-34-

Betrayal

The bang deafened. The flash blinded. Soon we were choking on a fog of noxious gas searing our eyes and throats and sinuses, so disoriented that, at first, we didn’t even know whether it was men or beasts clutching us, but already they were wresting our weapons from our hands, wrenching our arms behind out backs, carting us out of the fog into the air filled with the moans and gunfire and excited whoops of men playing at endless war. 

 

“Three o’clock!” someone was shouting.

 

“The nurse, the nurse!”

 

Pop, pop, pop.

“Move up, move up, move up!”

Pop, pop, pop.

“We got a lurker!”

Pop, pop, pop.

 

The mercenaries shuffled us amidst gunshots into another nearby building as our vision started to return as bleary impressions of a world going on around us, of which, it seemed, we were no longer part, a procession of superfluous men, prisoners. They shoved us against a wall, hands zip-tied, useless.  

 

Custer had so been raging through the tear gas that, apparently, they’d knocked him out, and now they carted in his limp body, followed by a squealing and thrashing Huckleberry.

They set the captain down gently, but tossed Huckleberry in the corner like a shovelful of shit. A moment later, the door opened again. The muffled sounds of gunfire erupted in sharper relief, ringing our ears, and in walked two familiar faces, the original captains of Plymouth, Pennywise and Bollywood. Though they wore no sunglasses, they were otherwise dressed in the same gear as the ZombX mercenaries, that new uniform of the new world order in which every citizen was at best a private contractor enforcing someone else’s interests in the wastelands, a freelancer of death and misery. Pennywise kneeled by the captain and pulled a little tube of amyl nitrate from his pocket, broke it under Custer’s nose, passed it back and forth until the captain started as if from a nightmare, grabbed the man by the collar before he realized whose shadow he was in.

“Pennywise? Where—?”

 

“I hate to do this to you, but Plymouth has been reassigned,” Pennywise explained. “Why’d you have to go rogue on us, buddy?”

 

“The white—!”

 

“Yeah, yeah, white zombie,” he said, restraining the captain, who was struggling to get up. “I’ll never understand why you give such a shit about one zombie when there’s millions out there, but to each his own.”

“But where—?”

Bollywood had been standing with arms crossed, watching the pitiful display, and here he cut in: “Still out there, numbnuts, but you should probably focus on dying well.”

Pennywise cast a disapproving glance and then explained: “Bollywood’s right. You’re a dead man. There’s no escaping it at this point. But here’s the thing: I like you. You’ve got the focus of a fucking heat-seeking missile. If I’d had a tenth of—shit, I might have finished that civil engineering degree. Think of all the good it would have done me. Anyway, we can’t stop what’s going to happen. But we have organized something rare as fuck for you: resolution.”  

A new round of gunshots and shouting began outside.

 

“It’s out there. Hogtied and waiting.”

 

The captain started to his feet again.

 

“But,” Pennywise said, pushing him back down, “you’re going to need to sign your contract back over to us.”

“What does it matter?”

“It’s tidier this way.”

“What about the rest of the men?” Starbucks interjected. “They were only doing what—”

 

“Settle down, superstar,” Bollywood said. “Your contracts hold, long as Captain Clusterfuck here signs over his command.”

Starbucks turned to the captain. “Sir?”

 

“Whatever,” the captain said. “Just give me a razorblade and an inkpot and enough time to stumble outside and end this!"

 

The officers laughed at his enthusiasm and Pennywise patted his old friend on the arm. Then he stood and retrieved some papers from a rucksack and produced a pen. The captain grabbed both greedily, tried to scribble his signature on the line, but the pen was out of ink, so he scribbled loops on the margins trying to get the ink to flow, but all this did was tear the paper and so he screamed madly at the pen until Pennywise withdrew another from his bag and handed it over. Custer grabbed it, pressed the ball against the page, and sighed with great relief as he signed away his life.

“Now,” he said.

The other captains inspected the paper and, satisfied, stood.

“Okay, okay,” Pennywise said, looking over the paper. “First, we have to go sort out some of the administrative bullshit. Certain of the other details we aren’t sure of. But the men do have orders to let you kill it.”

“Just take me now. The mercenaries can’t be trusted.”

 

“Trust!” Bollywood spat. “Those dudes take money to do jobs and they do jobs. You? You send your men to hunt them down and—”

 

“Hunt?” Starbucks said. “They encircled us. We didn’t have a—”

 

“Not that, dumbass. Neo.”

 

“Neo?”

 

Pennywise turned to his friend.

 

“They don’t know,” he sighed.

 

“Jesus Christ.”

