“What do you mean, I can’t kill zombies?” Duncan MacLeod asked when his Watcher Joe Dawson intercepted him on his way out of Paris.
“Zombies aren't going anywhere near Immortals, MacLeod. That's why you can't go whack them with your sword,” Joe explained. “You literally repel them miles away from yourself.”
“How do you know that?” asked MacLeod.
“It would be easier to show you, but you'll need to come to Watcher Headquarters. I even cleared it with the higher ups, this time.”
It began exactly as all the sci-fi books and zombie apocalypse movies said it would... with a virus. Dizzy spells turned into incapacitating neurological reactions that caused people to fall down stairs, wreck their cars, stumble off train platforms and more to their deaths... and they arose as zombies. Unintelligible, ravenous and decaying, the walking corpses preyed on living humans and spread the infection further.
Panic ensued as the outbreak spread. Commercial transportation shut down and people hid in their homes. Governments were struggling to keep order, the military was trying to blow up zombies without destroying half the planet, and doctors desperately sought some form of treatment.
However, the zombies weren't everywhere. It didn't take long for people to notice that in some places, new zombies just didn't appear and the zombies roaming outside wouldn't go in. These sanctuaries were scattered across the world seemingly at random. Patches of countryside, entire small towns, portions of big cities... there was no logic to it as far as the world could see. The hungry zombies gathered along invisible edges forming circles, desperately wanting to feed on the numerous living humans crowded together on the other side. News of these safe zones spread and people risked their lives running through a gauntlet of zombies to reach them.
Sometimes the big circles noticeably shifted one direction or another forcing people on the edges to hide in their homes as zombies suddenly invaded their streets only to watch the zombies be mysteriously driven out again. Worse were the smaller circles that could move about a town in a matter of hours, only to return to their original location for the night. Then came the day the massive safe zone centered on Paris slid dramatically west. People previously secure on the east side scrambled to keep themselves within the changing border. Meanwhile zombies on the west side plunged into the Atlantic Ocean as they fled before the migrating edge and swam around it.
Only the Watchers understood why.
And now, here MacLeod was, standing in a large room inside Watcher headquarters trying to ignore the various Watchers giving him and Joe a wide berth.
“Not a single Watcher has come down sick with this thing across the entire world,” Joe told him.
“How? Not all Watchers are in, what do you call it, the field?”
“Turns out proximity to Immortals is enough,” Joe answered as he gestured to the enormous sized screen mounted on the wall behind him.
Duncan MacLeod turned to stare at the image of the world displayed there. The sophisticated interactive system showed a variety of smaller closeup maps along the edges. Captioned numbers hovered over different areas marking the number of Immortals the Watchers were tracking in those regions. He'd occasionally wondered how many Immortals were alive at any one time, but had never felt it was right to ask Joe what the Watchers' estimates were. From looking at that screen, he had a terrible feeling that these numbers couldn't be right. Only 536 Immortals in Europe? North and South America were even less at 427 and 394. The 2,097 for Asia looked small for the largest continent, Africa had just 682 and 276 in the Middle East. The Pacific islands were lumped in with Australia making a mere 91. He looked at the total in the corner of Immortals currently tracked: 4,503.
Obviously, that was the number of Immortals the Watchers were currently aware of. There was no corresponding list of missing, unwatched Immortals. Likewise, there were certainly some Immortals too new for them to know about or others who managed to dodge being found for years at a time, like Methos. Even taking that in account, he had a feeling that wouldn't add much to the total he was seeing. The Watchers grew more efficient with technology as it became harder for Immortals to hide.
Only 4,503 Immortals? In the entire planet of seven billion people?
As usual, Joe seemed to know where MacLeod's thoughts were running. “Mac, more Immortals have lost their heads in the last three decades than we've identified in the last five centuries.” Joe commented quietly beside him. “There is a lot of speculation for the increase in Challenges. Immortals like you who once went years between fights, suddenly were taking several heads a year. Some say that since it's never been easier to travel the world than this century, well of course more Immortals would encounter each other and therefore play the Game. However, Immortals who used to avoid fighting if they could... they just aren't walking away anymore.”
