We hobbled into Renton One, the MS Industries camp at the old municipal airport grounds, that next morning, down three men—one killed, two grievously wounded and quite likely to turn by evening—but having dispatched two boxes to DeComp overnight.
We had seen many a compound by this point but none quite like this and it stoked a predictable debate, one I had already heard a dozen times or more, about what constituted the best living situation in times such as these. Renton One was a wholly utilitarian compound featuring neither the cozy, agrarian trappings of Carnation, nor the frontier charm of Progress, but what it lacked in atmosphere, it more than made up for with military efficiency, down-and-dirtiness. This consisted of only four buildings: a repurposed hangar that had been modified as a kind of all-purpose building, enclosing most of the camp’s amenities like barracks, kitchen, chow hall, latrine; beside it two smaller buildings, both connected to the hangar across the top via catwalk, one a storage unit and the other a command center; then a second hangar outside the main gate, which they used as a kind of barbican entry on the far side of a moat. Within said moat’s circumference was a 15-foot-tall fence covered with heavy-gauge steel panels, welded, backed every 12 feet or so with heavy steel pilings set in cement that also supported a catwalk whereupon old stainless-steel truck toolboxes had been spaced every 20 feet so that they evoked crenellations on castles. There was a landing strip featuring a helicopter, the same one that had brought Custer the memo.
We’d entered through the gate as guards up on the roof started dispatching the dozen or so zombies that had been lurching after us for the past quarter mile. The gate closed. A man in that all-too familiar ZombX uniform entered something in a logbook, pressed a large button on the wall, turning the light on the wall by the door from red to green. Shortly, the door on the far side of the building opened, rolling up like any old garage door from the suburbs, and soon we rolled through, across the moat bridge. In that instant we crossed over, I looked down and saw several zombies thrashing about like crocodiles in the water, but, just as quickly, we were inside the compound, all three gates closed behind us.
We lined the trucks up in the designated parking area, then unloaded to see any number of ZombX employees carrying out the day’s business, carting supplies and munitions, filling a fuel tank from a truck, building a new shed, patrolling the catwalk, running drills. Not all of them were wearing sunglasses but most were and it had a very unsettling effect, as if they were all trying to hide something, as if their eyes weren’t eyes at all.
“Mercenary Central,” Ragnar said, the right half of his face still encrusted with someone else’s blood from last night.
“This where they make robocops?”
“God damn I’m hungry.”
The showers were every bit as efficient as the rest of the operation, so that we each received one blessed minute out back in front of a cold jet of water so pressurized it bruised you. After, our hosting soldiers of fortune powdered us liberally with lice dust, then hustled us through a line where each received a vitamin shot, an antibiotic shot, a cortisone shot, a little plastic grooming kit, toiletry kits in clear nylon cases, and two small, travel-size bottles of hand sanitizer. Besides these, sanitizer dispensers were everywhere. Like every 50 feet. Even attached to bedposts in our bunkhouse. The Majority Shareholders, our keepers seemed to be saying, weren’t paying us to get sick, and this rotten cesspool we used to call America was just a secondary infection waiting to happen.
At 2 p.m. we were filing into the command center and claiming our spots in the folding chairs, all spruced up, wafting that sterile rubbing alcohol scent of germ-negated existence. Up front was a 30-foot long American flag mural replete with depictions of brave Revolutionary heroes and brave cavalrymen on horseback out west and brave men in trenches and brave men storming Iwo Jima and brave men in Da Nang and brave men toppling the Iraqi Revolutionary Guard and brave men fighting the Taliban in the mountains of Afghanistan and brave men fighting a horde of ghouls in Seattle, each depiction bleeding into the next as if it were one long battle, our foes from the redcoats to the dead all of a single unit—always us versus them.
Standing before this mural, framed by its perversely patriotic vision, the ZombX station commander was waiting grimly beside a lame presentation easel to give us a debriefing, arms crossed behind his back, a wooden dowel in hand for pointing. This incredibly handsome, fastidiously erect and immaculately groomed goldenboy posed an interesting counterpoint to Custer, who was now sitting off to one side in a leather office chair, one of the ergonomically correct ones with any number of baffling levers and dials, cleaner from his trip to the private officer’s showers but all the more disheveled, his beard washed but untrimmed, his mustache curling up on only one side, and slumping over on a card table, his peg detached from his stump, which he was kneading sensuously. If he’d been lounging alone in a hot tub in the back yard of a duplex with a tumbler of gin, the effect couldn’t have been more complete and yet, juxtaposed with the cleanly shaved, buttoned-up station commander, I found our captain, in his unorthodoxy, the more likable.
“Welcome to R1,” the commander finally said, his sunglasses scanning the crowd methodically as recommended in manuals with titles like Public Speaking: Connection is Key. “As you know, we are all part of the same team now. That is very exciting. But not as exciting as what happens tomorrow at 0600. ‘What is at 0600?’ you ask. Good question. Allow me to answer.”
He proceeded in that painfully scripted fashion to explain that MS Industries executive board wanted us to push north, meet another convoy approaching from the west, and set up an important extraction point. Zombies were going to be coming at us, obviously, and we’d have to fight them off as we set the barriers and turnstiles leading to the boxes, but once we had these things set, they’d be set, and all we’d have to do was bait them toward it and we’d be looking at an incredible stream of southbound flesh from the city—and an even more incredible, nigh on unending, payday.
“For those of you who are reticent, ask yourself this: what’s your contracted share of the City of Seattle?” he asked.
“As you can see, tomorrow is a very important step. A very important step in the fight to reclaim America. So Captain Custer and I encourage you to hit the racks early. Your lieutenants will distribute assignments during dinner. Yes, dinner. I know that is foremost in your minds. In a few minutes, the chow hall will be serving Fettuccine Alfredo MREs. I assure you, they taste better than they sound.” Here he paused for laughter that didn’t come. “But seriously. You can exit through the west doors over there. Dismissed.”
We looked around to one another, then slowly stood, stiff of knee and hip and back, and made our way out the door in a line toward the chow hall, murmuring as we passed the sanitizer dispensers. Chucho was in front of me and I saw that he only pretended to squirt a dollop of the clear, bubbly sanitizer into his palm, then give his hands a fake rub. I skipped it as well, looked back to the next man in line, Ragnar, and shook my head, who shook his head at the man behind him.
“You think it’s spiked?” I asked my friend as we stepped outside.
Chucho turned to me, a grave look on his face.
“Doubt it,” he said. “But I don’t buy all this cleanliness-is-godliness bullshit either.”
“No blood anywhere,” Ragnar said. “Nothing outta place.”
“I don’t trust anything that’s not a little sloppy.”
“Speaking of sloppy,” said another guy as we backed-up outside the chow hall. “You guys notice the captain back there? rubbing his stump?”
Others joined in the whispering.
“I thought he was gonna give himself a fuckin orgasm.”
“Dude gets weirder every day.”
“They actually got pasta?”
“More like more dangerous every day—to us.”
Chucho was watching the mercenaries up on the walls, who were watching us through their glasses but pretending not to be.
“I think the captain’s got our back here,” Chucho whispered. “At least in here.”
“And it’s better the devil you know.”
 For more about the men’s compound and dwelling preferences, see Appendix L: A Guide to Post-Apocalyptic Real Estate.