Sunday, December 16, 2012
The way the Program works is, a con goes balls out berserker for 4 hours in any area outside of Secure Quarantine, and if he’s still alive at the end he gets to come back. Somebody in whatever brain trust decides these things figured a well-nourished, well-rested adult can function at top capacity in the Zone for about 4 hours before their faculties begin to grow all screwy. The Program offers a 6 to 1 cutback scale on time served for mid-security offenders, which means for every 4 hours bottom-side, 1 full day comes off of your sentence. This is my 467th trip, which means that in theory, when I finish this trip, I shit shower and shave, and then I go home. I say in theory, because I don’t know a single person who’s actually come through on the other side of the Program. Cons aren’t allowed contact with anyone on the other side of the fence, period. So once somebody’s been rehabbed, all contact is cut off.
I think about that a lot. I know a few people who’ve been icy enough to rack up their mileage points, and then poof! Gone without so much as a postcard for those of us who are still marking time. On the other hand – man – 9 goddamn years of this, all about to be wiped clean. Just thinking about it causes me to sag a little in my harness.
Proctor 4 must have noticed. “Hey, snap out of it,” he admonishes me. I can’t see much of him through the Kevlar face plate, but he can see me just fine. I nod wordlessly and turn my attention to the stacks of buildings, crowded elbow to elbow, that are rushing up to meet us at 36 miles per second per second.
Zone induced stress factors can create errors in judgment, tunnel vision, various and sundry shit that can get you killed. 4 hours is not a lot of time, and yet we’re supposed to cover a certain amount of space within that time, or the cleanout credits are nullified. That’s another way they get you. Another, even worse, is that any sort of protocol breach in the Zone can actually add time to your sentence. I try to breathe deeply and focus. 4 hours isn’t a lot of time. I can do this.
We land quietly in an open stretch of asphalt, about 6 blocks from the center of what used to be Downtown Phoenix Arizona. I’m out of the small capsule first, followed by Proctor. Some people bitch about the arrangement, seeing as how Proctor’s the one with the rifle, and I’m wearing some threadbare body armor, and armed only with a pneumatic cattle stunner. I don’t bitch, though, ever. The Powers that Be expect anybody lucky enough to qualify for the program to stay a “Glass is half full” sort of person.
Proctor’s voice crackles in my ear, a little too loudly. “We clear?”
I nod. He can see me.
The thing about zombies is that they’re pretty terrible at sneaking up on you. For one thing, they smell like, well, death – and for another, they can’t help but moan the minute they lay eyes on you. It’s like if you taught a 6 year old how to play poker, and they’re holding a fucking full house, that’s how subtle your average zombie is.
So, how did they end up taking almost 2/3rds of the civilized world? It’s a fair enough question. They had a couple of things going for them, most notably the fact that the whole thing started in Africa, and by the time the rest of the planet caught on, there were already several hundred million surging up through the middle east and into Europe. Once Kowloon Bay fell, it was only a matter of time.
But that doesn’t really give you the front row show you paid for, so let me see if I can do a little better. You see, the freshly undead can be a damned handful, they’re definitely the strongest and the fastest of the lot. But the older ones, what are called the CK’s, or Crypt Keepers, there’s something else at play. I call it the “freeze factor.”
Here’s how it works: no matter how much you think you’re prepared to see a dead man walking, you’re not. It’s not just that it’s unnatural; it’s the very antithesis of all that is natural. Imagine how unsettled you might be if you saw, let’s say, a bird flying upside down, or a pig wearing a John Deere cap and driving an ice cream truck with his arm hanging out the window. Things like that don’t look all that bad on paper, but it’d give you pause for a second or two if you flung open your bedroom window on a sunlit morning and that was the 1st thing greeting you. Now, multiply that by about 10,000, and that’s the sort of pause you get when you see a plague-blackened mottled bellowing corpse shambling up the street in pursuit of your flesh. People tend to shut down when confronted by such horrors, ironically at the very moment when they need every last bit of their faculties more than ever.
So anyway, that’s the freeze factor.
Was a time, once upon a time, when cleanouts meant tackling large numbers of those fuckers with something like a Gatling gun or a Howitzer, and more often than not, folks still came back to base camp with bite marks. When that happened, you got to go see the rabbits, George, and it’s been a real treat knowing you.