 

Pennywise explained: “A ZombX operator called for backup about couple weeks ago. One on your payroll. Said your man Neo had turned on him, was working with some others. They had him pinned down up some ravine. Transmissions went dark after that.”

“Chief?” Starbucks said. “A girl?”

 

“Ones that blew the depot?”

 

“We think so.”

 

“Enough,” Custer groaned. “Take me to him!”

 

“What if we just shoot you and spare ourselves the headache?” Bollywood said.

 

“Anyway!” Pennywise said. “You guys are getting reassigned. You’re going with PSP for a bit. Just until we get Plymouth back in order. Then you’ll be under Bollywood.”

 

“Sick of pushing paper,” Bollywood said.

 

Custer began thrashing about almost as if in seizure, but the two officers seemed not to notice or care; now they were busy going man to man, pausing before each and asking our intentions—whether we were going to go with the flow or down with the ship or—and snipping our restraints one at a time with pliers.

 

“…fools!” the captain was jabbering. “Misdiagnose the crisis, you never solve a thing. It’s no more a resource problem than a constitutional one—no, a more spiritual crisis. Pack every other one of them in boxes and still that which lacks remains…. strike the body, the rest of the body remains, the energy that moves it…. ah, but strike at the form….”

None of us knew precisely what the captain was talking about here, just the strange half-poetic gibbering of a man willing himself toward his own demise, toward his own disintegrated formlessness, and though we sympathized with him, and though we wanted to better understand, there was also a clock on our understanding: the zombies were closing in on us and we were surrounded and ostensibly under the protection of a small army of company men who probably would have preferred to shoot us all or pack up and leave us to the others. No, we saw no better way out of this dilemma, at least not in the short term. Custer was dead. If we tried to intervene upon the inevitable, we were dead, too—and none of us owed this man that much.

 

“Sorry, Captain,” Starbucks said on our way out the door into the din of continued war. “I hope you get your peace.”

 

“They won’t keep their word, Starbucks. Don’t be naïve.”

 

“I have to put faith in—”

 

“Free me!” he screamed, bucking his back, fighting the restraints. “Let me end this!”          

 

“Good luck, sir.”

Here, Starbucks started out the door, but stopped and, without turning back to look, asked, “What were your daughters’ names? When I remember you, I’ll think of them, too.”

 

“Call them Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone.” [1]

 

“Are you really that far gone, sir? You can’t even say their names?”

 

“Don’t look so sad, lieutenant. Things don’t have to be named in order to be. Haven’t you ever held a conch shell to your ear? That sound—it’s not The Sea.”
 

***

Outside, a crew of roughnecks was securing Plymouth’s trucks, hoisting one onto a trailer, replacing tires; mercenaries were surrounding them while others had set up a defensive blockade; and yet another group was manning a tandem pair of plow trucks continually speeding forward into the oncoming horde and then reversing, plowing forward and reversing, and these trucks defended by riflemen who shot any zombies that made to impede this progress or clamber onto the trucks’ running boards; and it wasn’t until we were loading into a transport truck, until I looked out and saw, really saw, others so involved in this cold industrial carnage, saw face after zombic face pulverized against the steel of those plows, that I first had an inkling of what misguided Custer had meant by all his rambling-on-and-on about striking at spirits and forms: we had been responding to a surge of undead flesh with metal—lead and steel—and this very response I had myself been so deeply mired in quite suddenly struck me as an absurd incongruence. Don’t count me as a doubter: I knew as well as anybody how well a hatchet worked in a tight spot with a ghoul. And yet that was exactly the problem: our war was not fundamentally one with ghouls. They were but another in a long list of threats not to any individual or collective or even to life itself—indeed, bacteria would go on, as would any number of other organisms and animals—but rather to consciousness, the zombies mere minions of a hostile universe endlessly unaware, incapable of awareness as such, all of the dark matters and dark energies of an unsentimental cosmos surrounding infinitesimal sparks desiring, more than anything, to go on sparking. If there were ever such a thing as spirit, then this was spirit war, and there were not enough bullets to fend off the spirit of all-consuming nothingness. How petty then these plow trucks? cutting swaths through the bodies? how futile the fusillade of bullets? tearing through the foreheads and temples of bosom buddies and enemies? how altogether beside-the-point the efforts to collect their energy? to make lights for being awake in the nighttime? The universe was going to swallow our consciousness in the end—excreted as anti-matter. It was going to gulp each of us down and digest us into more and more void to spew out into the void. Our task was to accept that. Our task had always been to accept that. But we had not. Our endeavors proved it. And the Majority Shareholders had not. Their desire to marshal our energies against chaos proved it. Custer had not but this was all the difference: he too may have fixated on a merely mundane object, but at least he knew he was focusing through it on the true source of our malaise.

