Our story opens where countless stories have ended in the last twenty-seven years: with an idiot—in this case, Rebecca Atherton, head of the After the End Times Irwins, winner of the Golden Steveo Award for valor in the face of the undead—deciding it would be a good idea to go out and poke a zombie with a stick to see what happens. Because, hey, there’s always the chance that this time, maybe things will go differently. I know I always thought it would be different for me, back when I was the one doing the poking. George always told me I was an idiot, but I had faith.
Too bad George was right.
At least Becks was being smart about her stupidity and was using a crowbar to poke the zombie, which greatly improved her chances of survival. She’d managed to sink the clawed end under the zombie’s collarbone, which was really a pretty effective defensive measure. The zombie would eventually realize that it couldn’t move forward. When that happened, it would pull away, either yanking the crowbar out of her hands or dislocating its own collarbone, and then it would try coming at her from another angle. Given the intelligence of your average zombie, I figured she had about an hour before she really needed to be concerned. Plenty of time. It was a thrilling scene. Woman versus zombie, locked in a visceral conflict that’s basically ground into our cultural DNA by this point. And I didn’t give a damn.
The guy next to her looked a whole lot less sanguine about the situation, maybe because he’d never been that close to a zombie before. The latest literature says we’re supposed to call them “post-Kellis- Amberlee amplification manifestation syndrome humans,” but fuck that. If they really wanted some fancy new term for “zombie” to catch on, they should have made it easy to shout at the top of your lungs, or at least made sure it formed a catchy acronym. They’re zombies. They’re brainless meat puppets controlled by a virus and driven by the endless need to spread their infection. All the fancy names in the world won’t change that.
Anyway, Alaric Kwong—the dude trying not to toss his cookies all over Becks’s dead friend—had never been a field-situation kind of a guy. He was a natural Newsie, one of those people who are most comfortable when they’re sitting somewhere far away from the action, talking about cause and motivation. Unfortunately for him, he’d finally decided that he wanted to go after some bigger stories, and that meant he needed to test for his Class A journalism license. To get your Class A, you have to prove you can handle life in the field. Becks had been trying to help him for almost a week, and I was rapidly coming to think that it was hopeless. He was destined for a life of sitting around the office compiling reports from people who had the balls to pass their exams.
You’re being hard on him, Georgia chided.
“I’m being realistic,” I muttered.
“Shaun?” Dave looked up from his screen, squinting as he turned in my direction. “Did you say something?”
“Not a thing.” I shook my head, reaching for my half-empty Coke. “Five gets you ten he fails his practicals again.”
“No bet,” said Dave. “He’s gonna pass this time.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Why are you so sure?”
“Becks is out there with him. He wants to impress her.”
“Does he now?” I returned my attention to the screen, more interested now. “Think she likes him back? It’d explain why she keeps wearing skirts to the office . . . ”
“Maybe,” said Dave, judiciously.
On the screen, Becks was trying to get Alaric to take the crowbar and have his own shot at holding off the zombie. No big deal, especially for someone as seasoned as Becks. At least, it wouldn’t have been a big deal if there hadn’t been six more infected lurching into view on the left-hand monitor. I flipped a switch to turn on the sound. Not a thing. They weren’t moaning.
“ . . . the fuck?” I murmured. Flipping another switch to turn on the two-way intercom, I said, “Becks, check your perimeter.”
“What are you talking about?” She turned to scan her surroundings, raising one hand to shield her eyes. “Our perimeter is—” Catching sight of the infected lurching closer by the second, she froze, eyes going wide. “Oh, fuck me.”
“Maybe later,” I said, standing. “Keep Alaric alive. I’m heading out to assist with evac.”
“Empty promises,” she muttered, barely audible. “Alaric! Behind me, now!”
I heard him swearing in surprise. The sharp report of Becks shooting their captive zombie followed immediately after. The more zombies you have in an area, the more intelligent they seem to get. If Becks and Alaric wanted to get out of there alive, they needed to reduce the number of infected as much as possible. I didn’t see her make the shot; I was already heading for the door, grabbing my rifle from the rack as I passed it.
