Seek & Destroy
It was a cloudy afternoon, gray, shadowless. We trundled along a dirt road above the wide river valley, snaking our way around any number of bends between a steep drop-off on our left and the forest rising up the hill to our right. I sat beside Chucho, who was calmly cleaning and oiling his rifle. Everyone else was on edge, but here Chucho sat, tenderly, ritually pushing a conical brush through the barrel, followed by a series of three small cotton patches soaked in solvent, then final patch with lightweight oil. After pushing this through the bore, he leaned down and gave the oiled cotton a little sniff. This was something he always did when cleaning his rifle, smelling the oil the way a writer might have smelled a pencil after sharpening it, or a painter a brush, or a farmer a handful of freshly turned soil, scents so often containing memories, resurrecting younger version of ourselves for a moment and folding the ethereal vapors of whatever was into the present.
When everything was back in its proper place in Chucho’s pack, I asked what he knew about this white zombie. He didn’t answer right away, but placed his coat between his head and the metal cage like a pillow, then closed his eyes so that the tattooing on his eyelids turned them black as sockets. This still made me uncomfortable. Whenever he blinked, which I noticed he did much less frequently than most people, I was sucked into a fleeting illusion in which my new friend had died and I was looking down on his corpse in a grave, just a blink, an instantaneous flash bearing a subliminal message—DEATH—that vanished as quickly as he unblinked. I thought maybe he was going to ignore the question until he whispered, “Just what I heard.”
A quiet man who went by the name Ragnar looked our way, an eyebrow upturned. Ragnar, as his chosen name perhaps suggests, was a Scandinavian of some sort who wore his hair shaved on the sides and the top long and braided like a nouveau Viking. His arms were heavily tattooed, sleeved with brightly rendered, interweaved scenes of the Ragnarök—that is, the Norse apocalypse. Here, the great wolf Fenrir ravaged Odin. An enormous snake coiled around Thor, whose hammer was raised to strike. A giant, Sutr, wielded a glowing sword. The ship Naglfar, with Loki at its helm, broke through sea ice, bearing a horde of the dead. He was watching us, periodically flexing his forearms and blinking unusually hard, things I had seen him do quite a bit, either nervous twitches or, as I suspect, an old case of Tourette’s Syndrome he had almost suppressed by pure force of will, wrangling what may have been embarrassing gestures down into their least conspicuous expressions—indeed, if I was right about this, he had managed to use them to make himself seem all the more menacing, like he was always just barely restraining himself from going wide-eyed and strangling someone to death. Quite likely, Ragnar had been a biker, or belonged to some white-power prison gang, or both. His expression suggested he was less interested in the particulars of our conversation than in the fact that the two of us were speaking a language the man supposedly didn’t hablo. As a general rule, people were suspicious of Chucho, projected their own worst faults onto whatever barbarian in their midst, their own secret histories of treachery and deceit. This was part of the human condition, nothing to be taken lightly. I would need to be more careful.
“El zombo esta blanco?” I asked loudly enough that it carried over the clatter of the truck.
“Si, muy,” he replied, then whispered: “So I met this dude who went in an early convoy over by Redmond. Said they got into a thick horde over by Microsoft. Geeks out the ass. Programmers. Mostly slow fuckers, all atrophied and shit. They said it was a bonanza. So they’re almost to capacity. But then this thing comes outta the trees, this Z like no one’s ever seen before. Almost naked albino motherfucker. His hair was almost white, eyebrows, pubes too. Goofy as fuck. Like Gringo Supreme. King of the fuckin Whiteboys.
“They’re full. Can’t load any more today. About to roll out. So they all think it’s fucking funny, you know. Taking bets. Taking shots. Like: who’ll drop him? who’ll drop Moby-Dork over there—?”
“About that name,” I cut in, conspiratorial tones within conspiratorial tones. “Isn’t it a little uncanny that we’ve got ourselves a captain obsessed with a white—”
“Duh,” he said, patting me on the shoulder. “You just now thinking that?”
“No. It’s been eating away at—”
“Anyway, don’t interrupt. What I was saying was they didn’t know who would take down the Dork and they’re trying only they can’t. And it ain’t like they’re bad shots either. Some of these guys are sick shots, too. But they can’t take him down. One of their security dudes, savage motherfucker, finally goes, ‘Watch this.’ You know: famous last words. Goes over. Pow. Pow. Chop. Chop. Takes a few out. Like no problem. Then goes to hatchet this dorky white motherfucker. No problem, right? Wrong. This dude, Mr. Loco Badass, ends up dead. No, turned.
