Maybe it was the primitive nature of this tunnel, the particular way the glow of the headlights out front dimly exposed the subterranean contours that by rights no person should have been privy to see, but as we raced through this dark worm-tube of earthworks, a handful of zombies pursuing us in the rear, I couldn’t help but imagine each individual vehicle as its own individual sperm cell rushing up from the gonads of the outpost into the urethra of escape and onward to explode out the other end, the convoy Plymouth like a blast of white hot semen—the seed of humanity spilled on a hostile mother earth. Indeed, the door opened and out we entered a landscape teeming with dehumanized bodies, crashing through the stragglers and malingerers of what must have been an enormous horde so that every second, it seemed, the truck jolted as it ran over a torso, and looking out the back of the truck as the convoy started up a hill we saw the last of the horde turned to face us like so many lovers who couldn’t bear to see us go and, beyond them, at the other end of that long tunnel, we saw the fallen walls and twisting curls of smoke rising up out of the fallen outpost, that bastion of hope in an indifferent wilderness.
Soon we were past the throng and the long line of heavy rigs and trucks and dirtbikes trundled out along a damp dirt road running generally west-northwest, all the while skirting along the edge of a second-growth forest that a detail from the outpost must have recently paired back with bulldozers and stump grinders. All along the road, small trees had been sheered off just above ground level, like a fresh swathing of white corn stalks, a buffer between the road and that dense, dark tangle of fir and hemlock and whatever else loomed within. Most of the larger pieces of wood had already been carted off, presumably for use at the camp, but every couple hundred yards we passed big piles of green boughs heaped up and waiting, and every so often large patches of saturated ground where chips of bone and pieces of flesh had been flung out in big arcs, across the uneven ground, much of it soaking in dark, almost black puddles, all of it so thoroughly shredded and saturated you couldn’t even be sure if these revolting soup chunks were hominid or ruminant, zombie, man, or deer; but of course you knew what this style of carnage was all about, because it was obvious some operator who’d long ago exceeded his limits had been sitting behind the controls of some industrial tree chopper or stump grinder or mulch scatterer at which point he must have run up against a dozen or so ghouls out looking for a picnic (people: the other white meat!)—one flick of the wrist and there all his recurring nightmares went, broadcast like any old fertilizer across the earth’s lawn.
I had settled back onto the bench of the transport rig, beside a dozen other men in equally rough shape. I had been the last to load, so I was sitting between Chucho and the tailgate, alternately watching the countryside fading behind us and glancing forward at the others. Every time I looked forward, one or more of them was looking back our way, trying to make sense of Chucho’s ink.
Chucho was just sitting there, arms crossed, head tilted back against the wire cage, eyes closed, not asleep, but more like pretending to sleep, a true statesman, trying to avoid that almost inevitable situation where someone said something and he had to “correct” them.
But so far things were fine. Besides the looks, no one said anything. Most of the men were busy talking, theorizing about what went wrong back at the outpost.
“How the fuck do you miss an entire horde coming?” one asked.
Another surmised that the scouts must have been surprised before transmitting the news, while another disputed it, saying it must have been an inside job. “A stratagem,” he said by way of explanation.
“That’s stupid,” another man said. “Everything being fucked is the norm.”
“Nope. A rival operation coulda put em up to it.”
“There ain’t no rival operations. DeComp is fucking it. Last chance.”
“You’re naïve, man. Someone’s always trying to get on top. That’s the way shit has always worked.”
“Didja notice shit maybe don’t work like it used to? I mean, dead people walking?”
“Pfft! That’s just new packaging. Nothing’s changed. It’s the same motherfuckers pulling the same fucking strings or at least other motherfuckers exactly like them. Mark my word.”
“Whatever. Mark my nuts.”
We drove and drove that first day, up hills and down hills, round roads pocked and rutted so deeply that at times it seemed like we might capsize and lose ourselves down ravines, and all the while seeing only a handful of zombies gawking at the edge of the woods. Aside from one that charged out and brained herself on a passing truck fender, we never came under attack. But as the sun dipped lower in the sky, as the sky grew a little purple on the horizon, we finally came to a stop on a large gravel pad that was obviously very well utilized by convoys passing through.
