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The Anatomy of a Convoy

Just as every zombie horde is but a collection of individuals controlled by the same dark and unknown source, so too is every convoy but a collection of rigs handpicked by a captain and various behind-the-scenes financiers who prefer their own hands to remain invisible in every transaction. Anyway, here’s how Plymouth broke down:

 

§ Mast rig. Most unique to Plymouth was its mast truck. This was simply a bucket truck, what some old timers called “a cherry picker,” a heavy-duty diesel rig—this, a Freightliner FL80—with stabilizing downriggers and a boom that stretched 80 feet into the air if fully extended, truck and boom reaching almost 100 feet all told. Such trucks had been used for various industrial functions back before The Collapse, for electrical or construction work in hard to reach places, but here, like much else this era of Post-Collapsism, they had been repurposed primarily with zombie extraction in mind.

 

Whether the captain’s or some previous captain or some silent owner’s personal touch, the mast rig lent a strange and somewhat nautical flair to Plymouth, as, when parked, men were made to ascend and assume watches from on high, the way lookouts watched for whales from crows’ nests atop topgallant masts.

It was an isolating post, so that whoever was up there for any duration came to understand how vertigo is so intricately enmeshed with loneliness. Sitting here in my little rural library for so long, I have read any number of books I always intended to read before death, so only now, looking back on those times with hindsight, can I say how right the author Milan Kundera was when, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he wrote that vertigo was less about the fear of falling than about our buried longing to fall [1]; or how many times can one sit alone a hundred feet in the air, tasked with looking in all directions for telltale signs of impending death and not have what another author, Colson Whitehead, called in his zombie-themed novel Zone One “the forbidden thought”?

Sometimes you’d be up on the mast when the wind got to blowing, or the rain was beating down in large, freezing drops, and you’d close your eyes, and for a moment, it seemed like you were all alone in a cold world bleeding down around you and which must surely bring dissolve you with it—O, how you welcomed this! to come apart! to be free at last! free as nothing!

§ Dumptrucks. Far out front was a pair of dumptrucks, both outfitted with huge industrial snowplows for clearing the road. These weren’t drumptrucks in the classical sense of the word, not the oversized Tonka trucks you used to see on construction sites, but six-wheeled, military-issue Oshkosh MTVRs. Well, if I were to get really specific and really obsess over this—which, of course, I will—these were from the MK29 line of MTVRs.

I only know that because the mechanics during our “mission” loved to toss around military jargon; I think something about the lingo made them feel more secure in the apocalypse, as if rattling off a bunch of capital letters and numbers married them to some lost notion of the military apparatus and martial might, not just to a few bulletproof trucks in a line, but to all the tanks and jets and bombers and helicopter gunships and aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines and missiles and bombs and Terminator drones and spies and Navy SEALs and battalions and every trillion-dollar invasion ever launched in the name of a people, so that the simple act of calling a fucking dumptruck an MK29 was akin to keeping the entire War Machine churning in their hearts forever, the War Machine that churned almost nonstop for the entire American experiment almost by inertia—then grinded to a halt almost overnight, leaving a great gaping hole of silence.

I never heard what MTVR actually stood for, never got a chance to nerd-out on the manufacturers’ sales literature, but I suspect the M stood for Military, the T for Transport, and the V for Vehicle. What the R stood for is anybody’s guess, but no matter—I’ll surmise that R stood for Realfuckingexpensive. The Majority Shareholders over at the Oshkosh Corporation must have raked in mountains of Pentagon cash during the decades it sold these things to the Marine Corps. I’d guess they must have run $500K or more [2]; but only the best for the American people who were allegedly reaping the benefits while certainly footing the bill.

At any rate, we had two of these MK29s and, like all the rigs in our convoy, they had been painted a flat black. A small flag flapped in the wind, the way flags flapped for all companies these days, as logos.