MacLeod nodded. “People are wondering if the Gathering is at hand.”
“But what does this have to do with the zombies?”
“You guys are protecting us from this infection and you don't even know it. But we can see it, because there are so few Immortals left. Hell, maybe its happening because there aren't enough Immortals left.”
“What do you mean?'”
“Let me show you,” Joe said and nodded to a Watcher at a nearby who began tapping at her desk. The screen changed to a satellite closeup of Europe. Most of the continent was tinted red to mark the spread of the illness with clear dots scattered across it. They varied in size and some overlapped. The largest circle was enormous compared to the others. It covered most of France and part of Belgium.
“You aren't the only Immortal in Paris right now, but we took this screen grab yesterday when you were home. If we zoom in on the exact center of the biggest clear area a bit more...” Joe said doing precisely that on the screen. Streets grew visible and then the islands in the Seine began to fill the image, Notre Dame was recognizable on the left and a little dot sat blinking in the middle of the screen over a dark oval shape docked at the quay. MacLeod's barge.
“How?” was all MacLeod could gasp out as he saw that his home was the center of the giant circle.
Joe shrugged and said, “The zombies form outlines out of themselves that kind of give it away and at the center of every ring is an Immortal. The other clue was the hospitals.”
“People are overwhelming them.”
Joe nodded, “Lots of people are going in to be checked whether they have symptoms or not. No one in the safe zone hospitals have become zombies. Neither have any of the new arrivals from outside. Doctors inside the circles can't discover what treatments work when they don't have patients to study.”
“What happens to people who leave the circles too long?”
“Eaten by zombies or infected by them and become zombies.”
“Governments are going to investigate why these circles exist.”
“They already are, but they're missing a piece of the puzzle. Nothing about this matches the way contagion usually spreads.”
“Why are the circles different sizes?”
“I don't understand how the guys who compiled the data did this, but suffice it to say, when their program brought up these shapes we really had only one explanation for it. Powerful Quickenings.”
“Seriously?” asked MacLeod in a hushed voice.
“Yeah. You know we keep track of how many heads an Immortal takes and of what 'quality,' so to speak, the Immortals they killed were. When that was added to the mix, using Immortals we have the most information on...”
“Like me,” MacLeod interrupted wryly.
“Like you,” Joe acknowledged. “Suddenly the different sized circles made sense.”
“You're saying that those who play the Game, who have killed the most, may have caused this virus to activate?” MacLeod asked in horror and disgust.
“Probably, but you guys are protecting us too. Age is also a factor and not just because older Immortals could potentially take a lot of heads by virtue of time alone. There are several Immortals who haven't left holy ground in centuries and we know some of them didn't participate in the Game. Yet, their circles are still wider than those of young Immortals who have taken several heads. And yes, before you ask, the newest Immortals who've never killed have the smallest circles. Your friend Claudia Jardine is a good example, her influence barely covers a mile.”
MacLeod gave Joe a long look before hesitantly asking his next question, “And which is the largest?”
Joe didn't flinch when he answered, “Yours, MacLeod.”
MacLeod gaped at him. “There are others in Paris right now, isn't this influence cumulative then?” he asked.
“No, it's not. Look at Milan, the circles there don't fully cover the town,” explained Joe. He tapped the screen to zoom in on three circles overlapping each other across the Italian city. “We know of four Immortals there, but the circles are distinct and if it was cumulative, the pair living together would create a wider circle when they are both at home. At one point, three of them were in the same coffee shop, yet the circle was only the size of the strongest Immortal. We're sure about this, MacLeod.”
“Shouldn't Immortals spread out to cover more area then?” MacLeod asked, but he was still in disbelief.
“Not really, Mac. Most circles are rather small. If you were able to take a plane out of Paris right now, tens of millions of people would be attacked by zombies. That's in spite of the other Immortals who are spread out across France. They can't protect us like you do. Not even close.”
MacLeod gestured to the screen asking, “Can you show me the entire world again, with all the circles this time?”