Immediately the lieutenants were out of the cabs of their respective rigs, charging around, giving orders.
The one the men called Buttplug behind his back, the one who was shaped almost exactly like a buttplug, the one who acted more or less just as you’d expect a sentient buttplug to act, the one whose actual name (or preferred moniker) I didn’t yet know—that man, our third lieutenant, brought up the rear, as they say.
It was only my second time seeing him in anything that might be called action and already it was obvious, this weird manner of shout-whispering that would have made you laugh if you didn’t know he was shout-whispering at you: “Jump, fuckers! What do you think this is? a day spa? you all waiting around for pedicures? Go, go, go! look at that fucking Mexican there! holy fucking shit! you mean to tell me that skull-faced freak’s the only one of you poop-butt motherfuckers knows how to move? bust a little ass? do you need diagrams? You, you, and you! get the fucking perimeter set! now, now, now! you think the zekes’ll wait for us to stop and scratch our nuts? You and you! yes you! get your thumb out of your nose! run help that fat fucker over there set pikes!”
Many of us were new hands to this organized sort of camp-pitching, but had set plenty of camps since The Collapse and with the same basic goals in mind, so we had a pretty good idea how this worked: set a perimeter, something they can’t just waltz through; if time and materials permit, booby-trap the grounds outside with something to hobble and/or kill; unpack only what you need but keep it all close at hand in case they take down your perimeter and you have to bolt fast.
Plymouth’s tasks were the same, only on a more industrial scale.
If you were a bald eagle flying over the top of all this, looking for some fresh (or totally putrid) carrion to scavenge, you’d have seen men offloading several dozen fence panels, all about six feet high, twelve feet long, with each length divided into three subsections, and welded over with chain link. These sections clipped together as the men erected them and formed a rectangle large enough to enclose a dozen large wall tents and a couple of the more important rigs. Other men were setting up the pikes outside the fence. These were crude tools, straight branches whittled to sharp points.
They set them in molded cups running along the bottom edge of the fence, with one stake being hammered down into the dirt and the next pointing outward, and so on and so on, because their purpose was twofold: (1) to stab zombies and (2) help stake/support the bottom of the fence. Others were scrambling offload all the other supplies necessary to a nightcamp, including food, water, cooking utensils, blankets, crates of ammunition, and still others were securing the vehicles for the night, locking them down, raising the masts, which those on first night’s watch quickly shimmied up with their night vision goggles. Security men, like Chucho, were beginning to walk the perimeter. Pennywise, Bollywood, and the three lieutenants were trotting around, shoving others onto new tasks, checking for weak spots in their work, wobbly spots in the fence.
But pretty soon the hard work was done. The fences were set. The tents were up. Water tanks were dispensing. Food was cooking. You couldn’t have smelled the food, of course. Except in the securest of locations, you never wanted to draw them in; and while they were stupid and sometimes had nothing but exposed sinuses where their noses used to be, they weren’t so stupid or diminished as to miss a big, aromatic pot of mush bubbling over a fire. Which is why so much of what we ate was cold—cured meat surprise (a.k.a., carp strips); suet (a.k.a., block of grain stuck together with tallow); bugs (a.k.a., bugs)—and yet you knew there was always something to make it all worthwhile coming at the end of the serving, a red-and-white swirly peppermint, a gummy candy that over the years had become a hard candy, or even the Holy Grail of stint desserts: a quarter of a Twinkie so stale the cream had gone to chalk.
Most of us were sitting about in the tents or in the spaces out between tents, talking in hushed tones—the only kind of tone that wasn’t punished by kicking you in the stomach or, if you didn’t learn your lesson, revoking your dessert privileges.