The Plymouth flag looked like someone had run an American flag through one of those strange filters people had on their cellphones toward the end there, the filters that took pictures and scrambled their contents, mixing people’s faces with the faces of other people in the photos, making weirdly disturbing monsters of everyone involved (eerily prophetic in their warped zombo qualities); here too the flag had undergone a scrambling so that it still evoked the old flag, but with everything inverted and reversed, like a mirror reflection of that universal nautical distress signal; then over the top of it Plymouth in crisp block letters.

A lot of the men missed, or didn’t even think about, the implication of that flag, and I’d be hard-pressed to let it stand here without mention; it was the marketing world equivalent of America’s fucked, but Plymouth’s got your back.  

§ Medium transports. Since it takes a lot of Human Resources (a.k.a., people) and supplies to gather so many Inhuman Assets (a.k.a., zombies) to keep the digesters going and the methane flowing, a good convoy usually has a lot of transport vehicles. Some convoys were motley, lower-budget affairs run by startup subcontracting units.  Maybe they’d have a dozen rigs, but no two would be alike, and not one of them was a sure bet for making it through a full three-month stint. These reminded you of any number of small subcontracting businesses back in the old days trying to eke out a living by winning a job here and a job there around the fringes of developments, largely zero-profit jobs because their owners underbid them and spent the next month or two barely containing the hemorrhaging. Small businesses, they said, were the backbone of America. Maybe they were. But only because so many smalltimers and moms and pops dumped so much of their money into the big-business supply economy before flaming out not-so-spectacularly—they handed over their savings and poof! There were hordes of these believers and dreamers but all their sweat and tears and even the suicides’ blood ended up funneling down into the dream pit, the same way blood and gut-juice tend to pool in tire tracks and run ever downhill, and down and down, and eventually to the sea….

Sorry. I got a little carried away there. My point was just that most of the convoys were like that—small-time flameouts whose entire crews would be ghosts in a matter of weeks, if not days, all of them in a way dying of hope, all of them beat out in competition not only with zombies but companies like SBS. It wasn’t hard to see how it worked in action. Just look to Plymouth, which had a matching fleet, trucks that were all of that same, insanely expensive military grade.

How did the Majority Shareholders afford them? or if they didn’t buy them, how did they take them? They are both parts of the same question, in the end. The bottom line is they could where others could not. And so they did while others did not.

Which is why, behind Plymouth’s MK29 dumptrucks, you’d see a matching pair of MK28s, then, pulling up the rear of the convoy, after several other vehicles I’ll describe in a moment, you’d see two more MK28s. These were all from the same MTVR line, but rigged as transport vehicles for carrying people and equipment.

Allow me to try to convey the scale. Surely, you’ve seen a truck. Maybe the truck of your mind is taller than you. But the tires on our medium-sized transports were almost as tall as me, and I’m 6’2”. They were something like the Army’s old “deuce and a half” transports, which made an appearance in just about every zombie movie ever made before the actual zombie apocalypse (a reference I understand will only apply to those who survived the apocalypse and not any poor bastards born into this world we left you), but updated the way all vehicles had been updated over the years, a little more streamlined, smoothed around the edges.

These were flat black, too, and had their flags. There were mounts on the cabs where machine guns could be mounted, but most were not manned except during a roundup. Most notable about these mid-size transports was the protective cage covering the transport platform.

Which is to say there were benches lining the backs of these rigs where men sat during transport. But how long could you survive a swarm of zombies if you were always riding around in the back of an open truck, exposed to all those grabbing hands? Not long. So they’d installed large metal-tube frames, like the roll cages you used to see on off-road vehicles. And fitted to these were wire cages of a heavy gauge. If it rained, and it rained a lot, canvas covers could be pulled around, and so we went about in that dark a lot of the time. But on better days they could be removed. Even though you felt a little like a rat in a cage, taking in the countryside through that grid of wire, it allowed the air to flow through and blow away the constant sweaty-socks-and-farts ambiance you got under canvas. And did anyone ever complain about feeling like a rat in a cage when zombies piled up against the sides? as their fingers and tongues poked through the mesh? Never. They couldn’t get in but men could split their tongues lengthwise with knives and they could jam pikes through the holes into their eyesockets or temples, which usually did the trick.