We’ve learned to fight smarter over the years. Here’s the big secret, and how we’re going to end up winning the war – are you ready? Lean in a little and listen close, because I’m about to spill it, and if you miss a word, you miss the whole thing.
That’s right, Holsteins, Belgian Blues, Texas Long-Horns, etcetera, ad nauseum, ad infitum. They’ve practically evolved for the sole purpose of being eaten, and that’s just it. I could tell you, but it’s probably easier to show.
Proctor and I fan out across Central, towards Thomas Rd. Today we’re supposed to reconnoiter this cluster of great glassy monoliths situated on the southeast corner, right across from the Park Central Mall. Now that both coasts are all cleaned up, the Powers-That-Be have decided that Phoenix will be the next major metro area slated for repopulation. The borders are pretty easy to monitor, and the arid climate has caused the walkers and their offal to desiccate pretty quickly – minimum hazard, or no fuss no muss, as my mom used to say. This intersection is geographically almost the dead center of the city, and the procedure for these cleanouts is to start at the center and work outward in concentric circles until everything is nice and tidy. The idea is simple, but just because something’s simple, that don’t make it easy.
There are 4 buildings in the small square, the tallest one being the Century Link Tower, which stands 33 stories. That’s our goal. Proctor watches me fiddle with the electronic latch for a moment. The grid’s been turned on, but we need to manually switch each of these buildings on – that’s a big part of this, that and the whole slaughtering every zombie that rears its ugly head thing. I get tired of the safe-cracking routine pretty quickly and raise the bolt to the heavy glass door.
“Noise,” Proctor cautions me.
I shrug. There’s no way to make an omelet without cracking some heads. The sound of the shattering glass echoes across the plaza. Already they begin to moan, from somewhere I can’t see.
Proctor curses. “See?” he said, “I fucking told you.”
I raise my finger to my lips. No sense in the two of us standing here arguing. Sharks evolved in such a way that if they ever stop swimming, they drown. Even in their sleep, it’s move or die. Humans are finally starting to catch up to the pinnacle of evolution – move or die, baby, move or die.
The interior lobby is hotter than the inside of a Volkswagen Beetle left in the Nevada desert, and it smells like a dried turd. The whole city at this early stage of the game smells, but you only really notice it when you’re inside somewhere. There’s a set of stairs behind a pair of heavy metal fire doors. The handles are bent out of true, from where once upon a time, somebody had bolted them shut. There’s a scattering of broken chain links littered across the floor, along with the usual detritus; spent shells, cell phones, a doll’s arm. Whatever went down here, it happened a long time ago.
We’re not going to have time to get the building turned on before the drops. I knew it was going to go down like this, but I’m annoyed nonetheless.
We line up by the seam in the fore doors. The protocol is universal: cons go through first, and high powered rifles and multiple layers of protection for the Proctors of the world be damned. For the next 3 hours and 40 minutes, this is my lot in life, to be the first one through the door. The cattlebolt hums reassuringly.
Fully charged, the air canister weighs 37 lbs, but I hardly ever notice the extra weight anymore.
Move or die. I grab the handle, raise the bolt eye-high and pull the door open. Nothing – like I said, whatever happened here is old news. Proctor and I hurry up the stairs for 4 flights, clearing each landing in less time than it takes to wipe your nose after a good sneeze. I’m hardly winded, and Proctor, the fucker hasn’t even broken a sweat.
“Think four’s enough?” He asks.
I nod. The fact that he’s asking me my advice isn’t lost on me. Most convicts are treated like an extra piece of equipment, just one more layer of protection to be utilized during the clean-up. Me, they ask my advice – have even deferred to it at times. I’m not bragging, just saying so.
Move or die. I sprint down the short hallway back to the elevator lobby. The smell up here is worse, much worse. I’m just processing this as an office door busts open. I can barely see her, but I can smell her just fine. Mostly, here in the dark, I see flyblown meat, a head of blond hair and a print dress. They never move too fast until they do.
She’s on Proctor before I can so much as register her presence, all snarls and intention. It’s the damn duster. He insists on wearing it every time we do one of these, and now he’s screaming his head off, which is a good thing, because I can’t hear her. I cannot stress enough how the very sound of these fucking things will undo you, unmake all rational thought, like a snake hypnotizing a bird.
