The Zombie Massacre
I remember a man from a refugee camp a long time before, in the weeks after the last of the military units fell back and disappeared into history, when there was still a sense that the right combination of personal vigilance and public response might save us, when we still thought we might be able to fortify our spaces and wait while the military regrouped and cleared out the hordes. People talked about it like it was a done deal, even after all the plans they had seen fall apart, all the bodies contorted and eviscerated in the streets. But I didn’t believe equilibrium could hold. I felt it deep inside myself and had felt it for a long time—maybe even before all this began—that what we called civilization was unraveling and this feeling only intensified as the shows of strength hit their zenith, as the cluster bombs were pummeling city block after city block into rubble, as hundreds of white phosphorous bombs were bursting in air, hovering above like a great flotilla of jellyfish with their great searing tentacles trailing the streets. But this steely-eyed young man, he must have been some kind of buttoned-up college Libertarian, one of those strident “Social Darwinists” you’d see strutting around campuses like they and they alone knew the real score: he was so supremely confident that people like him would survive, must survive, because how could they not? He referred to zombies as “losers” and prattled on about how the dead weight of society had hit critical mass and now all that was needed to usher in a utopia was one final push and purge by great men—great men such as himself.
“Think how easy it’ll be to get a good-paying job during Reconstruction,” I remember him saying. “It’s all about—”
Here he stopped, looked me in the eye like he was about to administer a pop quiz, then made a cryptic X with his forearms.
I read this guy like a pamphlet I’d read too many times already, and figured his weird arm-X was probably supposed to represent the sweet spot where Supply met Demand: the market fundamentalist’s crucifix. If, as I have, you have ever stumbled upon one of the zombo cults in the woods carrying out a blood rite—biting the head off a snake, or tossing a dead baby in a fire—you know the look precisely, that insane stare that comes with believing all acts are justified by the fanatic’s belief.
I answered his riddle: “What’s that? Supply and Demand?”
He clapped me on the back like we were initiates of a society of secret geniuses.
“Stick with me,” he said, “and mark my word: this’ll be our world again.”
I guess he assumed he couldn’t die, that someone so physically fit, so coldly calculating, so prepped, so altogether white, could ever succumb to attacks by hordes of feebleminded losers. The problem, of course, is that he mistook dying for losing, surviving for winning. His metrics were all fucked up, just like those fanatical reverends of old who would go on TV and claim a massacre in a gay nightclub was God’s justice for our wicked ways, but would never ever consider the possibility that the same might be true when tornados killed hundreds of Baptists in the Heartland or cholesterol made all their hearts clog up and fail. If you die and I like you, your death is bad luck or the will of God bringing his sheep home if not the obvious work of the devil; if you die and I dislike you, however, it’s proof that God is on my side—it was an insane double standard but all too prevalent. For my Libertarian friend, the Social Darwinist, “loser” meant roughly the same thing as “damned.” But everyone died, most of us horribly. Thus, by this logic, were we not all losers? Were we not all damned?
At any rate, I witnessed that young man die. It was nothing spectacular, not compared to so many other things we’ve all seen a hundred times. A group of refugees was all hunkered up in trees, wrapped in blankets, secured in our canopy hammocks. One of the people in a tree twenty or so yards away had a nightmare and started calling out in his sleep, the way so many did. Not long after, a couple zombies came stumbling into view. They saw Nightmare Man in his tree, but didn’t think to look in other trees, just stood there below him gawking upward, waiting. We could have waited them out. Many of us already knew that for a tried and true method. But the Social Darwinist wouldn’t accept it that these losers deigned to come so near. He tried to hurl something at the loser having the nightmare and, in doing so, managed somehow to fall out of his tree right in front of the other two losers. It was just an accident, a slight miscalculation of the tensile strength of a bungee cord, something that just happens, even to smart people, but suddenly he was on the ground, his shoulder separated, his cleaver glinting in the moonlight, just out of reach in a pile of leaves. He tried to scramble to his feet, but had sprained his ankle in the fall, and it slowed him down just enough, added just enough of a complicating factor, that, instead of limping off and getting just a little more separation between him and the zombies before trying for his cleaver, he rushed it, miscalculated how quickly the first ghoul would reach him. It got his ankle, yanked him back, just as the other arrived and tore into his belly like a wolverine into a carcass. The difference between life and death was, at least in that case, about an inch, maybe a tenth of a second. And yet I would not call my dead Libertarian friend a loser any more than the ones who tore him apart. It’s just too easy to mock those who finally get a taste of their own medicine, those who, at any given moment, take their continued existence as proof that nothing will ever happen to break their streak, as if getting however far means they will get however further, as if that weren’t true for every person right up until the point when our luck runs out, as it always must, on whatever day or night happens to be our last.
