-35-

A Truce?

Starbucks continued walking toward them and soon we couldn’t hear very well what was being said, but we could see their gestures clearly enough through our scopes, and the gist of the conversation seemed to be that Custer was a prisoner and if we wanted to take him we were going to have to do so by force. Pennywise put a conciliatory hand on Starbucks’ shoulder, but Starbucks shucked it away, pointed a finger in the man’s face, said something we couldn’t hear, and walked away. Pennywise turned to Bollywood, who shrugged, and the others laughed, and returned to their celebrations. 

 

“They say they’re still going to let the captain kill it,” Starbucks reported.

 

“But?” Jason said.

 

They were now marching Custer across the yard toward one of the administrative buildings.

 

“I don’t like this,” the lieutenant said.

 

“What’s up?” Chucho asked.

 

“They’re going to make a sport of it.”


“As in?”  

“As in: they’re digging a pit.”

“What—?”

“Custer goes in with the Dork,” Starbucks explained. “Like a fucking gladiator. Tomorrow night.”

“Pennywise and Bollywood approve of this?” Jason asked.

“Doesn’t seem like it. But you saw how many there are.”

“Is it really that bad? I mean, at least he gets his chance….” someone said.

Chucho shot back: “Killing’s one thing but this is wrong.”

“What do we do?” someone asked the lieutenant.

“I don’t know,” Starbucks said. “I need time to think.”

“There’s nothing we can—”

“Bullshit! we have to—”

“I said give me a fucking second to think.”

With that, he headed back toward the barracks.

***

We went to the chow hall at the appointed hour, maintained appearances. The mercenaries didn’t trust us, but they knew exactly what position we were in and that we might be tempted to do something, if just to save face, but it seemed they were confident enough to let us make our own bad decisions, to hang ourselves, as people used to say. So we ate. There was a sense that it might be our last meal so we took full advantage, tearing into the allotted MREs. I got Menu 7: Meatloaf. For the first time since arriving at Renton One, I inspected the packaging while eating, examining each of its constituent inner bags before heating and devouring the contents—the meatloaf, the mashed potatoes, the brown onion gravy with its “caramel color added,” the crackers, the peanut butter and apple jelly, the oatmeal cookie, the toffee bar, the butter, the gum—and while I was eating I spent some time looking at the Department of Defense logo with its proud eagle and its American flag crest and the arrows in its talons, all the while thinking how cartoonishly devious it had been for us to dub our war department the Department of Defense and also how ironic, how thoroughly it had failed to defend us from any of the things that ultimately brought the empire to such an unceremonious close; and I thought about the company that manufactured it, the Wornick Company of Cincinnati, Ohio, one of many I’m sure profited greatly from the never-ending acts of defense outside our borders, no doubt owned by some large investment firm with a perfectly innocuous name whose board of directors would have overlapped with the boards of any number of other corporations also profiting from our endless acts of defense in foreign lands; and I even pondered the nutritional facts on the backs of the individual packages, the incredible human endeavor of science that had gone over the past thousand years to arrive at this crinkly plastic package knowing with such certainty that 1410 milligrams constituted 59% of a person’s daily allowance or even just to invent something called “carbohydrate electrolyte beverage powder” and yet it seemed somehow so telling that this nascent ability to engage in protracted intellectual efforts over so many generations overwhelmingly turned toward making ever more scientifically engineered piles of shit when the same amount of effort expended otherwise might have yielded better ways of harnessing the power of the sun or cheaply making potable water from the sea or maybe even brokering a couple contiguous years of peace.

***

They had locked Custer in a room, a kind of makeshift cell, and the men talked about how to get him out, but none had any idea better than an old-fashioned jailbreak, and there was little chance it would work without more men, so the conversation turned to other subjects, and the men were carrying on in a way I hadn’t heard since before the fall of the outpost Progress, that is, with an incongruous hopefulness, in the talk of all the things that must still be out there for the taking if our crew could only get enough resources and a little separation from the bosses and the hordes and maybe a little uninterrupted time to explore and see what was still out there for us all. This young guy we called Johnny Awesome was sitting at the table in his bright yellow Party Time! t-shirt saying, “Must be a million cans of soup still in the city—I’m talking minestrone, ya’ll! In all those apartments? Totally. We go in, block off a block at a time? Shit. I literally guarantee there’s a way. Take some chutes, turnstiles—bing, bam!—set ourselves up nice. You know they had apartments down on 4th for like six-thousand a month!? But they’re probably claimed all up. I literally know that’s where all the women are at. Prolly got a whole Seattle’s-worth of monsters surrounding Goddess Palace, just sitting up there like Mansplain this, motherfuckers!”