Dave half stood, asking, “Should I . . . ?”
“Negative. Stay here, get the equipment secured, and get ready to drive like hell.”
“Check,” he said, scrambling from his seat toward the front of the van. I didn’t really pay attention to that, either; I was busy kicking open the doors and stepping out into the blazing light of the afternoon.
When you’re going to play with dead things, do it during the daylight. They don’t see as well in bright light as humans do, and they don’t hide as well when they don’t have the shadows helping them. More important, the footage will be better. If you’re gonna die, make sure you do it on camera.
The GPS tracker in my watch showed Becks and Alaric remaining in a stationary position roughly two miles away. Two miles is the federally mandated minimum distance between an intentional zombie encounter and a licensed traveling safe zone, such as our van. Not that the infected would avoid coming within two miles out of some sort of respect for the law; we just aren’t allowed to lure them any closer than that. I did some quick mental math. If they’d already attracted a group of six, and the infected weren’t moaning yet, that implied that we had enough zombies in the immediate vicinity to form a thinking mob. Not good.
“Right,” I said, and swung myself into the driver’s seat of Dave’s Jeep. The keys were already in the ignition.
Unlike most field vehicles, Dave’s Jeep has no armor to speak of, unless you count the run-flat tires and the titanium-reinforced frame. What it has is speed—and lots of it. The thing has been stripped down to the bare minimum, rebuilt, and stripped down again so many times that I don’t think there’s a single piece left that conforms to factory standards. It offers about as much protection during an attack of the infected as a wet paper bag. A very fast wet paper bag. It’s evac only in hostile territory, and we haven’t lost a man yet while we were using it.
I braced my rifle between the seats and hit the gas.
Large swaths of California were effectively abandoned after the Rising, for one reason or another. “Difficult to secure” was one; “hostile terrain giving the advantage to the enemy” was another. My personal favorite applied to the small, unincorporated community of Birds Landing, in Solano County: “Nobody cared enough to bother.” They had a population of less than two hundred pre-Rising, and there were no survivors. When the federal government needed to appoint funds for cleanup and security, there was nobody to argue in favor of cleaning the place out. They still get the standard patrols, just because letting the zombies mob is in nobody’s best interests, but for the most part, Birds Landing has been left to the dead.
It should have been the perfect place to run Alaric’s last field trial drill. Abandoned, isolated, close enough to Fairfield to allow for pretty easy evac if the need arose, but far enough away that we could still get some pretty decent footage. Not as dangerous as Santa Cruz, not as candy-ass as Bodega Bay. The ideal infected fishing hole. Only it looked like the zombies thought so, too.
The roads were crap. Swearing softly but steadily to myself, I pressed the gas farther down, getting the Jeep up to the highest speed I was confident I could handle. The frame was shaking and jerking like it might fly apart at any second, and, almost unwillingly, I started to grin. I pushed the speed up a little farther. The shaking increased, and my grin widened.
Careful, cautioned George. I don’t want to be an only child.
My grin died. “I already am,” I said, and floored it.
My dead sister that only I can hear—and yes, I know I’m nuts, thanks for pointing out the obvious—isn’t the only one who’s been worried about my displaying suicidal tendencies since she passed away. “Passed away” is a polite, bloodless way of saying “was murdered,” but it’s better than trying to explain the situation every time she comes up in conversation. Yeah, I had a sister, and yeah, she died. Also yeah, I talk to her all the damn time, because as long as I’m only that crazy, I’ll stay sane enough to function.
I stopped talking to her for almost a week once, on the advice of a crappy psychologist who said he could “help.” By the fifth day, I wanted to eat a bullet for breakfast. That’s one experiment that won’t be repeated.
I gave up the bulk of my active fieldwork when George died. I figured that might calm people down, but all it did was get them more worked up. I was Shaun Mason, Irwin to the president! I wasn’t supposed to say “Fuck this noise” and take over my sister’s desk job! Only that’s exactly what I did. Something about shooting my own sister in the spine left me with a bad taste in my mouth when it comes to getting my hands dirty.