“Other people said they seen him, too. Always the same shit. Slow motherfucker. Mostly naked. Built like a bitch. Weak as shit. Stands out, so people are always gunning for him. Like he’s an obvious target, you know? But what’s up? He’s still out there.”
“And Custer?” I whispered.
“Up by Bothell or Lynwood or something. Blasted white-bread with a 12-gauge, but it kept coming. Second round misfired. I heard Custer went hand-to-hand. Got bit. Broke his leg. Split it longways. Custer got away, but almost didn’t. Had to hack the leg off his own self. Stopped the spread, but shit like that’s gonna fuck with you—I’m talking psychological consequences.”
“Yeah, you think?”
Chucho looked around at the others and raised his voice again.
“Si, pendejo,” he said, then rattled off some other stuff I didn’t quite catch.
“Was the pendejo necessary?” I whispered.
“No. That’s what you call a gratuity.”
Men in the truck were growing restless as we drew nearer to our first roundup. Their anxiety took on the most interesting forms.
The cook, a red-faced, skeleton-thin man everyone called Lard Ass, was touching the ends of his fingers together as lightly as he could and watching so closely that it seemed like he expected lighting to shoot between them—a magical power for fighting the dead?
Lard Ass’s assistant, a black teenager we called Pippin, was riding with his eyes closed and singing an indecipherable song under his breath.
Beside him, a man whose skin was yellowed with jaundice or hepatitis was making fart noises over and over with his mouth, long ones, short ones, deep ones, hollow ones, dry ones, wet ones, in ever-rotating patterns of twos and threes, as if he were methodically searching for the right combination that would undo everything that had happened in the past few years.
Another guy, a cowboyish younger fellow whose name I can’t recall, was carving small chits into his forearm with a hunting knife, gouging a little deeper each time we hit a bump. Apparently the preacher at Progress hadn’t been the only cutter in the bunch, but everyone had to deal with their anxiety somehow, and this was, if not the best way, at least a way.
When we finally heard the rigs out in front braking, when we felt our own rig slowing to a halt, a few men peeked out the back of the truck, checking out our surroundings, the trees, the particular bend in the road, and we all began to take stock of the people around us, as if these might be the last people we would ever see, and sat that way, disappointed, until Starbucks jumped out of the cab and came trotting alongside, pounding the heel of his hand against the truck as though it were a giant drum announcing the coming of angels.
We unloaded and stood waiting, watching.
Chucho, Chief, and Christopher Martin accompanied Starbucks, Neo, and Buttplug, and they all joined the captain, who had already hauled himself up on top of the front rig and was gazing out through binoculars at the dam below.
One fork of the road switched back and dropped down the side of a hill toward the dry riverbed at the foot of a curved cement dam some forty feet high, behind which there must have, at one time, been a small reservoir. The dam had given way, the cement cracked and broken through near the center as if an earthquake had shaken it apart or, more likely, someone had breached it with explosives to let the water flow freely downstream. Zombies were slowly pushing through this gap, two, three at a time, heads upturned, and already several were making their way toward us, though the hill was proving too much of an obstacle. I also saw that, on the far end of the dam, where the cement met the abutting hill, there was another break, likely shaken loose in the blast, so that zombies were clambering over a pile of rubble.
Where we stood, we couldn’t see the other side of the dam, but word was already trickling back that there was a large horde on the opposite side of the dam, that the few we could see below were little more than the vanguard. Indeed, the logic of the extraction was already apparent: the tidier break in the dam would act as a check valve, bottlenecking the flood of zombies on the far side, so all we really had to do was build a secure chute, place containers on this side of the gap, and let our antagonists fill them as they came through trying to reach us; as long as the bulk of the horde remained on the far side, trying to get through the gap, as long as we stayed on this side, enticing them with the bait of our delicious selves, we could fill our shipping containers almost as safely as filling a cup from a tap. The scouts said it was a rich score, one we could tap with minimal danger until every last one of them had been boxed and shipped off to DeComp—producing however many valuable watts of energy and wiping out an entire horde in the process. But first the other break had to be secured.
Hence the controversy:
“But Captain,” Starbucks was saying, “there’s no need to go in there. We can just blow it from this side—”
“Do you not see the lay of the land?” Custer said dismissively. “Blow it from this side and you might block it. But there’s a good chance you’d only open it wider. On the other side, however. See that granite face there, the fault running on the diagonal? It’ll calve along that and—”
“We could plan a blast on this side, make sure of it, sir. There’s really no need to rush. We’ve got—”
“You seem to be mistaking quick decisions for haste. I simply see what you don’t, lieutenant, and faster. We’ll descend over—”
“Okay, so assume we do blow it on that side. Surely there’s no need to send trucks. We could just send a small explosives team, three, four men, down to—”
“Thank you for your concern, Starbucks. Proceed as ordered.”