Johnny Awesome was not my favorite person, and I really had no idea how he had survived this long, except that nothing seemed to faze him, like he had been out partying all night when everything fell apart and just never came down. He looked at zombies the way people rolling on molly looked at everything: like they existed to make him feel stuff. I once caught him squatting by a body, using his finger to draw a butterfly in the gore. But that didn’t mean he was wrong: maybe the women really had holed up in the city using the zombies as a buffer to keep all of us the fuck away—a crazy thought but no crazier than zombies themselves.

“Just the end part of Manifest Destiny,” the guy we called Tree Beard said, apropos of nothing. “Everything east to west. Sun rises in the east, sets in the west. You get to the end of everything, then what? Backfill, build up. Then? Mrs. Fletcher didn’t teach this part. Our parents and their parents and their parents extended Plymouth all the way across and this is wild to think but we actually rode it. Now we’re the ones who get to decide. I’m cool with emptying it all out till the past is all gone. Explored outward. Now we gut the whole thing? explore inward for a while?”

 

There was a kind of sense in that. I didn’t like the way Tree Beard smelled, but I liked the way he thought, had even been a bit intimidated by it at times, by the intense way he would look into my eyes, as if he saw something of himself in me, a kindred spirit, like he was willing me to offer something weighty or consequential, but I was rarely able to do that, and certainly not when I was being pressured in company, because I had always preferred simplicity and topicality around people I wasn’t comfortable with, jokes, banter, repartee. I reserved my wildly idealistic self, my emotive self, my ponderous self, my vaguely pagan spiritual self—that is, my better self—for private conversations with people I cared for and who cared for me.

 

“Do you think about the others?” I whispered to Chucho.

 

“My sister, yeah. My mom. The others are more like blending together.”

 

“Like Pippin and Lard Ass.”

 

“Bleeding. Yeah.”

 

“They’re the only ones still bothering me,” I said.

 

“Better not to think about that shit.”

 

“Maybe so. But seems like there are things we can do that they can’t and it’s important to hold that ground. Being sad. Laughing. Remembering. Making stories. That kind of stuff.”

 

Jason leaned in and looked me in the eye.

 

“Your friend is right,” he said. “It isn’t cruel to walk away from the dead.”

I knew this was a fine attitude to have. He was right. You could still do all that other human stuff and not carry all the baggage. Those who were lost either had no way of knowing whether we thought of them or else had moved on to a plane where they had probably let go of all mortal concerns, like the fear of being forgotten, of dying alone in obscurity. I got this. I did. I think I had at last reconciled myself with death by then, with the indignity of an unknown, un-recalled, un-remembered death. Yet, so harried had we all been by our unsentimental tormenters, by hordes of undead antagonists, that I still hadn’t managed to reconcile myself with other people’s deaths, the thought of someone, pretty much anyone, lying there, alone, afraid, facing the unknown, but I couldn’t really explain this then, stuck as I had been in the in-between. Besides, I couldn’t say any of this anyway—the conversation was already too dark, and mordant—so I casually tried to deflect, to shift the subject a little off the mark.

“I mean, I just wish more of them were here,” I whispered. “More of our own people wouldn’t hurt our situation.”

 

“Chief and Neo may still be alive anyway,” Jason said suggestively.

Chucho stuffed his last peanut butter and jelly cracker into his mouth, chewed a second, then shrugged.

“Who knows?” he said with a mouth full. “They may be planning more shit.”

 

“I hated texting, but it would be pretty nice right now,” I said. “To send a question mark and see those little dots coming back….”