That didn’t change the fact that I was licensed for support maneuvers. As long as I kept taking the yearly exams and passing my marksmanship tests, I could legally go out into the field any time I damn well wanted, and I didn’t even need to worry about getting decent footage anymore. I was getting close enough to Becks and Alaric’s position that I could hear gunshots up ahead, accompanied by the sound of the zombies finally beginning to moan. The Jeep was already rattling so hard that I probably shouldn’t try to make it go any faster.
I slammed my foot down as hard as I could.
The Jeep went faster.
I came screeching around the final bend in the road to find Becks and Alaric standing on top of someone’s old abandoned toolshed, the two of them back to back at the center of the roof like the little figures on top of a wedding cake. Only the figures on wedding cakes aren’t usually armed, and even when they are—it’s amazing what you can order from a specialty bakery these days—they don’t actually shoot. They also aren’t customarily surrounded by a sea of zombies. The six I’d seen on the monitors were quiet because they didn’t need to call for reinforcements; the reinforcements were already there. A good thirty infected bodies stood between my people and the Jeep, and even more were shoving their way forward, into the fray.
Becks had a pistol in either hand, making her look like an illustration from some fucked-up pre-Rising horror/Western. Showdown at the Decay Corral or something. Her expression was one of intense and unflagging concentration, and every time she fired, a zombie went down. Automatically, I glanced at the dashboard, where the wireless tracker confirmed that all her cameras were still transmitting. Then I swore at myself, looking back toward the action.
George and I grew up with adoptive parents who wanted ratings more than they wanted children. We were a coping mechanism for them, a way of dealing with grief; their biological son died, and so they stopped giving a damn about people. Lose people, they’re gone forever. Lose your slot on the top ten and you could win it back. Numbers were safer. We were a means to an end.
I was starting to understand why they had made that decision. Because I woke up every day in a world that didn’t have George in it anymore, and I looked in my mirror expecting to see Mom’s eyes looking back at me.
That won’t happen, you idiot, because I won’t let it, said George. Now get them out of there.
“On it,” I muttered, and reached for the rifle.
Alaric was a lot less calm about his situation than Becks was. He had his rifle out and was taking shots at the teeming mass around them, but he wasn’t having anything like her luck: He was firing three or four times just to take down a single zombie, and I saw a couple of his targets stagger back to their feet after he’d hit them. He wasn’t taking the time to aim for the head, and I had no idea how much ammo he was carrying. Judging by the size of the mob around them, it was nowhere near enough.
Neither of them was wearing a face shield. That put grenades out until I could get them to move out of the blast radius, since aerosolized zombie will kill you just as sure as the clawing, biting kind. The Jeep wasn’t equipped with any real defensive weapons of its own; they would have weighed it down. That left me with the rifle, George’s favorite .40, and the latest useful addition to my zombie-hunting arsenal, the extendable shock baton. The virus that controls their bodies doesn’t appreciate electrical shocks. It won’t kill a zombie, but it’ll disorient the shit out of it, and sometimes that’s enough.
The mob still hadn’t noticed my arrival, being somewhat distracted by the presence of already-targeted meat. Attempting to lure them off wouldn’t have done any good. Zombies aren’t like sharks; they won’t follow in a group. Maybe a few would have followed me, but there was no way to guarantee I’d be able to handle them, and Becks and Alaric would still have been stranded. Recipe for disaster.
Not that what I was about to do was likely to be any better, in the long run. Moving to a position about ten feet behind the mob, I pulled George’s gun from its holster and fired until the magazine was exhausted, barely pausing between shots. My aim might still be good enough for the exams, but it was getting rusty in field situations; seventeen bullets, and only twelve zombies went down. Becks and Alaric looked up at the sound of gunshots, Alaric’s eyes widening before he started to do a fascinating variant on the victory shuffle.
