stupid. How could they speak?

‘They followed us back,’ said Jacob. ‘They tracked us. We rode day and night, and day again, and they followed the whole way.’ How tired he looked! ‘And more will be along soon. We have to pack up. We must go.’

He had departed with three men and three women. The women were all right, but only two of the men returned. This fact only occurred to Jonie after sunset, when everybody gathered in the yard to wash and snatch food under the spotlight. ‘Where’s Beuys?’ she asked.

Nobody answered this question. A particular answer would have been worse than no answer. It wasn’t as if they needed to ask, actually.

Daniel was sitting on his strange shooting stick, smoking. So clearly Jacob had found some supplies, including tobacco. But no petrol. ‘It’s getting harder and harder to forage round here,’ said Charley, one of the women in the party. ‘We’re going to have to move.’

Feeling bitter and angry and weary and depressed Jonie went back to her room. As if calling the back of a truck with tarpaulin for a ceiling a ‘room’ made it one! Her mouth was full of ashes. It was pointless. They should give up. What was the point in going on?

She slept for a while, and woke up from a nightmare, and slept again. In her dream she heard hoof beats again, but it was not her father’s horses; the horses themselves were undead, chasing her down. She was running through long grass, and the undead horses were just behind her. She had time to think: they must have tried out the serum on animals as well, there must be zombie animals as well, when she woke sharply.


It was her father’s voice. The hoof beats were him knocking on the slats at the end of the truck. He always knocked, politely, before disturbing her in her room.

She put her head out. The sky directly above was pre-dawn pale, mother-of-pearl, and a broccoli-bunch of rainclouds was squatting by the horizons. ‘Dad,’ she said, and jumped down.

Jacob was not a great one for hugs, but he clapped hands to her shoulders and kissed her quickly on her forehead. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘It was such chaos yesterday, I did not have the chance properly to greet you.’

She looked around: everybody was busy. They were packing up. ‘Do we have somewhere actually to go?’ she asked. Her voice was still croaky with sleep.

‘We cannot stay here,’ replied Jacob, nodding slowly. ‘Come. We foraged some coffee.’

‘What a treat!’ she said; and then felt immediately sorry for looking forward to the coffee when Beuys was dead.

‘I will take a cup with you, my daughter,’ said Jacob, with characteristic pompousness, ‘and then we must both help with loading the trucks.’ He was looking old, Jonie thought. Everyone around her was old. Except Beuys, and he wouldn’t get any older..

Somebody had already folded away the tables, and stacked them ready for loading. But between them, Jonie and her father pulled out the legs and set one up again. Jacob poured two cups of coffee, and stirred in sugar, and they sat at the table opposite one another and drank.

Behind her father, away to the east, the rim of the world was starting to glow red. The sun returning. The sun always returned. But then, so did the night. That was the nature of return.

‘I’ve been reading one of Daniel’s books,’ she told him, unsure what else to say. Obviously it was impossible to talk about Beuys.

‘Oh yes?’

‘I think it has the answer,’ she told him, and as soon as the words came out she felt their infinite foolishness.

‘The answer to what?’ her father asked, with ingenuous seriousness.

She couldn’t back away now. ‘To all this. To us, and to – them.’

Jacob raised one of his impressively horticultural eyebrows. ‘There’s an answer?’

‘We have to go beyond us and them,’ she said, uncertain where the words were coming from, or where they were going. ‘It’s always the same thing, and that’s a kind of slavery. The struggle to turn the wheel is a kind of slavery. We have to break the wheel. Or – no, wait. Unpack it, unroll it. Squirl it out into a moebius strip. Or …’ She took refuge in the mug, and drained the last of the coffee. Some of the sugar had formed a crusty sludge at the bottom, and she dipped her pinkie finger into this. ‘When we fight the Zayinim, we become Zayinim. The difference between us and them is that we can choose not to be Zayinim. But that means going beyond the fight. Making peace of some kind.’