I’m probably thinking of that arrogant young libertarian because of how triumphantly so many of our men returned to the compound that day, having erected another zombie-extraction point as if it were a win. The requisite fencing was up, the turnstiles and chutes secured, a long line of stacked shipping containers set up to efficiently receive and export every last drop of energy from the bodies of oncoming hordes, but we’d also lost several men, and several mercenaries, and the other convoy had been entirely overrun, so many lives erased in the blink of an eye—and for what?
The celebration felt so hollow, hollow as the boxes sitting in the dark, awaiting flesh. Part of this was Chucho. I don’t know how he managed to survive getting hemmed in the way he did—it was a great feat of strength and agility that all happened so fast I hardly saw what happened through my binoculars, just a mad whirl of color and motion, a green dervish forever lodged in my memory—but he still seemed troubled nonetheless, and, when I asked if he was okay, he only shrugged off the question, and went off to get all the blood and gore hosed off his body with the high-pressure hose behind the hangar.
The way the others were hollering and shouting, bragging about their kills, you’d think we’d eradicated the scourge; so boisterous, so belligerent were the claims of might and skill that you’d think we’d saved the entire world; but the truth, as spied from the crow’s nest, was that we’d set up a kind of bureaucratic throttle point for converting a once-thriving population into a kind of currency for people we would never know, probably never even see, and now we were running around acting like a bunch of football players spraying champagne on a coach in a locker room.
The compound commander, that stiff, unapproachable soldier of fortune, marched over and congratulated Custer on a job well done.
The men cheered and beat the heels of their fists on the tables in the chow hall. But Custer—like Chucho, like Starbucks, like Jason and Ragnar, like several others more subdued—smiled sheepishly, politely, but otherwise spent most of the evening carefully inspecting his fingernails like those little moon slivers of grime were the most pressing issue ever to exist in the history of the world.
Soon, we began to trickle off to bed, knowing that tomorrow only meant more work, though we didn’t know what exactly that work might entail.
We awoke early in the morning to coffee and stale old energy bars and received our orders for the day. Some men were dispatched to prepare the convoy to redeploy, repairing vehicles, reloading ammo, checking gear, because word had come down that the Majority Shareholders wanted us to push further to the north ASAP, to push the operation up into Seattle proper, but, at least for now, a small contingent of us was simpy being sent to the throttle point to process boxes and oversee transport to DeComp.
This was my first time to go along on one of these transport runs and I was excited to see what the plant was like; I had heard stories, of course, but it would be another thing to see it, to hear, to smell, to witness up close and personal. We set off at around 7 a.m., several of my closest crewmates packed into two escort Humvees leading an impressive line of hauling rigs that must have belonged to the other convoy, all now under Custer’s command. Custer was riding up top, manning the turret, talking to no one, saying nothing.
All we inside could see were his legs. As we bounced over a rut or bulge in the road, Custer nearly crumpled on that bone-white peg, which, seeing it up close, I realized must have been fractured during yesterday’s fight. As we made a hard turn to the left, he strained against the movement, a hairline crack opening in a long fracture running nearly from bottom to top.
That fine white leg with its depictions of dead and dying zombies was not long for this world.
Soon enough, we arrived at what the men were calling The Depot. The extraction operation was already in full swing and zombies from the far side of the fence were fighting one another to get through the turnstiles, to reach the men standing on the other sides of the fence taunting them into the chutes and from the chutes into the boxes. There were always six or eight in operation, all in an evenly spaced row, and a crane had moved in overnight to move the boxes. As we exited the truck, the crane was lowering a full box onto a trailer and several men I had not seen before, all of them in bright green safety vests, were soon hustling around to secure the box to the trailer.