Something about this excited Jason.  

He turned to Chucho and started to speak, but stopped short as a couple mercenaries walked by us, scowling. When they had passed, Jason looked to Chucho again.

“I know exactly what you’re thinking,” Chucho said.

“It may be worth a shot.”

***

Starbucks was still at the barracks, sitting on a bunk in the dark, his head between his hands. When we entered, he looked up, shrugged. One of the men started to say something but Starbucks cut him off: “I’ve turned it every which way, guys. Unless I want to get you all killed, this is the only way. We have to let this lie.”

“Maybe, maybe not,” Jason said. “Didn’t Neo carry a handheld radio?”

 

“Yeah. But it went dark a while back. Besides, what good—?”

 

“We have nothing to lose, sir.”

 

“Except all your lives.”

 

Huckleberry had been released from the infirmary and was reclining in a bed two spaces down from the lieutenant. He was weakened, his skin gray and mottled, but something in this conversation brought a flush to his cheeks and he labored a little to prop himself up on his elbows. If I’d had a moment to think about what this man might say in such a moment, I almost certainly would have guessed, because of course he, of all people, would toss out some cheesedick line he’d poorly pilfered from a bad movie. Of course.

 

“Shit,” he said. “Everybody’s gotta die. Not everyone really lives.”

Was he trying to quote Braveheart now?

 

Starbucks dug around in his pack and pulled out his handheld radio and turned it on, then switched the channel, presumably to that same mysterious frequency he and Neo had used so Buttplug wouldn’t hear them talking shit. He keyed the set.

 

“Neo. You out there? Over.”

 

He looked around the room, waited.

 

“Neo,” he said again. “This is Starbucks. Heard you were still alive and stirring up the viper’s nest. Over.”

The lieutenant looked around the room, waited, sighed.

 

“I’ll keep trying,” he finally told the men. “But don’t get your hopes up. I think we’re going to have to stomach this and—”

 

The radio squawked on.

 

“10-4, good buddy. Over.”

 

We all laughed.

 

“Neo? Holy shit. I’ve been trying to reach you. Over.”

 

“Dead batteries. But back in action now. Over.”

 

“I’m glad to hear your voice. Over.”

 

“Wish I could say the same. When this fucker beeped, you almost gave us away. Over.”

 

“You surrounded? We might be able to get out tomorrow and help. Over.”

 

“Negatory. It’s all good. Where you guys at? Over.”

 

“ZombX base. Renton. Old municipal airport. Over.”

 

“No shit, dude. I mean which building? Over.”

 

“Um—why? Over.”

“Cuz I want to see that million-dollar Starbucks smile. Over.”

 

Something in Neo’s voice suggested a man who had grown very comfortable with his choices. I imagined this was what he had been like before The Collapse, back when he was building a new tech company, making money hand over fist, back when he felt like there was no end in sight.

 

“So you’re close? Over.”

 

“Got a football? Over.”

 

“Repeat. Over,” Starbucks sighed.

 

“Close enough to play catch if you want. Over.”

 

Two men on my right high-fived. Several others were clapping and laughing. Starbucks only furrowed his brow.

 

“We’ve got a delicate situation here. Whatever you guys are cooking up—it may not be advisable. Over.”

 

“With all due respect, you’ve got no fucking clue. Over.”

 

“Lieutenant. I’d like to remind you that these men are our responsibility. Over.”

 

“Not anymore,” Neo said. “This company just morphed into more of a co-op situation. So this isn’t your call. Now listen up. Dawn. I mean, second the sun breaks over the big warehouse—that endless monstrosity across the river. A practical bit of advice: avoid the west side. Use the distraction to your advantage. Believe me: you’ll know it when you see it. Check you on the flipside. Neo out.”

***

The preparations were minimal. We expected an explosion, because that seemed to be their preferred method, at least judging by what went down at the depot, so we only really had a couple of options: roll with whatever happened or go ahead and report the plot to Pennywise and Bollywood. Only Starbucks acknowledged the latter was a possibility, and even he was against it. So we made sure our bags and weapons were by the bunks and ready to go and, as we took staggered turns heading out to the latrine, each man made note of a few items of interest, among them where they’d parked Plymouth’s vehicles in case we could get some of them out, the locations of the various patrols, and the placement of guards outside the building where they were holding Custer.