Becks was more subdued in her delight over my brainless cavalry charge. She just looked relieved.
There was no time to pay attention to my team members. My shots had alerted the zombies to the presence of fresh, less-elevated meat. Several outlying members of the mob were turning in my direction, starting to lurch, shuffle, or run toward me, depending on how long they’d been in the grips of full infection. After snapping another magazine into George’s pistol, I holstered it and raised the rifle, aiming for the point of greatest density.
Fact about zombies that everyone knows: You have to aim for the head, since the virus that drives their bodies can repair or route around almost every other form of damage. This is very true. Fact about zombies that almost no one knows, because you’d have to be a damn fool to take advantage of it: An injured zombie does slow down, since you’ve just forced the relatively single-minded virus controlling the body to try its hand at double-tasking. What’s more, the right kind of injury can make the difference between having time to reload and getting mowed down.
Bracing the rifle against my shoulder, I fired wildly into the throng. I was starting to get their attention; heads turned toward me, and the moaning changed timbre. I fired the last three shots in fast succession. Too fast to be productive, but fast enough to signal Becks. She hit the roof of the shed, dragging Alaric down with her. I dropped the rifle onto the seat and opened the glove compartment.
Using live grenades when you have people on the ground is antisocial at best and grounds for a murder charge at worst. Still, if you get the right kind—the ones that are calibrated to be explosive without being too explosive, since you want to minimize your aerosolized zombie bits—they can be damn handy. The wind still has to be with you, but as long as your people are more than eight feet up, you should be fine. I grabbed all four of the available grenades, pulling their pins one at a time as I sent them sailing into the thick of the zombie mob.
There were several loud, wet bangs as the projectiles found their targets, fragmented into multiple slammer pieces, and exploded. The zombies that caught shrapnel in the head or spinal column went down. Others fell as their legs were blown out from under them. Those last didn’t stay down; they started dragging themselves forward, the entire mob now moaning in earnest.
Say something witty now, moron, prompted George.
I reddened. I never used to need coaching from my sister on what it took to do my job. I hit the general channel key on my watch, asking, “You guys mind if I join your party?”
Becks responded immediately, relief more evident in her voice than it had been in her face. Maybe she just wasn’t as good at hiding it there. “What took you so long?”
“Oh, traffic. You know how it goes.” The entire mob was moving toward me now, apparently deciding that meat on the hoof was more interesting than meat that wouldn’t come out of its tree. I snapped the electric baton into its extended position, redrawing George’s .40, and offered the oncoming infected a merry smile. “Hi. You want to party?”
Shaun . . . said George.
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” I muttered, adding, louder, “You guys get down from there and try to circle to the Jeep. Hit the horn once you’re in. There’s more ammo under the passenger seat.”
“And you’re going to do what, exactly?” asked Becks. She sounded sensibly wary. At least one of us was being sensible for a change.
“I’m going to earn my ratings,” I said. Then the zombies were on top of me, and there was no more time for discussion. Quietly, I was glad.
There’s an art to fighting the infected. It was almost a good thing that this mob had started off so large; we were cutting down the numbers rapidly, since we had the ability to think tactically, but the survivors were still behaving like members of a pack. They wanted to eat, not infect. “They wanted to kill me” may not sound like much of an advantage, but trust me on this one. A zombie that’s out to infect will try to smear you with fluids. That gives it a lot more weapons, since they can bleed and spit—even puke, if they’ve eaten recently enough. A zombie that wants to eat you is just going to come at you with its mouth, and that means it has only one viable avenue of attack. That evens the odds, just a little.
Just a little can be more than enough.
I used my baton to sweep a constant perimeter around myself, shocking any zombie that came into range and trusting the Kevlar in my jacket to keep my arm from getting tagged before I could pull it back. The electricity slowed them down enough for me to keep firing. More important, it kept them from getting positions established behind me. I could track Becks and Alaric by the sound of gunshots, which came almost as regularly as my own. I was taking out two zombies for every three shots. Not the best odds in the world. Not the worst odds, either.