The eyebrow was still up. Behind Jacob the sky was starting to acquire the same golden-brown sweetness as she knew the sugar possessed. The storm clouds were away to the north, and – who knows? Maybe they would stay there. The light that suffused the heavens was also in her bloodstream now.

‘We can’t go on like this,’ she said.

The eyebrow came down. She had said something to which her father could relate. ‘We cannot,’ he agreed.

They were silent for a while, and the sky grew more gloriously honeyed in its clarity.

‘Daughter,’ said Jacob, putting the cup down. ‘I have rebuked Esther.’

‘It wasn’t her fault,’ Jonie said, automatically.

‘She should not have let you out. I have rebuked her, and she assures me she will not be similarly delinquent in the future.’

‘Dad!’ Jonie squealed. The sunlight had vanished from inside her. Now she felt only resentment and a kind of dull panic. Stuck inside! Stuck inside for ever.

He held up his hand. ‘We cannot afford to take risks with you, daughter. You are the future. The only future.’ He meant babies, of course. She hated when he referred to this, although he was never very explicit. She hated the sense of responsibility, not just for her, but for the whole of humanity. ‘Which brings me to my news: we met another tribe.’

This was huge news. ‘You did?’ A whole new group of people? Some handsome young guy her own age?

‘Not a large tribe, and with no… no young people, I’m afraid.’

This was a disappointment. ‘None at all?’

‘I’m sorry. But they said they had heard tell of a larger community, away to the north on the coast. My worry is that we lack the petrol to move the whole camp there. But we must try. The island…’

The island was Jacob’s long-term plan: to move onto an island large enough to support them, cleanse it of any Zayinim that might be there, and build a New Jerusalem. But there was no point in doing that with only 13-year-old Jonie old enough to bear children, and the only men around capable of impregnating her close family. The goal was to gather together a viable number of different families, including youngsters. That had been the goal for as long as Jonie could remember. With the certainty granted only to the very young, she was convinced it would never come to anything.

‘We must look to the future,’ he said.

Jonie wanted to reply: yet we spend all our time looking to the past! But the sun had risen now, and he was standing up, so she stood up too. They washed the cups together, and folded the table away. ‘The youngest,’ Jacob said, ‘was fifty-nine.’

‘The youngest?’

‘Of the tribe we met. Seven people – not a viable number. Two women in their seventies, the rest old men. My age, or older. The youngest was a man called Ephraim, and he was fifty-nine.’

With that he went off to help Daniel and mother with the crane on the back of the biggest truck, to move the fence portions. Jonie went off to help the others, packing trunks, checking the horses were all right. It only occurred to her much later that Jacob might have given her that information because some manner or type or kind of discussion had taken place about wives and husbands. Who else but her as the wife? But the very idea was so ghastly she put it away, behind her, and refused to think of it. There was a needle voice, inside her head, and it went: what’s the alternative, duckyWhat’s the alternative, my little brood mare?

What’s the beyond? Good question.

They were halfway through packing the fence portions onto the big truck, and had folded down the tower into its lorry-back, when Ash called out that he could see Zayinim in the field.

It was a horribly vulnerable time for them to attack, but sometimes it happened that way. Daniel, father, mother and K. mounted their horses and rode off as the others doubled their efforts. The sky brightened with early morning, and then darkened again as the rainclouds rolled over. Half an hour after setting off, the rider returned.

‘Something off,’ mother told the group. ‘We put a few down, but they’re not attacking.’

‘Why not?’ K asked.

‘Never mind why not,’ Daniel called. ‘Let’s just get packed up and head out before they change their minds.’

They finished up the fence sections just as the first rain began to fall. They air chilled and went bluer than before, and big nut-sized raindrops splattered onto the dusty windscreens and dry tarps. Within moments it was a heavy downpour, lines sketching the air all around, hissing hard into the long grass with the sound of somebody frying up food.

