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The Axlerose's Story

Back at the camp by the river’s confluence, moods were predictably subdued. Seeing our fellow roughnecks lying in that grave—Lard Ass’s head hemorrhaging not so much on as into Pippin’s, so that they already seemed in the process of blending one into the other as soil blends with soil—had taken all the fight out of us and left us with something we didn’t really have a name for anymore. I, for one, hadn’t thought I’d ever feel something so subtle again. Several consecutive years of constant shock had more or less eviscerated my more delicate, artistic sensibilities, making me feel more like a hammer than a man. Though some of it is still coming back, slowly, very slowly, even now traces of those early years bubble up every time I sit down and try to remember a thing, in the impatient way I try to jot down these memories, the way I can’t settle on an image, or capture the nuanced gesture the way I used to, having little patience for anything but laying out the bones of a thing, the skeleton, training only token attention on whatever random, rotten scraps of flesh or sinew or hair still cling, but that day, seeing our two crewmen reclining together in that shack, seeing them together again down in that lonely shallow grave we dug in the woods, all the finer feelings flooded back in, left me a soggy mess for the next several days. 

Telling the others took all the fight out of them as well. Don’t get me wrong: our despondency could have easily vented itself in violence, but that image zapped our energy, so that the only tasks we could really carry out were the ones any zombie could have managed, folding tarps, working levers, moving one random piece of bullshit from one place to some other place, and in this way managed neither to mutiny nor die, to simply load gear and get ready to move out. How? I mean, through what mechanism did we find the resolve to continue on doing this warped man’s bidding? In the end, the old Corporate Logic seemed to take hold of us: focus intently enough on what your hands are doing and you never have to consider the evils of your organization. 

 

Custer, for his part, was moping around like the rest of us, quietly carrying fence panels to the trucks, stacking crates, reloading magazines, and all this was very much out of character, and I suppose this helped us disappear into our own work, believing that the very person we arguably ought to have shot out of a sense of self-preservation at least had a guilt mechanism buried somewhere within his driving megalomania; yes, this sudden capacity for caring made it easier for us not to kill him, to withhold judgment, to see what came of these little flourishes of remorse. 

 

At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I will say that it felt like we’d made a turn ourselves, not toward a zombie state, but toward a previous state of humanity, like we used to be before all this, back when existence was safe enough that a person could have let his emotions grind him to a halt; it seems so strange to say now, but for a time, many decades in fact, many of us in the privileged parts of America had virtually nothing to fear and yet we chose to run from a thing that posed no threat at all: our own sadness, particularly about death. We could have given grief time. We had time to do so. But we didn’t. We kept stoic at funerals out of propriety—to whom exactly? We tried to paint bodies to look alive—to fool whom exactly? We went back to work the next day—to produce what exactly? So this seemed a terrible kind of loop: years of running from death, of fighting death, of keeping death at arm’s reach, just to bring us here, still unable to stop and say to ourselves, “I am sad.” 

It seems somehow fitting that what happened next did so at exactly that moment when we were trying so desperately to dissociate, as past and present bled together in our minds, just as Lard Ass bled into Pippin. 

***

 

First, it was just a strange noise in the distance, but drawing closer, and closer, and closer, a mechanical sound, like a truck coming down a road in the hills, echoing off stone up some high-up gully or holler, but slowly, surely, steadily morphing into a rhythmical whump whump whump. 

Helicopter.

We looked to one another, dropped everything but our guns, and ran for cover in the trees. 

A few moments later, a military helicopter appeared, its rotors bending trees around the clearing, flattening the grass. It didn’t open fire. Nor did it seem to have any mounted guns at all nor any intention of setting down, but only hovered there, 50 feet above us, bobbing a foot this way, rotating a couple feet that way, rotor whumping, blowing our hair in every direction with its unnatural gale. Finally, several ropes dropped, and several men appeared, attaching various clips to the ropes, then started to slide down like every military-recruitment commercial that filled the airwaves before The Collapse. 

Of course, tactically speaking, this would have been the best time to shoot them—suspended there, unable to properly defend themselves—but there was something familiar about them: the arms they carried, the identical Kevlar vests, the way they moved, the wraparound sunglasses…. 

Yes, before we knew it, four new mercenaries, virtually identical to Custer’s, were on the ground, kneeling off to one side of the trucks. 