Starbucks was adamant: if we could get the old maniac out, we would.  

 

“And what about the Gringo Supreme?” Chucho asked.

 

“What about him?”

 

“The captain won’t come if it stays here.”

 

“Bust the crazy fucker out and shove him toward it,” Huckleberry wheezed from his bunk. “Nuff said.”

 

Starbucks listened to what the others had to say and then he offered another suggestion: “Would anyone object if we just cut its head off and took it to him? Make sure of it? He won’t like it, but it would be done, over. Maybe he’d be relieved.”

 

“Or maybe he’d chop your head off,” Chucho said.

 

We went around and around until we settled on the idea of stealing the white zombie just before dawn, taking it to him alive, telling him to kill it quickly or we would not let him have it, and then, assuming he chose to kill it, giving him a machete; and yet it is often the case that the strongest and most sensible strategies will be thwarted by ever stupider and simpler realities on the ground, which was the case here, because we sent Chucho out to see where exactly they were keeping the damned thing and he returned to report that it was nowhere in the compound.

 

“Seems like they sent the Humvee to the depot,” he said. “Maybe just to keep him from us. I don’t know.”

 

This was somewhat troubling news, as it was getting closer and closer to dawn, and it sparked another, deeper worry.

 

“Then why would they leave the captain?” Starbucks said. “Are we sure he’s still here?”

 

“There are guards by the admin building,” Chucho said.

 

“We need to find out. Now.”

 

Jason and Chucho volunteered, went out into the night. The rest of us waited for some time and when the two of them finally returned the sky was already gray and birds were warbling and a band of deepest pink was bleeding along the skyline; soon the sun would be up, and the clear skies and shifting phantasmagoria of colors promised a glorious day, but the look on our men’s faces suggested otherwise.

 

“Gone,” Jason said.

 

“You’re sure?”

 

“Yes sir.”

 

“We sorta … took a guy,” Chucho said, glancing my way, shrugging.

 

“They snuck them both out, sir. To the depot.”

 

“Safekeeping.”

 

“Shit,” Starbucks said. “This changes things.”

 

“In the short term,” Tree Beard said, blowing into his hands, rubbing them together. “Certainly.”

 

“Fuck it. Makes shit eas—” Huckleberry said and started a coughing fit that ended with his hand spattered with blood.

 

They were right. And the sun was about to break the horizon anyway. All we could do now was shoulder our bags, sling our rifles, and let the earth spin.  

***

Finally, a tiny, yellow-orange crescent broke over the top of the warehouse across the road to the east. But the explosion did not come. We waited. It didn’t come. We anticipated each second a shattering of the morning’s peace. It didn’t come. In my mind’s eye, I could already see a fireball stretching out, debris scattering in every direction, and found myself wondering, If I anticipate this well enough, is it possible that I wouldn’t flinch? It still didn’t come. The men started shuffling about. Starbucks was whispering something to Jason and Jason to Chucho. I was still imagining an explosion along the western fence and here it occurred to me that an explosion may be the epitome of the western mode of inhabitation, how, in an instant, in the span of a single breath, an explosion will burn up all available resources within its reach, stretching out as far as it can and then further yet, as if trying to consume everything there is and ever will be, and burning itself out of existence in the process—a spark, an insatiable ball of flame, then nothing left even of itself, just a wake of destruction governed by internal logic inscrutable to whatever endures. Still, an explosion did not come.

No, what came was entirely other.  

 

It started with the sound of men shouting.

 

Mercenaries were suddenly calling out and a few of them were rushing toward the western fence and in the hazy penumbra of my imagined explosion I saw something taking else form. Out there beyond the fence, spilling down over the verdant hill, pressing between the warehouses, was a horde of troglodytes, hundreds of them.

 

“You gotta … shitting me,” Huckleberry wheezed. He was looking through his binoculars. “Is … the chick from … woods?”