They tied down the last of the cargo, hitched the cart to the back of the smallest lorry, tethered the horses behind the medium truck and set off. Jonie rode in the big truck; mother driving, with Daniel and Esther. They had to wait a minute because the steaming bodies of the passengers misted up the windshield, and they had to run the air-blowers to clear their view. But eventually they were off, driving in first-gear (as always), moving forward at a horse’s walking pace.

The drove through the grass easily enough, and had an alarming moment going up the slope when the wheels slid intermittently on the new mud. But they crested the top, and if the big truck could do that, the rest would manage.

It was true, though: the field was full of Zayinim. It was the weirdest thing. Indeed, in all her short life Jonie had never seen anything like it. Two rows of zombies formed a kind of blank-eyed honour guard as they drove down the middle. They made no attempt to attack. They did not move at all, in fact. At one point Daniel climbed into the roof of his cab and put a few down with his rifle, but mother called to him to stop – why antagonise them? And they didn’t seem bothered.

The clocklike tick and tock of the windscreen wipers.

Jonie watched. This one tall, hirsute, with too many ears and the arms hanging at his sides so long they reached almost to his ankles. This one had been a woman once, naked, with her skin covered either in scales or perhaps boils, Jonie couldn’t see very clearly. This one stocky, muscles, with fangs like a tiger poking through the skin of his lips. This one black, this one white, this one with a third arm sprouting from a cankerous looking mass on its shoulder, this other long and smooth and genital-less as a doll. All standing, and just watching them as they rolled by.

‘Spooky,’ opined Esther.

The rain stopped. Soon enough the clouds moved away, and the sun came out.

‘I’m always struck,’ said mother, as the steering wheel, ‘that the earth must be heavier after a rainfall than it was before. Isn’t that a striking thought?’

Finally they reached the end of the Zayinim row and passed it, and left the whole grisly crew of them far behind. But the very last individual was the most unsettling of all, for he was dressed in clothes. They cannot have been the clothes in which he had dressed before; for those threads must have long since crumbled to powder. He must have dressed himself – or been dressed. Of all the zombies she had seen, he was the least deformed (unless the deformities were hidden beneath the clothes) – a stack of white hair on his head, and an ageless face. In the sunlight his eyes glinted a clear blue, and he looked straight through the window at Jonie with what seemed like intention. But it can’t have been – of course. He almost looked handsome. If he hadn’t been a zayin, he would have been handsome: with his strong nose, and white-blond hair, and primrose eyes. His head turning slowly, so that his gaze could follow her. A dressed zombie? Wearing his smart suit, and gazing forlornly as the squire’s own daughter passed by. I mean, obviously not that. Obviously not. But it was weird.

‘Have you ever seen them act like that before?’ Jonie asked Daniel.

‘They act weirdly,’ was Daniel’s opinion. ‘Weird is the height and breadth and depth of them.’ To celebrate the fact that they’d gotten away without further mishap he took out a cigarette and lit it. His sigh of contentment was not the sort of noise a human usually made.

It was hard for her to put the intensity of the creature’s blue gaze out of her head. So she took out the book, the Beyond book, from the inside of her leather jacket, and tried to settle to reading it again. There was an answer in there somewhere, she knew.

  • Adam Roberts

    Adam Roberts is the author of sixteen novels, the most recent being The Thing Itself (Gollancz 2015), and a great many short stories, some of which are collected in Adam Robots (Gollancz 2012). He lives in England between London and Reading.

Subscribe For Latest Updates

Be the first to learn about our new releases, open calls, and many activities.

Invalid email address
We promise not to spam you. You can unsubscribe at any time.


Invalid email address
We promise not to spam you. You can unsubscribe at any time.

But wait, there's more to read!

a book cover with a picture of an egyptian god.
Short Fiction
Marian Denise Moore

A Mastery of German

Somewhere in the world, there is a man, seventy years old, a native New Orleanian who has never left the city except for the occasional

Read More »
a white mask with the words apex magazine on it.
Support Apex Magazine on Patreon
Become a patron at Patreon!

Apex Magazine Ko-fi

$4 funds 50 words of Apex Magazine fiction!