The sun was sinking low in the sky so the light all around us was turning gray as cadaver skin. This is when I saw Pennywise and Bollywood walking around, taking stock of things with the three lieutenants. I was surprised to see them. Why were they here? Where was Custer? So I got up from where Chucho and I were thumb wrestling and went over to eavesdrop.
“…and make sure that fucking fucktard doesn’t strip the fucking collar and waste fuel again,” Bollywood was saying to the first lieutenant, Starbucks, “and that these reckless shitdicks remember to service the M240s nightly and….”
Starbucks was a steady sort. He was tall and strong and straight, and you could see the character in his clean-shorn face immediately, the way he stood there and didn’t even crack a grin as Bollywood ranted and raved like some TV chef, the way the lieutenant took careful notes in his little spiral notebook.
Pennywise and Bollywood, for their part, were rushing around, no doubt panicked by the fall of the outpost, making up for what was lost by dutifully checking on their employers’ proximate investment, sure, avoiding that moment when they had to go back and find out how many had survived the fracas at the outpost or if it was even still standing, of course, but also avoiding the separation from the excitement of being on the road, blowing the heads of zombies out in the open the way the gods intended, not locked up in outposts, making sure the cooks got the allotted number of cured meat surprises.
“Dude,” Pennywise kept saying to his friend, “we’ve gotta head out. It’s getting late.”
“…and don’t be so fucking liberal with the water because it’s costing, like, three gallons of diesel per and …”
“Dude! Custer’s got this shit! We’re gonna get fucking waylaid if we don’t jet!”
I gathered from talking to people that it was pretty common for these two to accompany the crew for the first leg and make sure everything was running smoothly, though it was also obvious that they were tending to linger longer and longer of late, and that Custer’s accident was not helping things, though on that account it is hard to say whether this was because they were good people who felt their old colleague’s loss as if their own legs had been ripped off at the knee joint or because, having stinted with Custer, having known him fairly well, they suspected that terrible wound was warping his mind in a way that might actually ding their management-level shares; or maybe it was a little from Column A and a little from Column B, but the result was the same: they couldn’t wait him out anyway, not for a hug, not for a lecture.
Apparently, Custer only came out when Custer wanted to come out. Besides, he was either okay or he wasn’t okay and, either way, it’s not like they were in a position to find a new captain now, certainly not one with a track record like Custer’s—and anyway how do you measure two men against each other, one you don’t know anything about, even whether or not he exists (though you suspect that if he does he might still have both his legs), and the other, who exists in the flesh, whom you know for a fact has returned hundreds of kilowatts of rotting flesh (but who was always pretty temperamental even before the handicapping)? Talk about a dilemma! It was mainly the low angle of the light that probably convinced them to depart.
They hopped into one of the Humvees with some of the security guards. Bollywood, who seemed the more concerned or worried of the two, stood in the door for a moment, looking at all the pieces and parts of his convoy resting quietly on the edge of the night. He waved, slapped the roof twice, and they took off, the two shuttle vehicles high beams winding back down the road toward the outpost.
I looked back to see who he’d waved to.
Behind me was Custer’s trailer. The door closed.
A dark, vaguely human form shifted behind the tinted glass and disappeared.
By the time we had finished eating that night, it was after dark and, even though I would have liked to sit up for a while and gaze at all the new constellations we’d discovered since the lights of the cities blinked out—everything from the Zombie to the Zeke to the Zed to the Z—I decided to think ahead and seek out a good spot just inside one of the tent flaps. Chucho followed and, as we walked, we talked quietly about the day. I told him about seeing Custer’s shadow. He told me he’d found something too.
“No, in the ‘meat surprise.’”
“Don’t tell me,” I said.
“Okay, if you say so.”
“Never mind. You better tell me.”
“You said not to,” Chucho said. “So I better not.”
“No, seriously. What was it?”
“A gopher fetus.”
We found spaces in a tent at the back of the rectangle, the northwest corner of the fence. I thought I might not be able to sleep, what with the excitement of the day, and not knowing what I had gotten myself into, but I must have very quickly, because the first thing I remember after laying my head down on my backpack was opening my eyes to look out across the moonlit quad to see three silhouettes moving about twenty feet beyond the perimeter fence.