I looked through my binoculars, scanned left and right until I settled on a diminutive female, her hair cropped short. Sure enough. It was Barbra, out in front of the horde, lurching ahead, as though she were among them, and yet it was clear now that they were actually pursuing her, that she was leading them toward the fence. It seemed a terrible kind of suicide mission, a young woman trapping herself between a horde of unthinking automatons and an army of men, but it was most certainly her, and what’s more, she didn’t even look afraid, only wore a look of simple consternation, or maybe resigned acceptance, the same look I remember my mom having when I was younger, the look she’d get when standing over the sink late at night when she must have been tired, washing a stack of dishes because neither the man nor the boys around her could be counted on to actually get the job done.  

“She’s….” Chucho said, trailing off in search of the right word. “Wow.”

Gunshots rang out. The mercenaries had climbed atop various rigs and scaffoldings and were firing into the crowd. Zombies were falling behind Barbra. Divots were popping up in the ground all around her. But as Starbucks ordered us to make our move, I looked out again and saw her bolt to her right. Most of the zombies weren’t even looking her way anymore. The terrific commotion from the camp seemed to be overwhelming whatever primitive senses remained and, though it seemed a longshot, maybe she stood something like a chance.

***

We were racing for the trucks now, trying to maintain cover behind buildings, using the sun at our backs to our advantage, but soon we were taking fire from several points. A mercenary fired around the corner of the chow hall and a bullet sung past Tree Beard so that he froze for a moment and started for cover just as another round pecked through his neck. He clutched at the wound and looked to those of us nearby and then raised his shotgun and fired and cocked it and fired again and then fell in small puddle in a patch of packed gravel. A man we called Steve Buscemi tried to help him up and took a round in the back from another position and Chucho turned and fired a round through the thigh of a mercenary running for cover behind us so that the man tripped and dragged himself a few feet before Johnny Awesome took aim and shot the man through the base of his jaw. More men emerged from around the chow hall now, fanning out and firing. A bullet tore through Huckleberry’s hip and he clutched at it and fired back, screaming, “How … fuckin times … get shot!”    

     

Starbucks, Jason, and Chucho had dropped to prone positions and were firing at the fanning mercenaries so that the men had to scatter and all our other men made it around the far side of the chow hall toward the line of trucks when Johnny Awesome pressed himself against the wall of the building and leaned out to give Starbucks and the others cover and as they raced after us for the cover of the building a dozen or more shots rang out and I saw Starbucks take a dive and scramble again to his feet, blood spreading down from under his armpit. Bullets pinged and thudded against the corner of the chow hall and Johnny Awesome pulled back and turned to look toward us with a confused look on his face and I didn’t even see where he’d been hit because he crumpled in on himself like every nerve in his body had simultaneously ceased to function.

 

Mercenaries were firing at us from between the trucks now as men were trying to load into them and bullets were singing through the canvas cover on the back of a transport and, inside, I could hear men screaming and dying. Others spilled out and were gunned down and I could see through both windows of the cab the driver trying to push open the door and a mercenary emerging in the far window and firing several rounds from a pistol into him so that our man tumbled out the door and fell several feet onto his shoulder on the ground. He scooted along for a moment and then sank to the ground and turned to one side and was still.  

 

I took a bullet in the shoulder and another pierced my calf, thunking into a post on the other side and, for a moment, I lost track of all that was going on around me, looking down at myself as if for answers, not in pain so much as in knowledge of pain to come and sensing down in the deepest part of my core that something was not as it should be, and before I knew it, Chucho was dragging me into a Humvee, and everywhere were the pops of metal on metal and the whistling of rounds and the cracking glass and cries of anguish and here I looked to Chucho firing out the still open door, his lower back covered in blood, his neck covered in blood, and then his door was closed, and we were moving, and someone was in the turret, firing round after round as we lurched forward, and then the man above went slack, one arm falling down beside his legs inside the cab, dead.

Everything seemed suddenly very light, like the entire atmosphere had lifted in an instant and I was floating in space. I have no memory of what happened next. And when I came to, we were stopped, and I was lying in the cab with my shirt off, my shoulder wound bandaged and streaked orange with iodine, and the only other man inside the vehicle with me was a wiry older dude with a greasy bowl haircut some people called Lancelot, who was sweating profusely, swearing even more profusely, and putting stitches in a deep wound on his own thigh.