“Sir, I really must—”
As if this whole interaction had been staged, just at that moment, as Starbucks poised himself to challenge Custer again, a commotion erupted behind the convoy’s final transport rig: a desert tan Humvee was making its way around the trucks on the edge nearest the river decline.
Several in our crew had already leveled their weapons and were preparing for a fight, but Custer ordered them to stand down.
“I said stand down!” he shouted again. “Or I’ll have each of you for Breach of Contract!”
When the armored vehicle came to a stop, five strange men soon emerged.
As the rifles were lowered, these peculiar men strode confidently toward Custer and soon assumed what appeared to be casual defensive positions around him. There was no mistaking what was happening here: the captain had contracted his own security specialists, either as an afterthought or he had simply postponed their arrival so as to avoid explaining himself to Pennywise or Bollywood or anyone else who might otherwise have had a say in such matters.
The new men all wore black pants and boots, with black t-shirts under Kevlar vests, and each carried a short-barrel AR-15 with a flash suppressor, as well as a sidearm in a thigh holster; more notable yet, they were all wearing sunglasses, and two of them were chewing gum so hard you’d think they were trying to intimidate us by flexing their jaw muscles; more than anything, they evoked a private security contracting company—was it Blackwater, Xe, Academi?—at any rate an outfit that was forever changing its name to obfuscate, to massage away all the attendant legal issues and image problems that had been a notable feature of the mercenary profession throughout history. Yes, these were soldiers for hire, more than likely combat veterans for whom the apocalypse was but an extension of war, ex-special ops agents too far gone to ever settle again into civilian life, who had already seen and done too much to worry over a few more dead bodies. Out in the ruins, I had heard stories about such crews covering the asses of whoever had the most to offer, but I had never seen proof until now. They had never gotten enough overseas because they couldn’t get enough. Whatever war had severed inside them, it had also cauterized. The Collapse offered them just enough purpose to keep them going, horde after horde of purpose.
Their leader didn’t distinguish himself with insignias, just by the few flecks of gray in his beard and the way the others deferred to him. In fact, he hardly talked, and when he did, he only muttered into a microphone on the side of his head that fed his otherwise silent orders directly into the ears of his men.
Custer turned to this man. “Ready, Number One?”
Number One nodded.
“Starbucks,” Custer said. “Was our conversation over or did you have more to say?”
“I told you my concerns, sir. But it seems like you’ve made up your mind.”
“Your perceptional abilities continue to improve.”
“You know I’ll do whatever I can to make it work, sir.”
“I know, lieutenant. I just needed to hear you say it.”
Custer outlined his plan to everyone present. When he was finished explaining, he wasted no time, simply loaded into the tan humvee with the new men—that is, his new men—and set off. Those of us who had been assigned to the three lieutenants’ crews pressed into three shuttle vehicles and quickly accelerated to catch up, four vehicles made for battle trundling toward the reservoir, and whatever horrors lay below.
I was with Starbucks, Chucho, our resident Viking, Ragnar, and the young man who had been cutting himself in the transport. We were to provide cover fire and distraction and, if necessary, a means of extraction. Neo’s team was going to place the explosives. Buttplug and his men were going to provide ground support for Neo.
“Gentlemen,” Custer said over the radio. “Proceed as planned. And I shouldn’t have to say this, but keep your eyes peeled for the white zombie. Rendezvous here when this is done. Over.”
The dry reservoir was several hundred acres but we could see the riverbed ahead and all along the sides of the old lake various debris lines indicating levels one year versus another. About halfway along the reservoir’s lip, the road widened and came to an end. The vehicle in front slowed and turned onto a rough path that cut across the strata and led us around three sharp switchbacks down toward the lakebed. On the last of these turns, I looked out over the lakebed and saw a horde as big as any I’d seen, most of them pressing the base of the dam, but many another lingering on the periphery or wandering far and wide in the lakebed like so many people of old, just arriving for a concert, or heading back to the beer garden for seconds or, judging by the way they tottered, thirds or fourths.
How they all came to be in this place, in a lake in the middle of rural nowhere, I can only speculate—there was a road that passed through the canyon a couple miles up and, beyond that, a town, so maybe they had followed a group of survivors to this place, or maybe the community had come here before turning, seeking water or refuge, and fallen prey to one of their own—but all I can say for sure is that there were 2,000 or more and that, as we made our way down to them, they slowly began to turn their attention away from the break in the dam and toward us. A ripple of recognition was passing through them, one to the next, in an awful demoniac wave.