One of them waved off the helicopter, which lifted, spun on its axis, keeled a bit to one side, and disappeared back over the trees. 

Only then, only when the wind had died down and the silence washed over the glen, did one of the others call out for Custer and start waving some sort of sealed communiqué above his head.

For a moment, a betting man might have assumed the captain’s display of contriteness had been nothing but an act, that he didn’t care at all what had gone down in the woods, that it been nothing but a way to buy the bastard time until these reinforcements arrived, but, thankfully, Custer instantly put such suspicions to bed.

Indeed, he peeked around the rear panel of one of the transport rigs and trained his assault rifle on these new soldiers of fortune. 

“Stop there!” he called out. “Who sent you? how’d you get our location?”

The one with the letter stepped forward. 

Custer clustered three warning divots into the dirt at his feet. 

“I said stop!”

The man carefully tucked the envelope in his Kevlar vest and slowly placed his rifle on the ground, then his sidearm, then his knife. When he was done, he held out the envelope again. 

Custer gestured him forward with his rifle. The man stepped gingerly, trying not to arouse suspicion, but he seemed not at all uncomfortable with the gun pointing in his face. 

“Stop there,” Custer said. “Toss it.”

The man tossed the envelope expertly so that it rotored through the air and landed no more than five feet before the captain. 

“Move over there, against the water truck,” Custer said. “Face it. Hands on the wheel well.”

The man complied. 

Custer kept his gun trained on the others as he knelt to retrieve the envelope. 

He withdrew behind the truck, tore open the envelope with his teeth, and pulled out a sheet of paper, which he read carefully, knitting his brow. 

This, we found later, was a memo bearing the logo of one MS Industries—a methane molecule model featuring Earth as the centerpiece carbon atom—and it read, more or less, as follows: 

 

---------------------------------------------

MEMORANDUM

 

Date:                Sept. 3, ----

To:                   Captains Armand, Custer, Kyle, Moynihan

From:               James F. Dimon, CEO

Subject:           Merger & Mission Consolidation

 

We are excited to announce that MS Industries, a fully owned subsidiary of New World Products, Inc.[1], has completed purchase of the following entities: 

 

- BioGen Northwest (dba BioGen)

- DiscoveryCorp (dba Cannibalcorpse)

- Puget Sound Putrefaction (dba PSP, dba Angel Dust)

- Rose Industries (dba Axlrose)

- Seattle Biofuels Solutions (dba SBS, dba Plymouth)

 

To maximize efficiency, MS Industries has also purchased the security firm ZombX (formerly Securiti).[2]

 

Socrates, the father of western thought, once said, “Disruption creates opportunity[3].” But no one knows that better than highly valued EU[4] extraction captains on the ground, especially those who have been with convoys since the beginning and overseen this truly miraculous recovery—from record-low earnings during The Collapse to record profits this quarter. 

 

So when the going gets tough, remind your men: Disruption Creates Opportunity (DCO).

 

As part of this restructuring, you will notice some disruptions but those disruptions will, as I said, create opportunities. 

 

For instance, Rose Industries faced a recent disruption when its previous owner, Cpt. Rose, expired while engaging a large host of EUs on the south side of Seattle. According to a report from ZombX, mistakes were made[5] and Cpt. Rose was subsequently bitten and turned by “an unusually white EU.” 

 

Obviously, this disruption is tragic. However, as I said before, even such a disruption can lead to opportunity. Remember: DCO. 

 

For now, Majority Shareholders have decided to leave his position vacant. Cpt. Kyle of PSP will be assuming command of the Axlrose convoy and oversee completion of Cpt. Rose’s South Seattle Incursion. Talk about an opportunity—DCO!

 

I am aware this will require a change of outlook for many of you. While outfits have viewed other outfits solely as competitors in the past, it is important that we recognize the strategic opportunity presented by operational consolidation. 

 

Therefore, all hostilities between MS Industries convoys must cease immediately. There are more than enough EUs to go around and we will all benefit from mission consolidation and cooperation. 

 

Finally, please note that, in order to maximize efficiency and improve operational safety, we recently installed GPS satellite beacons on your convoys.  

 

Those convoys currently conducting operations in low-density or “remote” regions shall consult the enclosed map and proceed to designated target zones more proximate to the Seattle metro—an almost limitless resource! 