“Where are we?” I asked.

“Fuckin depot. Fuckin bullshit. With the fuckin captain.”

“What happened? Did—?”

“Got routed is the fuck what. Good job bitching out.”

He finished another stitch and I hauled myself out of the truck and looked around. There were a few Humvees. One plow truck. No transports. A few others over by the boxes. Something was happening, some kind of briefing, but I couldn’t see what. I limped toward the others to find out.

***

Mercenaries and depot crewmen in their neon vests and a disturbing number of our own were lying all over in painfully contorted positions, some having died trying to crawl away, some hunched over against the steel sides of the boxes, others clutching wounds, one curled up in the fetal position, trailing blood behind him like an umbilical cord tethering him to his mother, the truck he had stumbled away from. A kind of council was in progress. Chief, the silent Indian, the man who could not speak as far as anyone had known, was in the middle of an argument with Custer. Beside Chief was Neo, whose face was streaked with white, what took me a moment to realize was white makeup, like a harlequin who had undergone some horrible ordeal and barely escaped. So it must have been him we had seen in the city. He must have been the decoy, the fake white zombie that had nearly sealed our fate. Beside him was Barbra, fearless Barbra, her cropped hair matted to the side of her head with blood but otherwise fierce as ever. Custer was being disagreeable about something and Starbucks was counseling restraint. Jason stood there, too, a bandana tied around one bloody arm, his left eye covered with white gauze and tape. I was glad to see Chucho still standing as well. His clothes were sticky with a troubling amount of blood, but he managed a grim, close-lipped smile as I approached.

“That’s all well and good but you were in breach,” Custer was arguing.

 

“History?” Chief said. “You really wanna talk about history, white man? about who broke what deals? Cuz you ain’t gonna win that discussion. Custer.”

 

“We don’t have time to rehash treaty history here. We have to catch—”

 

“You’re the one talking all this spiritual bullshit, old man! Now you’re saying there’s a clock on it? I said we can work together but there’s gotta be atonement.”

 

“I’m not listening to—”

 

“You will! We’ve all listened to so much of you talking talking talking. You never shut up with all the talking about how everything is like you got some inside scoop the rest of us don’t got on how everything is and now—shut up—you’re gonna listen for a second or we’re gonna have a problem that can’t be resolved with anything but me putting this .44 in your mouth. Man, do you know how awesome it would feel to be me, coming from where I come from, getting to kill a stupid fucking white man named Custer? But I got restraint. Hell, even saved your stupid ass. And not cuz I’m noble or nothing like that. I’m just people, too. Some good. Some bad. Most both. This shit’s more like a gift to me. I just don’t want you to die yet, Custer. I want you to know how much better I am than you, how much better we all are, before you go.”

 

“Fine,” Custer said. “You’re better than me. Now, can we—?”

 

“I don’t want to hear you say it!” Chief yelled. “Words don’t mean shit! I want you to know it! down in your marrow like you said!”

 

There were a number of men standing by Custer but there was a sense that none of them were really on his side now. I still wasn’t sure what exactly had sparked this whole conversation about contracts and history, about treaties and truces, but something in Chief’s words rang exceptionally true. We all knew who the contracts had been meant to aid: the faceless men who were Majority Shareholders. We all knew this. We’d all always known this. And now it was simple: Captain Custer was either with us or against us. But you could see it on Custer’s face, that he struggled to stand with anyone, that his goals were his own and all things that were not aids to that goal were hindrances, speedbumps, corpses in the road.

 

“It’s foolish to think it’s as simple as bucking up and taking the fight to them,” Custer finally said. “There is an order beyond ourselves. You all know this whether you admit it or not. You cannot stop it. So you take the fight to them? You march into their home and attack the very heart, the very soul of their ways? Remember the World Trade Centers? remember them falling? That’s what those maniacs were trying to do and the ripple was wide—worldwide. But did capitalism fall because of it? did the empire?”