There must have been some warning going out around the camp because just then a shot rang out.
One of the figures slumped into a pile.
Two more shots rang out and then two more. Men were already up and running. A row of them moved to line up against the fence, knelt with their rifles pointing out through the holes, resting on the wire.
“Hold,” Starbucks warned calmly behind them. “That’s right. Hold. Don’t fire willy-nilly. Take careful aim. Headshots. Fire!”
By then I was standing in the second row and taking aim over the top of them. I could see more silhouettes materializing out of the darkness. This formation made sense against zombies. If this had been a force of people, they could have surrounded us, caught us in their crossfire, and wiped us out easily; not so zombies, which always moved in dumbly as waves moving up a beach, advancing the tide-water mark an inch at a time.
“Fire!” he called out again, and I fired.
Though, of course, it was important to remember that it could be futile to stand there shooting at them, like shooting a wave and expecting it to stop and roll back into the sea, at least once their numbers hit a certain critical mass, and it was hard to say how many were out there now: there were no individuals out there; the darkness itself seemed to be moving; so maybe it was only twenty or maybe there were five hundred, more and more forms that would emerge and keep emerging as we fired into them and fired and fired, only to be swallowed up in the end.
A generator cycled on, and a few seconds later a wall of spotlights blasted everything within two hundred feet with bright, blue-white light.
Fifty or more of them materialized at once, every detail suddenly rendered in high definition: head half-cleaved and sloughing, lipless clacking maw, tendons twitching from a severed forearm, legless torso dragging spine across gravel, gouged out eyes, glistening ribs, nude grandfather impaled on broken pike, child in Spiderman pajamas….
How did they know we were here? How did they organize and get here so fast? No matter: here they were. And just as there is always a line between human and zombie; just as there is always a line between when things are unknown to us and when they are suddenly known; there was also a line between the moment when it was still possible to escape and the first moment when it no longer was. There was never any magical number of zombies. No app you could use to make solid predictions, no algorithm working in the circuits to identify the perfect moment to run. Survival was always felt more than calculated, and, judging by the overwhelming ratio of zombies to humans left on earth, such feelings had been incorrectly felt time and time again.
“Fire!” was the call. “Fire!”
Many fell and several lay still; several others jolted but kept coming; some fell but struggled back to their feet and kept coming; one white piano teacher, or maybe she was a museum docent, took a bullet in the temple so that her opposite eye bulged almost out of the socket, but she kept coming, lurching forward, so pigeon-toed her knee ligaments had snapped loose, yes, lurching forward, until another bullet sheered away the side of her skull, and she stumbled down to her blown-out knee, collapsing over the crumpled body of a nurse of undetermined race, both of them coming to final rest together; above them, a young black man in a red hoodie stumbled backward when a bullet tore through his shoulder, but still he kept coming, flanked by an old white crossing guard the whole side of whose face suddenly calved off in a brilliant burst of blood and bone, collapsing before a twenty-something Asian yoga fanatic or instructor who tripped over the heap of flesh, but regained her footing, kept coming, trying to run now, but only shambling, stiffly, as if all the flexible joints of life had suddenly calcified into knobs of bone; and besides her, almost arm-in-arm, was a scruffy freckled roughneck in work boots nearly worn through and a red beanie melted into his hair and a boiling mess of bone-white scalp, arms outstretched, capillaries bursting in his eyes in furious red novas; and behind this one, only more, and more, and more; and yet it didn’t seem like more in this light, no mob or horde, but more like a single mass of necrotic flesh inching forward, a terrible gasping, wailing, screaming beast with a hundred lacerated and scorched and crusted faces but only one mind that had lost all control of what seemed a thousand hands grabbing and clawing for whatever warmth of life they felt inside us and so we fired into the flesh, and fired again, and again, and again—as the gun smoke settled over us, a silvery, dreamlike fog.