Custer furiously limped on his fractured peg straight toward a foreman calling out orders and poked his finger into the man’s chest.
“This wasn’t supposed to start until I arrived!” he cried out.
“I’m just doing what they told—”
“The white one! have you seen the white zombie?”
“The albino? the Dork?”
The man looked like he had no idea what the captain was talking about and Starbucks intervened to spare him, explaining the all-important basics his captain was neglecting.
“No, nothing like that,” the poor man said.
“Unpack the box!” Custer ordered.
This would have been stupid, of course, since unpacking a box was a dangerous waste of time and, anyway, there were holes built into the boxes so we could just look. Starbucks, again, intervened, reasoning with the captain. The box was inspected the safer way, but still there was no sign of the white zombie.
Custer was already peering off the top of the box currently being filled, gazing out into the seemingly endless horde pressing the reinforced fences, gaping up at him with less vengeance than he gaped down at them. He turned to the crew and ordered a halt to all work. When it was as quiet as it was likely to get—the zombie din was insuppressible—he explained his offer of the gold buffalo, that any man spying the white zombie would receive the gold and not only that, he added, “but do justice.”
This last part was a new addition, though not exactly surprising, as he’d been stretching more and more for these kinds of words to justify his madness, as if the right rhetoric or poetry was all that was needed to render such a reckless, obsessive nutjob sensible.
“Do you understand what I am saying to you?”
“White zombie,” the foreman said dryly. “Check.”
Custer leaned back on his splintered leg and glared at the man, tried to burn his soul down to cinders.
“Ah, sarcasm! just like the days before The Collapse! when nothing meant anything but sarcastic little swizzledicks believed neon vests made them somebody! Tell me, Superintendent Swizzledick, how did that work out for you? How did your family make out? where are they now? somewhere nearby? Yes, of course: massacred. Disemboweled. Eviscerated. O, your face is so red! What? Have you suddenly found your reverence? Of course! How convenient! My god your face is as red as any I’ve seen. Please, Swizzledick, take your revenge! here’s my chin! or better yet, my heart! yes, yes, take a shot with that revolver! No? Why not? Reprisals? I’ll tell my men to stand down. Stand down, men. Now? my heart? no? still no? still? That’s okay, Swizzledick. I understand. Now you have something to believe in: Custer is no hologram. And neither is his object. Say it.”
“Okay. I’ll look for the white zombie.”
“No, say it: Custer is no hologram. And neither is his object.”
“Custer is no hologram and his object isn’t either.”
“Close enough. Dismissed.”
After this strange confrontation, we all watched our captain storm around, bending every new man to his whims, abusing them into shape. We were all partly worried, partly in awe, partly giddy with the knowledge that someone else was having to bear the brunt of his fury for a while. Then, before we knew it, it was already time for us to leave him here to his devices and go on our mission. Six trailers were loaded, the boxes knocking as moving bodies shifted and pressed the walls, seeking a point of escape, how to reach those of us on the outside. One truck moved to the front of the line. Another moved up, waited for the convoy to pass and filled in behind in the queue. And, just like that, we were off to DeComp.
The trip took several hours and we ran into several clusters of hostiles, which we mulched without incident, and spied several artist zombies standing out in various prominent places, the most moving of which was undoubtedly the siren in the field, a nubile teenage girl with short brown hair and a severe gash exposing some of her ribs through the torn fabric of a blue and yellow summer dress, all filtered through a couple layers of irony, like she was playing the part of a certain kind of young woman who might play the part of another type of young woman who might very well stand among the tall grass and flowers, her head tossed back, eyes closed, trying to catch rain on her tongue though it wasn’t raining. But, of course, someone who couldn’t make sense of it had to go and ruin the effect for everyone else. “I got something she can put in her mouth,” one roughneck said. Then he shot her in the face.
Eventually, we stopped at a fortified perimeter gate set on rollers. The guards let us in. We made our way along a winding but well-maintained dirt road, down into a wide valley where, from my vantage in the lead Humvee, I first laid eyes on this, the receptacle of all our recent earthly toils: DeComp.