At Joe's nod, a Watcher behind them obliged, zooming the screen out until all the continents were visible in a weirdly flattened version of the planet. The spread of the pandemic was terrifying. Most of the clear spots were no more than dots lost in a sea of tainted red. It was a bit like looking at a picture of the Earth at night from space and seeing all the cities lit up – if it was the year 1920 that is.
Some of the clear spots weren't over big cities at all. He estimated there were probably fifty or sixty significant sized circles scattered across the map. None were as wide as the one the Watchers believed he was casting over most of France. Zombies hadn't spread over the entire planet yet, he surmised.
“What about these areas?” he asked gesturing to several of the larger clear parts.
“Lack of information. Most are remote places, too sparsely populated to get word out or nations that don't share their business with anyone. Though we've managed to get some data out of a few of those anyway if they happen to have an Immortal we're watching there.”
The feeling that they were missing something nagged at MacLeod. Eying the map further, he saw that indeed the biggest clear areas of land formed irregular shapes that matched remote mountain ranges, forests or sprawling deserts they were over. Antarctica, the Arctic, some of Siberia, Australia's outback, the Andes, portions of the Rocky Mountains, central Africa and the Sahara were the most clear, but some were peppered lightly with red spots wherever someone had sent word of zombies. His gaze crossed back and forth, trying to take it all in before settling on the Himalayas. There were no red areas at all.
“Joe, aren't there Immortals in Nepal?”
“Yeah, a few.”
MacLeod pointed to the map. “How many in Kathmandu?”
Joe glanced back at one of his colleagues, the other Watcher shook her head. “None in the capital at present,” Joe replied and pointed to the map. “They're all in a remote temple to the west and the nearest Immortal circles we can see part of are over in Patna and Lhasa.” He pointed to cities inside India and Tibet.
“Those are hundreds of kilometers apart,” MacLeod commented looking at the map's scale. “But there are no reports of illness or zombies between them?”
“It's the Himalayas,” Joe answered as though that was explanation enough.
“How many people are in Nepal?” he paused as someone behind him started bringing up more information on the map's display. “Twenty or thirty million?” MacLeod read it aloud as it appeared on the screen. “And no zombies? Patna has over a million people, but there isn't a defined circle on it. The first red starts well south of the city.”
MacLeod shook his head, not knowing how to explain what he was suspecting and not familiar enough with this interactive technology. He looked around and found several felt-tipped pens on a table. Walking back with the pen, he began to draw onto the screen following along the edges of what red was marked. His line made a distinct curve inside the border of India. He paused and glanced at Joe to see if the Watcher was understanding. Joe was staring wide eyed.
On the screen, MacLeod ran out of red dots to connect. The Watchers' map was free of red in the north, but they were assuming it was only because no news got out. Not that there were no zombies.
“I know Tibet has a small population for it's size, but still... look at that clear area,” MacLeod said.
Putting the pen to the screen again, MacLeod continued his curve around making as steady a circle as he was able with nothing left to trace. Checking to keep Kathmandu in the center as his guide, he drew up and across Tibet, then back down through the eastern edge of Nepal to join the other side of the curve he'd started on India.
Stepping back to look at the screen as a whole he glanced across to his spot in Europe and said, “Asia has the largest circle on the map.”
Joe was silent. MacLeod turned to see that more Watchers had joined the others in the room while he was distracted and all of them were staring entranced at the screen. Joe however looked personally affronted.
“Don't feel bad,” he tried to say sincerely to Joe, but it came out rather cynical. “You were just missing a piece of the puzzle.”
“Shit! Why didn't you tell me he's in Nepal again?” Joe sputtered at him.
“I thought you knew, Joe. Don't you have a Watcher on him?”
“You know what he's like. I haven't heard from him in months. Mac, how did you know where he was?”
“He called me when the zombies started. I don't think he trusted the news reports on the internet for accuracy.”
Joe started at that statement and held out his hand toward MacLeod. “Give me your phone,” he demanded.
“Your phone, MacLeod!”
MacLeod gaped at his Watcher. “Joe!” he said, offended.