Ahead, I saw Number One withdraw from the machinegun turret, and Custer appear with binoculars to scan the crowd for his Dork.
The ground was not exactly dry, but neither was it so swampy as you might expect, at least not once we had splashed through the remaining creek and accelerated up along the flats. The water must have gone out in the earliest days of The Collapse to have dried this much, and yet, every time we slowed even a little bit, or our tires slipped in mud or spun a little too much in a stretch of muck, I felt the stomach fall out of me; the thought of getting stuck here, of being trapped with a horde that size lurching toward us, made me want to demand that we turn around and head back up the hill before it was too late, but there was no going back now, because our course had been set, this our allotted role, the whole thing senseless as so many other things in life, meaningless in the grand scheme of things, with Chucho in the turret firing the machine gun for no other purpose than to draw attention toward our meaningless looping, our truck driving round and round in the lakebed, tempting death itself.
I had absolutely no control over my own fate here, a mere passenger in someone else’s story, and so I had to surrender myself to the good judgment of our driver and lieutenant, Starbucks, whom I’d only moments before taken for the most cautious man in the convoy, but who was starting to worry me a little himself. Every time I looked up, he was smiling privately behind the wheel, like there was nowhere else he’d have rather been in the world. How about a bathtub full of clear steaming water? or a hammock far up in a tree on a nice warm evening? Or better yet back in the womb? No, only here. Driving in circles was Starbucks’ calling of the moment, but neither the danger nor the inanity of things seemed to bother him now that it was actually underway. This was a man who, above all, required a calling, any calling, however elliptical or inconsequential it might turn out to be.
“That’s right,” Custer was saying over the radio between check-ins with the others.
“Easy does it. That’s right. Maintain your distance, Starbucks. Don’t bunch up. That’s right. Circle. Circle. Yes. Do you see him? Does anyone see a streak of white? Over.”
Starbucks keyed the set: “Negative on the white walker. Over.”
Chucho let off a few more rounds that reverberated down in the cab of the vehicle. As we continued to circle, every so often a body or face would flash by the window:
Jawless woman in red smock and gold nametag.
Teenager in green baseball uniform face flayed to the cheekbone.
Man in khakis and polo.
Other man in khakis and polo.
Grandpa in head-to-toe denim.
Dirthead dragging a loop of intestines.
And then we were no longer circling but heading in a straight line across the plane and I looked back and saw the length of the dam and along the top of it men from our convoy lined up and waving their hands and shouting and firing their weapons to draw the ghouls’ attention; as half-hitched as this plan had seemed, it seemed to be working now; of all the bodies that had been pressing up against the dam, a relatively small portion of them had actually staggered out to meet us and they were easy enough to avoid so long as we kept moving. Now that we’d made a little more distance, we began to circle again.
Starbucks was holding a handheld radio, apparently for off-channel communication. Here, it made a sound.
“Starbucks,” he said. “Over.”
“So what’s up with the fucking hired muscle?” Buttplug’s voice crackled. “Over.”
“The more the merrier, Buttplug,” Neo said. “Ain’t that right, Mr. Starbucks?”
“Could you please not call me Buttplug,” said Buttplug. “You know I hate—”
The handheld set made another noise and Starbucks switched it over to another channel for off-off-channel communication.
“But seriously,” Neo said, “what is up with the hired muscle? Those roid-ragers freak me the fuck out. Over.”
“Oh well. The more the merrier, Neo,” Starbucks said. “Over.”
The primary radio crackled alive.
Captain Custer asked for a status update re: the detonation.
“Fine, sir. The men have everything almost in place,” Neo said. “Five minutes or your money back. Over.”
Just then, in all our looping, our truck fishtailed out to the left, fishtailed to the right and slowed, slowed, slowed until it stopped making any headway at all.
The tires spun and spun but all we did was inch a little further back to the left.
Starbucks keyed the set.
"We’re stuck," he said. "Going to try the winch. Over.”
The lieutenant turned to us. “Go, go, go!”