 

The ZombX contractors who delivered this memo have been sent to help ensure your success during Operation DCO.  

---------------------------------------------

 

The subtext of the memo was plenty clear to anyone who saw it or even heard about it second- or third- or fourth-hand: the new parent company was busy setting itself up as a regional (at least) energy monopoly and, in order for its rich owners to get even richer, they needed certain unnamed captains—i.e., Custer—to get busy extracting zombies where populations were denser—i.e., nearer the city—and quit fucking around way out here in the hills … or else. 

 

Despite the ominous subtext, Custer’s mind honed in on one part and one part only:

 

“Starbucks!” the captain called out upon reading the memo. “What do you make of this ‘unusually white EU’? Do you think it’s him? Surely, it’s him!”

 

Such was the captain’s enthusiasm, so immediately stoked was he by that merest mention of whiteness, that anyone with any prior sense of the perverse art form that is corporate communications knew immediately what was at play here: those diabolical bastards knew exactly how to compel this particular human resource to move from Point A to Point B; they must have known for some time that their once trusty captain had transformed into a bat out of hell; there was even a good chance that they’d already installed a pinhole surveillance camera in his cabin and had been watching his nightly rantings and ravings from the safety of their secure city fortress in Olympia (or wherever the fuck they were) and knew our Captain Custer required more otherworldly incentives, that he could be manipulated through his obsession, even played like a puppet so long as they convinced him, correctly or incorrectly, that his precious white zombie might be found, say, in Renton. 

Starbucks, reading the memo, must have seen this and yet what was Starbucks going to do? call it a corporate power play? risk remaining out here in Nowheresville? circle-jerking in the woods? dying by attrition? No, Starbucks knew the score. Starbucks, perhaps more than anybody in the crew, knew we’d gone astray; whether we followed the actual white zombie or a rumor carefully crafted by expert rumor-crafters, what did it matter, so long as we pushed our mission closer to the city, where the population was, where the zombies were, the volts, our shares? 

“Yep. Looks like the Dork’s gone urban, sir.”

“Then what are we doing way out here?”

Starbucks stood there expressionless for a long moment. 

“Um, you ordered us to—” 

 

“For shit’s sake, Starbucks. You ever heard a joke before?”

 

Before Starbucks could even respond, Custer was calling out for the men to move out. 

 

***

It’s hard to say if the captain’s sudden giddiness infected us or if the strange turn of events had us feeling anxious and wanting to flee or if we were all just looking for better and better ways to avoid being sad—probably all of the above—but soon we were running around again, lashing down the final items, loading into trucks. The day was turning out to be an unusually sunny and hot one, and so totally devoid of a breeze as to make the vapor of our collective sweat hang heavily about the convoy like our own swampy atmosphere. Chucho and I watched Custer mount one of the humvees and situate himself in the turret. We stood for a moment in silence, watching our fellow roughnecks go this way and that, rushing around like ants, pre-consciously doing the bidding of the colony. We hadn’t meant to grow closer to one another. That wasn’t what one did in our culture—arguably ever, and certainly not these days—but after the events with Lard Ass and Pippin, the epitome of the odd couple, this was more evident than ever. We were, as they used to say in nautical times, all in the same boat. 

We had our new mission. The trucks were running. We had a long and likely dangerous drive ahead of us. The two of us climbed into the back of our transport and started to get situated when we heard the first of the shouting. 

 

“Chief!” someone was calling out. 

 

Soon, more voices joined in. 

 

We climbed out of the truck and asked what was going on. 

 

“That big Indian is missing,” a younger man with a Dixie flag tattoo on his tricep told us. 

 

“Has anyone seen Chief?” Neo called out.

 

I told the second lieutenant the last time I had seen him was when we were all running from the helicopter into the woods. Indeed, the last time I had seen him, he was running past me—that is, even further into the woods. I hadn’t really thought about it until now, but I couldn’t be sure he had actually stopped. I didn’t offer this last part, of course. They’d either find him or not. 

 

When Neo moved on down the line, still calling out his chief security officer’s name, Chucho and I glanced at one another. We didn’t say anything, but we were clearly both thinking the same thing: if Chief had taken the opportunity to flee this shitshow, who could blame him?