Or as they were now calling it, DeComp One.
Which suggests, of course, that there were other DeComps—or soon would be.
There were six identical, individually cordoned-off sectors containing several enormous green tanks each—some squat as to remind one of giant vats, some cylindrical like silos—all the digesters and holding tanks needed to process decomposing bodies and extract the methane from that pungent slurry. All six sectors featured well-organized systems of pipes running between units and tanks and out into a common center lane where they joined and led to spill points into a series of shimmering green lagoons.
There was a great warehouse, larger than many villages, I suspect. This was where they housed and chilled hundreds of neatly stacked shipping containers in every color, evoking those titanic barges that used to crisscross the seas, delivering the imports and exports of nations. We were coming down a hill on a well-maintained trucking road, meeting trucks heading back out with empty trailers, and from this vantage it was easy to see the general procession of things. Trucks from afield pulled into a kind of giant anteroom on the warehouse’s east side, loaded with full containers, then left through another similar passage on the west side, trailers empty. How many bodies were inside? stacked in long steel boxes like so many batteries waiting to be used?
Perhaps the most disturbing unit was between the warehouse sector and the digesters themselves. At first I couldn’t see it because of the angle of the road and the buildings, but then it opened up before me and I could see a gigantic, rectangular mound rising and, within that mound, a cement-lined pit. Running from the base of this pit were several pipes going to the digesters and various other buildings and condensers and generators with purposes not immediately obvious and, at first, I wondered what exactly they carried, but then I realized what I was seeing, and ceased to wonder. They must have filtered and separated blood and fats and tissues, bones and gristle; we were witnessing the deconstruction of that work of cosmic art that is the body. For a lack of a more industry-specific term, I’d say the closest word for this was abattoir.
Yes, their abattoir was roiling with bodies as we approached, teeming as if with maggots feeding on a deep hollow in some lost titan’s carcass. The pit was perhaps a hundred yards wide, three hundred yards long. Rails hugged the perimeter and a giant yellow vehicle moved along those rails, rotating slowly as it glided along, plunging a great whirling rowel down into the swirling morass.
“Holy fuck,” someone said.
That’s when it hit us: the smell.
We had all grown accustomed to the cloying wreak of decay over the last years, but this was of a magnitude nearly indescribable to any but those who were there. Comparisons just don’t do. If you know the smell of a dead mouse stuck to a hot-water pipe in the wall, would you then be able to reckon the scent of a dead humpback whale on a beach, rivulets running down its contours like brooks down the side of a mountain? and if you knew the gut-punch of that steaming whale-bloat fermentation, does that mean you’d know inherently the particularly oily reek of 10,000 human bodies boiling over with loose lipids and belching up their own long decompositions, trudging over the top of their machine-masticated fallen fellows and all those great malted, yeasty mounds of intestinal slop like so many old Italian vinyarders trodding vats of ripe red grapes? No, of course not. Even though we’d been prepared, even though we’d already slipped on our respirator masks, as soon as the wind shifted toward us, every one of us who was new to this plant, to a man, began vomiting into our masks, and for all the captured scent of the vomit, all the concealment of that acidic bile, the pit’s initial reek persisted like fetid grease in our sinuses and on our skin for days thereafter.
So pungent was it that several men, including the stoic Chucho, continued to throw up throughout the transaction, pointed at, laughed at, as we logged our shipment with the local ministers of Death, Dismemberment, and Decay; so overwhelming was it that I didn’t have time to worry about how the plant was situated within a clearcut old-growth forest, the lagoons behind dams poised uphill from a river; so hellish was the scent that our eyes welled up with tears and, soon, the whole process of trading filled containers for empty ones took place through squinted eyes, behind veils of tears.
Everywhere, ravens, crows, and magpies were perched. But even more than these, the area around the abattoir was overrun with eagles, the fattest bald eagles I have ever seen, watching, waiting, swooping in for a beak of easy flesh. In the two hours we were there, disgorging our haul, a specialized crew never stopped its circuit around the pit, firing shotguns and flares to scare off the scavengers, stirring up the survivors into menacing spirals, avian vortexes above this sulfurous pit of doom.