The men took up most of the space in the MK28s, lining in the insides of the beds all along the sides. Besides the men, the MK28s carried a huge array of supplies, everything from weapons to food to water purifiers to tools to tents to the various chutes and traps we used for roundups.

Two of the four pulled trailers with big lockboxes. One of those trailers, the one attached to the third rig in the line, had little tinted port windows on either side. This, I was told, was the captain’s quarters. This, I was told, was where he charted our course, and where he’d remain until we were well into the hunt that would seal so many people’s fate.

Did I mention the truck I was in on the first day of our escape from the outpost featured a set of plastic balls (a.k.a., truck nuts) dangling from the hitch?

 

Well, it did.

§ Fuel truck. In the middle of the convoy was the fuel truck. This was another, larger kind of military vehicle, a so-called HEMTT, with a 2,500-gallon fuel tank. Again, I don’t know what the initials stood for. Hugely Expensive Military Tank Truck? Most certainly. I also heard one of the mechanics call it an M978.

If you want to know what this truck looked like, just imagine a giant generic Transformer toy—Transformobot or Robomorpher—with a giant gas tank on its back. This truck carried our fuel. Our fuel was diesel.

I don’t think much more needs to be said about that other than to remind the reader that this fuel must have been coming from somewhere, either from stored reserves or new drilling, and that any drilling rigs must have been powered by electricity—but whether such things were powered by reserves or by DeComp or some other operation to this day remains a mystery.

§ Recovery truck. Behind the fuel truck was another MK model truck, though I never heard what it’s exact model was called, that had a huge winch on the front for pulling trucks out of ditches and a large boom for lifting and placing heavy shipping containers on the larger transports (see below).

§ Large transports. Anyone who has gotten the mistaken impression so far that we were heading out into the wasteland for fun or for generally altruistic purposes have been misinformed, and I apologize for only teasing around the edges of the truth, for playing coy. I guess I should realize that not everyone knows how lights work. Before the plague, there were plenty who seemed to think flicking a switch meant calling upon a wizard who whirled around three times and shot light out of his ass; in truth, it was always just miles and miles of wire leading back to a plant where oil or coal burned and turned turbines and shot electricity down the wires; here too we had to have some kind of fuel and what fuel we had! millions upon millions of already-decaying, methane-producing bodies! But how to harness all those precious watts and BTUs when this horde was going north and that herd south? install little methane balloons above them to trap the gas as they rotted at their own pace? Ha! You call that an industrious mind? No, my little budding capitalist! No Gilded Age or hedgefund baron are you! No zombo baron! If you were, your mind would have immediately seized on the obvious efficiencies. Go out processing little pockets of rot where they rot? No! Go out and bring all those little pockets of rot back to one convenient location where you can consolidate operations for maximum profit: shove them in silos, let them continue to walk, then crawl, then squirm, then only twitch, and crush and pulverize, and churn and churn, speed the decay with a little heat and some silage to facilitate the anaerobic process, until the bottom most portion is not but a fine slurry and voila! our great digesters convert the bodies of the others into what they always yearned to be: methane! to turn turbines and generate electricity!

Hence, DeComp.

