“The Thought War” — Paul McAuley

Paul McAuley is a winner of the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, the British Fantasy Award, and the Sidewise Award. His most recent novels are Gardens of the Sun and The Quiet War. Earlier work includes the award-winning novel Fairyland, White Devils, Four Hundred Billion Stars, Mind’s Eye, and The Secret of Life, to name a few. His short fiction has appeared in a wide variety of magazines and anthologies, including Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Interzone, Postscripts, and has been reprinted on numerous occasions in best-of-the-year annuals.

In Alan Moore’s legendary graphic novel Watchmen, scientists watch in horror as one of their colleagues is accidentally obliterated by a piece of high-powered lab equipment. But as a result, the victim transcends material existence and obtains godlike powers. Later he reconstitutes his physical body, first as a walking circulatory system, then later adding bone, muscle, and finally flesh. Zombies are typically missing a lot of their skin and we can see right through to their innards. But what if, as with Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan, they are in the process not of decomposing but coalescing? And what if, as the process continues, it becomes harder and harder to tell who’s human and who isn’t?

This sort of paranoia has inspired a lot of great science fiction, from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to the Philip K. Dick-inspired film Blade Runner, in which human-seeming replicants can only be identified by subtle variations in their emotional responses. In John Carpenter’s The Thing (based on a short story by John W. Campbell), a research team at a remote arctic compound realizes that some of them have been replaced by shapeshifting aliens, and the only way to know for sure who’s human is to jam a hot wire into samples of their blood and see if the blood tries to crawl away.

Our next story takes some of these notions and runs with them. But these zombies aren’t just out to eat your brains. They’ve got something bigger in mind. Much bigger.