The zombies pressed forward. I backed toward the Jeep, letting them think they were herding me while I kept thinning out their ranks. I realized I was grinning. I couldn’t help it. Maybe facing possible death isn’t supposed to make me happy, but years of training can’t be shrugged off overnight, and I was an Irwin for a long time before I retired.
Aim, fire. Swing, zap. Aim, fire. It was almost like dancing, a series of soothing, predictable movements. When George’s gun ran out of ammunition, I switched to my own backup pistol, the motion as smooth and easy as it could possibly have been. I couldn’t hear gunshots anymore, so either Becks and Alaric had made the Jeep or my brain had started filtering out the sounds of their combat as inconsequential. I had my own zombies to play with. They could deal with theirs. Even George had fallen quiet, leaving me to move in a small bubble of almost perfect contentment. It didn’t matter that my sister was dead, or that the assholes who’d ordered her killed were still out there somewhere, doing God knows what to God-knows-who. I had zombies. I had bullets. Everything else was just details, and like I keep saying, I don’t care about the details.
The shout came from behind me, rather than over the intercom or from the inside of my head. I barely squashed the urge to turn toward it, a motion that could be fatal in the field. I put two bullets into the zombie that was lunging at me, and shouted back, “What?”
“We’ve made the Jeep! Can you retreat?”
Could I retreat? “Well, that’s an interesting question, Becks!” I shouted. Aim, fire. Aim again. “Is there anything behind me? And what the fuck happened to honking?”
“I can do that!” I fired again. Another zombie went down. And hell opened up behind me. Not literally, but the sound of an assault rifle can be similar. Becks, it seemed, had found more than just ammo under the seat. Dave and I were going to have a long talk about making sure I knew what my assets were before we let me head into the field.
“Great!” My throat was starting to ache from all the shouting. I surveyed the zombies remaining in front of me. None of them looked fresh enough to put up a real chase, and so I did exactly what you’re not supposed to do in a field situation if you have any choice in the matter:
I took a chance.
I turned my back on the mob and ran for the Jeep, whacking anything that looked likely to move with my electric baton. Becks was in the back, covering the area, while Alaric sat in the passenger seat, looking shell-shocked.
Nothing grabbed me, and in just a few seconds, I was using the stripped-down frame to swing myself into the driver’s seat. I didn’t bother with the seat belt as I hit the gas, and we went roaring out of there, leaving the moaning remains of the Birds Landing zombie mob behind.
California is a fascinating place to live. Thanks to the weird geography and the microclimate zones, we have everything from mountain tundra to verdant forest, and that means we can be used as a case study for zombie preservation in almost any climate you can think of. We have some of the largest metro zones, and they’re close to some of the first counties to be declared legally abandoned. It’s like the whole state has multiple personality disorder. Sometimes I think about moving someplace like New York or Washington, D.C., where the news is valued, but there aren’t as many actual outbreaks to worry about. Only Shaun would be totally miserable if I did that, because he’d follow me. He’ll always follow me, just like I’ll always follow him. That’s what being together means, right? Neither of us ever has to be alone.
—From Postcards from the Wall, the unpublished files of Georgia Mason, originally posted January 9, 2041 ———
So Becks and Alaric got themselves into a sticky spot today—for the moment-by-moment, uncensored report, check Alaric’s status feed, but be prepared for lots of adult language. Did you know he knew some of those words? I did not know he knew some of those words! Our little boy is growing up. But Becks and Alaric getting into trouble is practically old news around here, right? So what makes this such a big deal? Only the fact that our Lord and Master Shaun “The Boss” Mason made his triumphant return to the field to pull their asses out of the fire. And I have to say, seeing him out there . . . It was good in a way I don’t think I can put into words, and I do this for a living. Maybe we’re going to recover from what happened last year after all. Maybe we can move on. Maybe we’re going to be okay.
—From The Antibody Electric, the blog of Dave Novakowski, April 12, 2041