We quickly piled out of the humvee, dropping down into muck smelling heavily of algae and fish-rot. Chucho spun the machine gun toward the main corps of zombies, picking out a few not thirty yards off, and opened fire with several quick bursts that chewed through their bodies and toppled them backwards into the mire. Several started to rise again and so he swept the gun across them again, kicking up divots of flesh, hair, fabric, mowing them down into jerking heaps. Starbucks was standing out in front of the truck, arms akimbo, surveying our situation. Up ahead, a few hundred feet up the bank, there was a large tree that at one point must have been all but down in the water, its roots exposed on the lower side. The trunk extended outward from the bank, tilting some twenty degrees out over the lakebed, but this tree was the only anchor point other than a large boulder further out ahead than the winch was likely to reach.
Our lieutenant loosened the winch and started walking out with the cable. I was closest, so he handed me the hook and told me to work quickly. I took off as fast as I could, each foot sinking into the muck up to my ankle, making a plopping sound each time I pulled it free and broke the suction and here I turned and dragged out another section of cable and saw several dozen zombies steadily approaching from the dam, arms extended in their infantile frustration, as if reaching out somehow drew us nearer. Either the ground hardened nearer the shore or I learned to run across the top of mud, because soon I was flying up the hill toward the tree. The machine gun was thudding away, and my crewmates were opening fire now, the small-arms fire popping in steady bursts behind me. Once I’d looped the cable around the base of the trunk and secured the hook on the other side of the loop, I turned and called down to Starbucks, who fired a round from his pistol into the head of a wide-hipped woman in a tattered, flower-print skirt, perhaps an elementary school teacher—and then he turned to start the winch.
The cable drew taut. The tree creaked and groaned against it but it seemed like nothing was happening. I took aim and fired at a zombie near my friend from the truck, Selfcutter. I missed, but the warning was enough. Selfcutter turned and drove his knife partway into its temple just as the humvee started to inch forward. I thought this would work, saw the truck shudder and roll just enough to give me hope, but then there was a creaking sound behind me.
I don’t know how I did it but dropped to the ground just as the cable snapped and whipped back toward the truck—all at once exploding Selfcutter’s head and bursting through the ribcage and shoulder of a ghoul who had once been a fit older man setting out into the wilds in full hiking regalia.
Another, a young woman in a neon orange road construction vest, ambled forward to grab hold of Starbucks, who was firing off to his right. Ragnar stepped forward, leveled his pistol and, with a single pronounced pop, blew out the opposite side of her skull.
Starbucks glanced to him, nodded.
Ragnar tried to wipe blood from his own eyelid with his thumb, but only managed to smear it across the pale skin of cheek so that now he looked like some ancient Norseman on the warpath, then fired again and again into the crowd. He blinked twice hard, then a third time. He flexed his forearm, blinked again, and cast his eyes about, as if making sure no one noticed his tics.
I ran down the hill toward the cable, thinking I might attach it somehow to something else, but Starbucks only ordered me and Ragnar into the vehicle as the swarm threatened to overwhelm us like a flash flood. As we clambered in, firing as we retreated, Starbucks remained outside, steadfastly holding his position, firing round after round, ordering Chucho to swing the machine gun this way, then that. That’s when Custer’s rig pulled up some hundred feet ahead and came to a stop on a patch of dry ground. One of his gum-chewing mercenaries hopped out and unhooked their winch, ran the cable toward us, handed it to Starbucks, and took the lieutenant’s position, firing his AR-15 into the crowd. Three heads burst in a row like pumpkins lined up on a fence.
Starbucks made a circle with his hand. The cable started to draw taut and, as it did, he realized he needed to retract his own cable, so he started the winch on the front of our vehicle. The mercenary continued to fire. He carefully sidestepped his way around to the back of the vehicle. His shots rang out inside the metal hollow and echoed in my head until they were replaced by a high-pitched ringing.
As the truck started to roll forward, he retreated along beside us, walking backwards, removed his clip, replaced it with a new one from a pouch at his side, and continued walking back and back alongside the truck until we were near enough the hard ground that Starbucks was able to unhook Custer’s cable. The mercenary worked the winch and made sure the cable drew in tightly as Starbucks rushed around to the side of our own truck, and leapt into the passenger’s seat.
“Drive!” he ordered Ragnar, and away we went.
Our two vehicles were racing back across the lakebed, side by side, when the radio crackled.
“Bomb’s away, Neo,” Custer said. “Over.”
“On our way. Over.”
I looked out the back to the far end of the dam and saw the other trucks speeding toward us as a huge cloud of dirt and debris exploded outward, enveloping the two other vehicles for a moment before they shot out of the last of the dust like spaceships barely escaping an exploding planet.
“Yahooooooooo!” Buttplug screamed into the radio.
Then, after what I assume our third lieutenant’s mind figured for an appropriately resonant pause, he added an officious, “Over.”