But of course you have to round up said others to get them there. Which, if you’re following, is why we convoyed. Gotta mine yonder hills and yonderer. Remember: this power plant was some distance from the Seattle horde. No one was itching to build it among millions of dead assailants. It would have been impossible. So there it sat at some distance from the prime resource, so you had to go further and further out, nudging ever closer to the Seattle through the suburbs, clearing them off around the edges and working slowly inward into the densest centers. It could be a long haul. And the best way to bring back big loads of bodies, and the best way to stack and store the surpluses at the power plant, was to haul shipping containers, the kind familiar to the cross-oceanic shipping industries. To that end, we rolled with a couple other ever-rotating HEMTTs and 18-wheelers rigged with heavy-duty suspensions. The HEMTTs could carry the 20-foot containers while the semis carried 40-footers. These were ever in rotation, as a convoy never wanted to be rolling with full containers; it was dangerous but, more important to the Majority Shareholders, and therefore to our officers, was the unprofitability of any container burning gas when it was already maxed-out on bodies.

Once loaded, these trucks would race to the plant flanked by security vehicles (see below), log their net weight, unload, and race back to get filled again.

§ Shuttles. We always had at least a couple shuttle vehicles with us, sometimes several more. They were usually military Humvees, some of them the uparmored versions, some not, but all always with a turret and a heavy machine gun, an M-60, a M240, etc. I also saw a few pickups and jeeps with machine-gun mounts but it seemed the long wars in the Middle East had produced a large number of surplus war rigs and Plymouth put these to productive use.

§ Motorcycles. Besides all the other vehicles, there were often dirtbikes screaming around. These were mostly manned by scouts and couriers, and were used during roundups to draw zombies toward the chutes and traps but avoid having to go out on foot to act as bait, which happened plenty anyway. These were black, too, and the SBS logo was painted on the gas tanks.

§ Vehicular hubris. One last word on the rigs: some people would argue until they are blue in the face that there is one perfect vehicle for a post-apocalyptic world, or at least an ideal collection of vehicles, but I’m inclined to believe that those people are full of shit.

Being able to have discussions about abstractions like perfection is precisely the kind of thing that separates humans from our antagonists, but we can’t ever know what surprises the fates have in store for us and shouldn’t operate from intractable positions as if we can. It is only through careful hypothesis and trial and error that we come to answers and they are always, at best, provisional, because we don’t know the future as fact; sometimes I wish I could go back in time and tell my fellow Americans that our hubris was going to destroy the world, and bring them pictures and videos to show them the exact faces of the destroyers, but who would have believed it? It was us.

 

Would you believe a man from the future who showed you a picture of New York flooded with a tidal wave of blood and mangled corpses? or a terrible future incarnation of your very own beloved self trampling children in a stampede fleeing far-off moans, running, that is, from a threat you couldn’t even quite see yet? Of course not. Almost none of us would have. But so it came to pass. And yet somehow, fast-forwarding our minds past all those parts hardest to imagine, we’d not only have assumed we’d be among those to live through it all, but that we somehow held within us the exact right combination of trucks for the job:

 

“Give me 5 green Jeep Wranglers with M-2 Browning .50-caliber machine guns and a blue trash truck with exactly three cup holders! behold my survival knowledge! bow down before my secret treasure trove of known-unknowables!”

 

Hubris. Pure hubris. Remembering that rather salient, albeit unflattering, feature of our dead society makes you want to find all the people such as this, we dudes who thought we had every answer to every conceivable question, and gloat over how incredibly wrong we were.

 

But of course we can’t find us. Because hubris is a dead end, and we’re mostly dead now.

 

 

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[1] “Anyone whose goal is ‘something higher’ must expect someday to suffer vertigo. What is vertigo? Fear of falling? No, Vertigo is something other than fear of falling. It is the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.”

 

[2] I know dollar amounts will mean little to my readers, if such people exist, in the future. But $500,000 was a lot of money. To make that much before The Collapse, most Americans would have had to work 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, for more than 20 years. People in other nations might have had to work 20 lifetimes or more. It’s hard to wrap our minds around today, this concept of expecting to live another 20 years, much less being able to count on steady work, so a better comparison might be to say $500K is roughly the equivalent of having a trustworthy, beloved partner and a good-food-and-water cache you could count on returning to for as long as you happen to live—that is, attainable only in dreams that so often morph into nightmares that wake you.