Heedless of their audience of Watchers, Joe advanced on MacLeod, his cane thumping the hard floor and he looked so furious that MacLeod gave in, withdrawing his cell phone from his pocket. Joe snatched it out of his hand and began scrolling through the recently received list for calls made in the days since zombies let loose on the world.
“He might not have that phone number anymore or even be where there is a signal,” MacLeod said as he looked over Joe's shoulder at the phone. “That one,” he said pointing to the number he recognized. “Just don't tell him I let you have it.”
“I'm sure he'll assume I took your phone by force,” Joe answered sarcastically. He tapped the speaker option, so that MacLeod would be able to listen when it was answered.
And so would everyone else in the room. MacLeod was becoming increasingly anxious about giving too much of a show to the surrounding Watchers. “We shouldn't do this here,” he said quietly as he could.
“What's this 'we?'” Joe shot back acidly. “I thought you didn't want him to know you let me use your phone.”
Before MacLeod could respond, Methos' voice came over the phone saying, “Good morning, MacLeod.”
Joe was clearly too far gone for polite greetings. “Why the hell didn't you call me?”
“Always nice to hear your mellifluous voice, Joe,” Methos responded smoothly to the unexpected reply.
“The world is in a crisis in case you haven't noticed, Methos.”
MacLeod didn't like that Joe just shouted the oldest living Immortal's name to an entire room full of Watchers. “Joe!” he hissed. He was torn between not wanting to make matters worse and wanting to somehow warn Methos about their audience.
“I heard a rumor or two,” was Methos' typically glib response. “Haven't seen a single zombie for myself yet.”
“Of course you haven't. You're keeping them at bay just by existing while everyone outside dies.”
“You know more than I do then.”
Joe's shoulders slumped. “Come on, man,” he said pleadingly. “Tell me this has happened before, right?”
“Yes, obviously, it has happened before,” Methos replied. “Legends of rotting corpses climbing out of graves to feed on the living can't be entirely inspired by Immortals digging themselves out. Most of us are not cannibals. I'm surprised no Watcher has mentioned zombies in the Chronicles actually.”
“Our guys are usually near an Immortal which is the one place zombies aren't,” Joe shot back.
“How did people stop zombies in the past?” MacLeod asked.
Methos was direct as ever as he said bluntly, “They didn't.”
“There has to be something they did!”
“How should I know? Perhaps the zombies perished over time or starved when they wiped out all their accessible food. Or maybe in the chaos more people became Immortals and reduced the zombies' habitat,” Methos exclaimed in exasperation. “Joe, I don't know,” he repeated. “As you say, Immortals can't go near them.”
“Has anyone tried forcing a zombie across the barrier holding them back?” MacLeod suddenly asked.
“Probably not,” said Joe. “They stay out and we like it that way.”
“Mac's on to something,” Methos replied. “What would happen to a zombie if someone locked them in the back of a van and drove them across the border? Would the zombie truly die within an Immortal's range of influence? Would the truck be unable to pass through and be halted at the edge? Would the zombie stop being a zombie?”
“Some soldiers bitten by zombies yesterday escaped being eaten,” MacLeod said. “Those treated outside the border became zombies, the others sent to hospitals inside the safe area... they haven't yet. Perhaps they won't?”
“If an Immortal's influence stops the infection before it can take hold, might it cure a zombie?”
“Only one way to find out,” said Joe. “But Mac, you gotta stay put. You too, Methos. In fact, all Immortals need to hold still while we deal with this.”
“How you going to arrange that? Order every Watcher to break their oath?”
“No, we won't have to if we act fast. If this works, we'll show news stations that dragging zombies into the safe zones cures them. Zombies are slow and they don't hide. This infection will be eradicated by the end of the week.”
“Problem solved, just like that?” asked MacLeod.
“Yeah, thanks, MacLeod,” Joe said in relief. “You might have just saved the world.”
“I haven't done anything, but you're welcome, I guess. I've never been thanked for existing before.”
Methos' voice on the phone chimed in saying, “I'm usually criticized for existing. Enjoy it while it lasts, Mac.”