Our much-diminished crew rode along with half a dozen mercenaries, mostly in silence, except for the periodic grunts and groans from Huckleberry, or periodic coughs, none of us sure what came next; and, as we passed through a suburban neighborhood, we saw the zombiefucker’s water tower looming above the trees and an apartment building in the distance; and we made our way around the lake, passing any number of flash mobs of teetering corpses and shells of lives once led, until finally we arrived again at the damaged base. It seemed like so long ago, weeks, months. When we had left, it had been a place of destruction, a habitation at the end of its turn, but already they had already scraped away all the rubble with heavy machinery and redoubled their fences so that it seemed that we were looking not at the conclusion but at a beginning. A microcosmic apocalypse. Ending giving birth to beginning. 

 

We lowered ourselves out of the back onto the raked gravel pad.

 

Chucho whispered, “Don’t give up your weapons. No matter what.”

When we were walking toward the barracks, some of the mercenaries couldn’t resist staring at us through their sunglasses, but they seemed to have been ordered to avoid confrontation, to seek no retribution, push forward with the mission. They were watching us, but obeying their commands, and this seemed triter to me now than ever, this notion of orders, directives. If it were coded into all humans the way the hive mind is coded into all bees, if it were coded into all humans the way the horde mind is coded into zombies, then there would be no option but to follow, but it wasn’t and the proof was in the existence of contracts, pledges, oaths; some men had ceded autonomy long before they ever swore oaths, practically in the womb, people like these mercenaries, for instance, who were so openly disdainful of Plymouth, but there were, thankfully, still a number of us for whom all words of fealty would always contain an expiration date. No choice but to follow? Ha! Death was always a choice. Maybe not the best choice, but always a choice.

***

We settled into the barracks and then a few of us carted Huckleberry over to the infirmary. On our way back, we saw several other transports and the two plow trucks arrive, along with any number of Humvees and mercenaries; and yet the thing that struck us most was neither their numbers nor their swaggering bravado, but that the white zombie was lashed to the hood of one of the Humvees, pinioned there with ratchet straps and any number of bungee cords, head lolling back and forth, back and forth, like his former self was still trying to figure out what elemental quality made these sunglass-wearing macho fucks so popular with the ladies.

“Go tell Starbucks,” Chucho told the other men. “Be ready.”

They hustled off as fast as they could without drawing attention to themselves; meanwhile, the two of us strolled over to one of the buildings and watched around the corner to see what was happening. Men were emerging from various buildings, laughing and hooting at their bizarre prize like they were so many lesser Custers in training; and just as I was thinking this, some mercenaries exited the vehicle and, with them, a bound and gagged Custer.

“At least he’s alive,” I whispered.

Chucho didn’t answer; he only pulled his rifle from his shoulder and watched through the scope. His shoulders rose and fell in a slow, steady rhythm. The muscles in his jaw clenched and released, clenched and released, as if he were chewing through his own tongue.

It seemed almost inevitable now: these bodies would disintegrate, and soon, and all that was left was to be at peace with the fact. It seemed okay somehow. The light of the day was fading and all the shadows had a faintly indigo hue and yet here and there all over the camp there were little twinkles of light on steel and chrome and in puddles and somewhere nearby birds were chirping and I was not alone but here with a friend and what was there to fear anyway when every other living thing in the history of living things had faced the same and even if there were minutes or hours or even days of suffering what were minutes or hours or days in an endless span of time?

My thoughts were broken by the sound of bootsteps in gravel.

“You two!” a voice said behind us. “Stand down!”

We whirled to see Starbucks and Jason coming up fast and yet, when they reached us, Starbucks didn’t stop, but strode out into the open, toward the others. Chucho started after him but the lieutenant waved him back.

“I’ll handle this.”

“But we all—”

“No! First hint of trouble, find a way out. Don’t look back.”

The mercenaries all turned toward Starbucks almost as a unit and watched him coming their way.

“What’s going on here?” the lieutenant called out. “This man was supposed to—”

 

Pennywise had pushed his way between some of the others and here he held up a palm.

 

“Easy there, lieutenant,” he said. “There’s been a slight change of plans.”

 

“I agree. I’m taking that man under my protection.”

 

A dozen or more of the mercenaries readied their weapons.

 

“No,” Pennywise said with a sigh. “You’re not.”

 

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[1] In Greek mythology, these were the names of the Erinyes, or Furies.