So it was that we returned from the depot to the compound, racing a dark mountain of clouds that was itself racing in from the sea. Did we like Custer’s plan? Of course not. Maybe we weren’t thrilled that Ragnar had died, but none relished the thought of hunting the big Indian, and we definitely didn’t want to do so during a storm when there were perfectly good bunks and even wool blankets to crawl under. Indeed, all these arguments against going out softened many of us to Chief even as we wanted to hate him for putting us at risk. So what if he could have killed any number of us? didn’t we all sort of deserve it? I mean, each of us knew what Chief knew, that this whole endeavor was madness, but it hadn’t stopped the rest of us from following, even drilling deeper and deeper into it as we went. Custer had shouted amor fati! but the rest of us morbid curiosity! Bound by contract? Ha! So what if there’s a scrap of paper held in some office somewhere with your signature on it that says your life is pledged to a certain captain for a span of three months; even in the age of the zombie we’re all still free enough to break contract or die trying. No, there was such a thing as complicity. It was called guilt by association, be that association friendship or employment or citizenship.
The rain had started to come down as we rounded up our trucks and gear.
Our base commander came out in the rain, wearing a clear poncho that cast water off him in twisting rivulets.
“Captain,” he said curtly, “there is no sense in going out in this weather or shuffling personnel. I strongly recommend you wait until this passes.”
“Ha! do you mean the storm or my madness?”
“Yes, well—when it breaks, we will send a small strike squad in a helicopt—”
“We’re not waiting. That is, unless you’re planning to stop us.”
The commander studied Custer for a long moment.
“We have a profitable operation here, Captain. The Shareholders are pleased. Why, just an hour ago, I spoke with—”
“Don’t tell me the thoughts of people Custer will never meet.”
“We both have our orders and I’m duty bound to—”
“Order: yes, that’s exactly the right word! but a higher order, the very order ordering this plane!”
“Are you sure that I can’t dissuade you?” the commander asked.
Custer didn’t answer but only kept walking. The commander, not accustomed to such insolence, hustled a couple steps out in front of him, and held up his palm as if to halt him. Custer swatted the hand aside.
The commander’s eyes darted toward Custer’s own mercenaries off to one side.
Custer whipped out his pistol, pressed it against the commander’s forehead.
“Do you think I’m blind?”
The mercenaries were now separating, trying to get into better position—and they were no longer in the captain’s camp.
Custer barked: “Stop! take another step, I empty his skull!”
Custer settled his gaze again on the commander.
The rain was plastering the captain’s hair in a long forelock down the middle of his face and there was a fire in his eyes.
“Tell them to stand down.”
“Say it like you mean it.”
We all heard it, that his tone hadn’t changed, and in that instant the situation was evident: people were about to die. The only questions remaining were who? and in what quantity? but, even before we could decide, a shot rang out from somewhere near the barracks, clanged against the tempered glass of a nearby Humvee.
Suddenly blood was welling up through the captain’s sleeve and it was immediately obvious to all present: if he hadn’t turned an inch just before the shot, the bullet probably would have struck his heart rather than sing through his bicep.
The commander took action: his arms shot up in an X beneath Custer’ gun arm, trying to force the weapon into the air, away from his face.
But it was too late. Custer had already fired.
So the commander stood there for a moment, his arms still in that defensive X, as if this were the key to warding-off death. He teetered there, not quite dead, the last of his neural sequences winding down, as new shots opened up all around, and then he fell face-first in the mud.
Custer’s mercenaries were racing for cover. One leapt behind a cement barrier and was quickly pinned down by bullets pocking its colorful graffiti; the other made it about three steps before several divots of flesh and cloth burst from his thighs. He fell to the ground and quickly dragged himself toward the truck as if trying to crawl underneath for cover—that is, until Huckleberry stepped out and placed a foot in the middle of the man’s back. The man turned his head upward to look, his sunglasses, his helmet covered in mud.
“I’m your Huckleberry.”
Our man blew a gaping hole in the side of the other’s face.
As the body convulsed and started twisting into the fetal position, gunshots came from around the side of other trucks further to the east. Huckleberry’s mouth gaped, and he looked down as an amoeba of dark blood spread outward from his groin, quickly spread down his thighs. He waddled over behind the truck, slumped back against the tire, and wailed.
The rest of us had already taken cover behind another truck.