***

“Chief!” people were still calling all around. 

“Jesus Christ!” Custer finally screamed from his turret. “Let’s go! he’s either dead or AWOL!”

“Shouldn’t we find him either way?” Starbucks asked.

Custer slammed his palms down on the roof of the truck and let out a groan so tortured it was like he was being torn in two, one side being asked to deal with this technical detail while the other was already miles down the trail, setting the universe aright.

“Son of a bitch!” he shouted, then pointed toward two of the new mercenaries, then Neo, then a man standing near Neo. As the captain started climbing down from the truck, he was already giving them instructions: “You four: keep this truck. Find him. If he’s dead, bring me his head. If not, kill him and bring me his head. Here are the coordinates where we’re going. Catch up.”

He scribbled coordinates on a piece of paper and started to hand it to Neo, but, even before he’d finished handing the paper over, he had turned and was storming off toward the nearest humvee, so that the scrap of paper fluttered down to the ground, coming to rest on a small cluster of mushrooms. 

Custer shouted up at Huckleberry in the turret, “Make room, cheesedick!”

Neo retrieved the piece of paper, stuffed it in his vest pocket, and looked to the others, a little at a loss for words. As the rest of us loaded again into the trucks, we watched the search detail mapping out a strategy on the hood of the humvee and checking their ammo. Just as we pulled away, clattering over rocks and ruts, Neo and the others started into the forest after Chief. 

***

“So what’s all this shit about the Axlrose?” someone eventually asked in the back of the truck as we all bounced and buckled and squeaked down the trail.

“He’s dead.”

“Who?”

“The singer.”

“Singer?”

“Yeah. Guns N’ Roses.”

“Guns N’ Roses?”

“You know: Welcome to the Jungle? we got fun and games? Sweet Child O’ Mine? where do we go now?”

“Dude, hold on. Are you fucking trying to tell me Axl Rose was captain of the convoy Axlrose?”

“Why the fuck do you think it was called that?”

“Never thought about it.”

“Cuz you’re a fuckin idiot.”

“Fuck!”

 

“What?”

 

“I don’t know. I just feel all fuckin weird about it—like I guess I must’ve thought—”

 

“What? he’d never die?”

“Kinda. Those people just seem so…. I don’t know.” 

 

“Everyone dies, dude. Even famous motherfuckers.” 

Both men stared down at the floor of the truck as the trail disappeared behind us. If their thoughts were anything like mine, they were thinking that, at best, all fame did was extend a celebrity in people’s minds a little, keep an impression of So-and-so going for a while in their memories, not the real So-and-so, but only an emptied-out approximation of what So-and-so had once been, a chimeric sort of zombie which must also fade away with time, which was a real shitty thought; after all, if famous was the pinnacle, the end-all-be-all of what a person might aspire to become, then what of those of us who weren’t even that? what was to keep our memories alive?[6]

No one else said anything for a long time, but only rode in silence, watching the road and the trees and even a few roadside corpses vanish behind us in a haze of dust. 

 

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[1] New World Industries, Inc., or NWI, also owned DeComp, Inc.—the company that owned the DeComp plants, the very energy plants at the center of this entire adventure.  

[2] In other words, NWI was practicing what economists called “vertical integration.” They were buying up each tier in the production chain from extraction to production to security and, I am sure history could prove, probably the secured buildings or compounds that used the energy and all the products people used in that light.  

[3] He did not.

[4] Energy Units

[5] Okay. Mistakes were made, but by whom? A chance encounter a couple years later gave me some insight. The man, who went by the name Colonel Sanders—obviously a reference to the antediluvian white-hair-and-goatee-and-glasses-and-cravat look he had cultivated that made him look, in every respect, like the corporate mascot of a company called Kentucky Fried Chicken for many years until it was changed to KFC to avoid any overt mention of the chicken being fried—mentioned he had once been a roughneck for the Axlrose Convoy. Col. Sanders said the mistake that was made came about when Cpt. Rose was offered a buyout deal, an offer which was refused. “Was it an accident that he got bit? Probably not,” Sanders said, taking a bite of the porcupine kabob I had offered and chewing greedily. “Not unless he tied his own wrists and ankles and threw himself in that box”—that is, implying the man had been murdered.

[6] For one possibility, see Appendix J: Impressive Kills.