 

“Look where we are,” Barbra said matter-of-factly. “Apparently fucking so.”

 

“You defend what they did?”

 

“You’re a fucking idiot if you think that’s what I’m saying—”

 

“Whatever this is,” Custer interrupted, “whatever caused The Collapse, was sewn into the very fabric. You think you can undo the fabric by picking at the edges? No, you just unravel it, and that’s a different thing. None of this is so simple, girl.”

 

“Bull fucking shit!” Barbra shot back. “It’s soooo easy. Most people—most men anyway—are just too fucking lazy and too fucking chickenshit to die trying.”

 

I looked to Chucho. He was gazing at Barbra, open-mouthed. He had been growing more and more steely-eyed the whole time we’d been out with Plymouth, but here I saw it in his eyes again, that same soft but noble koala look I had noticed in the first days of our friendship. This man was smitten. Hopelessly.  

 

Custer started to say something, but stopped short, looked long at the girl, almost sentimentally; I can’t say what he was thinking nor claim to know his mind, but that look reminded me of times when I’d seen older men in bars, late at night, carrying on about the exploits of daughters you knew they had failed—and failed badly.

 

I wasn’t alone in this association. The girl noticed, too.

 

“Don’t look at me like that,” she said. “It’s fucking condescending.”

 

“You’re right,” Custer said. “You’re right. But I’ve never called myself a man of arguments. I make them but only when it serves my guide star and my guide star says there is one thing left to—”

 

“You got a real one-track mind,” Chief interrupted. “But fuck it. We’ll let you have what you want. Hell, we’re even gonna help you get the fuckin thing.”

 

“Why?” Starbucks asked. “Why help him?”

 

“I don’t give a shit about no white zombie. Hell, you’re all a bunch of white zombos to me. But we got other fish to fry.”

The zombies milling about on the far side of the barriers and turnstiles behind them were rattling the fences and moaning, almost in sync, like some Greek chorus. 

 

“What are you all planning?” I called out.

 

Everyone turned and looked at me like I was an idiot, a Johnny Come Lately.

 

“Attacking DeComp,” Custer shouted. “Keep pace, shitheel!”

 

“Fuckin-A,” the girl said.

 

“I still … see what … anarchist motherfuckers,” Huckleberry said and then wheezed, and coughed, “got against … lights.”

 

“It isn’t about lights, you dumb sack of shit,” Barbra said. “It’s the whole fucking way of life.”

 

Chief scoffed: “I like lights, too, like readin under ‘em. But there’s always candles and fire, Dingleberry. Anyway, you need a more practical reason? You know the byproducts of decomposition?”

 

“Nitrogen….” Barbra hinted not so subtly.

 

“Bombs,” Starbucks said.

 

“They’re consolidating power,” Jason said. “Whoever they are. The warlords.”

 

“Bingo!” Chief shouted. “These monsters—they want every-fuckin-thing there is.” Here, he turned and looked directly at Custer. “And that includes a certain white zombie. You already know it. He’s on his way right now. We saw them leave for DeComp. He’s still a hood ornament on that truck. He’s gonna go power some lights for some rich assholes and help them blow shit up. That’s all they want out of us, too: fuckin energy and nitrogen.”

“Unless we stop them,” Barbra said.

“We can’t,” one of our men said.

“Well I’m gonna!” she snapped. “By myself—if you bitches keep talking all fucking day.”

Chief and Neo smiled at one another when she said this, not mocking, but with great admiration. I’d been assuming Neo and Barbra had been following Chief’s lead the way we had been following Custer’s, but that suddenly seemed very naïve. None of them was leading the others. They’d just discovered themselves going in the same basic direction, and Barbra had a good plan, a better plan, the best.

“Nope,” Chief told her. “We’re in this thing together.”

Neo was nodding, grinning like a maniac in his streaked facepaint. He had never seemed like the fanatical type before, just a talented dude who’d ridden a timely wave to what everyone else called success, but now, after all that had happened, all those intense eyes had seen, it seemed he’d finally found his people, his tribe, his cause.

“What?” he asked the rest of us. “Were you planning to be company men forever?”

<< >>