“What is wrong with you?” Starbucks screamed at Custer, a vein near to bursting on his forehead.
The truck sang out as bullets struck the fenders and bumper.
“I was just going to take him prisoner,” Custer said.
“Even so, you endangered—”
“What was it my girls used to text?” Custer said and waved for some men to follow him around the truck. “Oh yes: STFU.”
Starbucks’ expression went slack.
“It means Shut The Fuck Up, Starbucks.”
“No, I mean—I didn’t know, sir. Daughters?”
“Three,” the captain said amidst the din.
“But you never said anything….”
“You never asked,” Custer said, then ran out into the open, firing.
Over the next ten minutes, we managed to get three men killed, including the repairman, Leatherman, who went racing across the yard to get his rifle; out there, in that gravelly no man’s land, he took a bullet in his throat and would have drowned, gurgling rain and his own blood, if Chucho hadn’t leaned out with his rifle and shot him through the eye.
We were pinned down by rifle fire, by men who were much better trained for combat than any of us, and the best we could do was keep them honest, mainly just firing a few rounds around the truck so they couldn’t keep moving up into better positions; still, they were managing to do precisely that, and it was plain to see they would soon work their way around and we’d be caught in a crossfire we wouldn’t be able to escape. Huckleberry was still wailing and one of the drivers, a Korean-American man named K, had his shirt off, trying to stanch the blood, doing what anyone would have been doing, telling Huckleberry it was okay.
“Shouldn’t be bringing babies into a world like this anyway,” K said.
Chucho leaned out for another look but just as he started to withdraw, turning his head to say something, a bullet thudded against the back of the truck not two inches from his face so that a tiny fragment of a bullet or piece of metal from the truck spiked off and lodged in the soft flesh just below his eyesocket. He reeled backward. He wiped the blood away so it streaked his face. But the second he wiped more blood beaded again and streamed out and so he did it again but the blood continued to stream out and soon he just let it run freely down his face and spread exponentially in the rain.
“They got some guys on the roof,” he said.
“Where’s Custer at?” K shouted.
In retrospect, the question’s timing couldn’t have been better.
We would all later agree that Custer must have had such an escape contingency all along, quietly hedging against such a fight, because just as K asked where the captain was, there was a tremendous explosion over by the command center that rocked the truck we were behind, throwing two men to the ground.
Out of this concussion came another, smaller explosion, which quickly dissolved into the deep roar of a flame consuming the screams of dying men.
Custer and the others came sprinting back, firing up at the barracks rooftop. The chaos had bought them enough time so that, now, Jason had manned a turret, and he started strafing their remaining positions with the machine gun.
“Go, go, go!” Custer called out, waving us toward the trucks, which were already firing up.
The nearest transport, the one we’d been hiding behind, was useless, its tires chewed all to shit, suspension sagging on one side. The rain was coming down harder now, forming instant lakes and channels as we ran for the next truck, endless drops plunking puddles in sync with bullets. Christopher Martin, the biggest target among us, was out in front, but suddenly twisted to one side, clambered to his knees and kept running in a crouch, a sunflower of red blossoming at his ribs.
He helped us pile into the truck, laying down some cover fire, and even before we were all loaded the trucks were rolling toward the gate, splashing through the sudden lakes, Christopher Martin grabbing hold of the tailgate and hoisting himself up with one arm, the other sleeve soaked through with in his own blood. The machine guns fired ceaselessly as we rolled out of the gate and back out to the same road by which we’d arrived.
One of the Humvees pulled in behind us and continued firing back at the compound as a few mercenaries maneuvered to take shots behind cover.
Those of us at the back of the truck, sodden, bloodied, gasping for breath, could already see the command center burning, a great curl of black smoke looping back on itself—and the helicopter, keeled over to one side, its rotor mangled by one or both of the blasts.
Once we were out of the compound, we drove for some time, creeping along the flooding roads, tending to the wounded. The worst wounded was Huckleberry, but he was in another truck. The bullet appeared to have passed through Christopher Martin’s right arm and into his torso, shattering a couple of his soft ribs; though there was no way of knowing for sure where it had stopped, what it had damaged, he said he couldn’t feel anything too wrong going on inside, so Jason soaked the puckered wounds with gauze and iodine and went to work trying to dig the bullet out with surgical pliers from the big medical kit.
The big man lay there on his side, shirt off, the gaping red wound contrasting with that large expanse of his hairy white bulk. Someone kept wiping with gauze but the seepage seemed to have no end so that the second the gauze moved it filled up again and spilled down his side, pooling on the bed planks below. The hole seemed to suck the pliers into itself and when we hit a bump with a big splash, Christopher Martin winced, looked up at Jason.
“Dude, you’re sweating worse than me,” he said.
“I feel a clicking. But, Chris, if I do this—”
“Can you get it?”
“I’m going to have to open the forceps a little wider. But I think so.”
“Good thing I’m a badass, huh?”
“It is a good thing you are arrogant and—”
Without further warning, Jason opened the forceps and pressed down, and Christopher Martin’s eyes opened wide. He tried to smile, to assure the rest of us he could take it, but then his eyelashes fluttered, and he passed out. A second later, Jason smiled grimly and slowly extracted a mushroomed piece of lead from the wound: just before it popped out, it bulged upward against the edges of the wound, almost as a baby’s head about to crown, then tearing its mother, and bringing behind it a quick rush of blood.
We flushed the big man’s wound with iodine until it seemed almost absurd, and then one of the mechanics moved in with a hooked needle and thread.
In all this, it was hard to tell how much time had passed, or which roads we’d taken. The wind outside continued to howl, slapping the tarpaulins covering the sides of the truck; rain was seeping in around the corners and mixing with the blood, the mixture sloshing around in the dents and at our feet so that we were all soaking and shivering and our teeth clacking with the final spasms of our adrenaline and all of us exhaling little ghosts into the cool air.
Sometime later, we came to a stop. The wind was whipping trees and leaves and old bags flew across a washed-out road. But then we started up again and the convoy turned around, and headed back to another road, took another turn, and several other turns, no seeming pattern to all this turning, as if this were a ship, and we’d hoisted the sails during a squall, offering ourselves like so many sacrifices to a typhoon. As a bleaker and bleaker dusk descended, we climbed hills, dropped again into broken, flooded troughs rushing with whitewater, and rose again, turned past nameless buildings and condos reclaimed by nature, the flooding growing so severe that we finally did come to a stop, backing the trucks in a line up against a set of buildings. Dozens of zombies lurched out from nearby alleys, splashing through knee-deep puddles, lashing out at the rain as it struck their sodden heads.
We spilled out of the back of the truck near what was once a high school, the tattered remains of an American flag still sagging like a deflated lung from the flagpole.
This wasn’t ideal, but we made the best of it, opened fire, and raced our pursuers to the boarded-up doors long ago swallowed up by fungi and lichen and moss, a great gothic remnant of the commonweal, its broad stoop spackled with old flecks and splats of offal sprouting colonies of tiny black mushrooms.
We could have smashed the barricade in a moment, but thought better of it. Custer whistled and pointed about fifty yards down along the westernmost wall past a row of wind-swept cherry trees toward another entrance and the men made their way around the building’s edge toward a platform someone must have set up years ago, a stairwell that had been knocked away and lay in a pile of rubble at the foot, replaced by a ladder secured to the wall beside the platform and the double doors.
A cluster of zombies came around the corner of what appeared to be a gymnasium and so we fired into them so that they lurched back and then kept coming and we fired again as we helped Christopher Martin up the ladder to the secure doorway.
He raised his shotgun with one hand, pressed it against the door lock and fired, dropping the gun, then kicked the metal double doors inward with a loud clang, turned, reached back down with his good arm, helped Huckleberry up the ladder.
Chucho and I fired into the growing crowd, so many children left to molder away in that soupy, biohazardous muck. We couldn’t keep firing without attracting every zombie in the area, so we switched to pikes, stabbing downward into the faces, prying ajar eyehole after eyehole. How dumb to take such revenge on dumb beasts? and yet we did, taking great pleasure in the fibrous give of each brain, the plying of another new orifice. We spied among them one of the sort so entirely unmarred, so seemingly lucid, that I had to assume it was not a zombie at all, but only a person so caught up in the zeitgeist as not to notice a problem—this one no fewer than three men stabbed in the face with an almost orgasmic zeal. The bodies began to pile up in the miasmic pool below and soon enough we’d cleared out most of those that had originally seen us.
More would surely come but it was best to withdraw inside and wait them out, the same way we’d have to wait out the storm. Soaked to the bone and steaming, we barricaded the blasted door with tables from a nearby classroom and retreated into the mildewed halls.