His whole head is lit up in blue light, framing her filthy blonde hair like a burning halo. She still has her head bearing down on him, chewing through God knows what. I thump her in the ass with the canister, and before she can whip her head around and lock eyes with me, I line up the bolt and send it home.
The nice thing about the bolt is that it doesn’t make a mess. The brain matter gets just scrambled enough that it puts them out for good without scattering more shit across the earth for us to clean up. I help Proctor to his feet and check him out. Other than a slight crack in the monitor, he’s alright. No wires yanked out, no damage to the drive.
In the screen, he’s wiping tears from his cheeks. Even from his remote operating station a thousand miles away, it scared him so bad he’s crying. I don’t fucking blame him one bit, and neither would you, if you ever saw one up close. “Thanks for moving so quick,” he says.
I shrug. Move or die – to the elevator doors. Proctor stands back as I fiddle with the controls for a moment. A quick shot from the cattlebolt and the doors slide open. I look down, and see the top of the car less than 12 feet below us – perfect. I’m through first, protocol is protocol. My web gear is rigged specifically for these sort of moments, with a modified holster that snaps the cattlebolt in place. I can feel the elevator cable thrumming like an electric guitar cord through my thick leather gloves, in anticipation, perhaps. Proctor slides on next, just below me, and the shaft fills up with the electric blue glow of his monitor. He’s still shaken from the attack, I can see it, but I don’t mention it. He nods at me, it’s your call, is the message.
I nod back. With the hand not gripping the cable, I hold up three fingers, two, then one. Proctor cuts the cable and the elevator goes crashing down, as we rocket towards the top of the tower. We fly, in the most literal of senses, through complete blackness. This is how a bullet must feel when it’s fired. It’s like being born. Proctor’s floodlights kick on, another one of the built in safety measures that his suit provides. I heard that a Proctor Harrier cybernetic unit costs about as much as a good sized helicopter used to, before everything went to shit. Then again, I heard this from another convict, and we trade in cigarettes and bullshit and pretty much nothing else. So take it with several grains of salt, big grains, like Idaho potato big.
I can see the ceiling rushing towards us like the grill of a speeding car. I let go just before the cable can snap through the spool wheel and we begin to fall again. Proctor catches me and the two tiny jets at the base of his heels kick on. We hover to the landing and I go to work on the doors.
In the New New World, we waste nothing. Not one drop of fuel, not one crumb of food, not one life. Every sacrifice is calculated. I went out today, knowing that it’s more likely than not, I won’t be coming back. It’s like that every time you go out. We’re told that if we win, it will be from the calculated risks.
We’re 33 floors up. It’s been exactly 37 minutes, though it feels much longer. Proctor’s screen blanks out for a minute, and his suit stalls. I look over at him.
“I’m fine,” he says. “Can we get to the roof in under a minute?”
“It’s time, then.” To somebody off-screen, he says: “Send in the cows.”
Once on the rooftop, I can hear the C-130 in spite of the high desert winds. They fly low, both to conserve fuel and to make as much noise as possible. It works. Even from 33 floors up, the moans of the walking dead echo up, layering my blood with frost. From above us, I see the cows first as dark shapes. Almost immediately, 3 parachutes blossom, yellow then red then blue, each spaced about a quarter mile apart, almost in a perfectly straight line down Central Ave. These pilots know their shit.
Down below, the zombies are on the move. I fucking hate this part. They’re swarming out of buildings and spilling into the streets like fire ants.
The cows have been injected with a concentrated, genetically modified strain of human pheromone. Studies have shown that zombies hunt primarily by scent and sound, so cows proved to be the perfect vehicle for the bait. The first one lands, and even from up here I can hear clearly the sound of its front legs shattering against the tarmac. Its low panicky moos turn into shrieks of pain. I force myself to look. Proctor does too, I respect him for that. Understandably, a lot of people don’t watch, but these cows are paying for our eventual victory with their lives. The least we can do is bear witness to their tribute.
She’s a fine one, grain-fed and golden hued, like a Hindi representation of the bovine ideal, leastways except for the shattered front shanks that are leaking hot blood onto hotter asphalt, sunbaked and probably hell on treads. I raise my field glasses and watch the white crescents of her eyes roll in terror. She has long eyelashes, like in a little kid’s crayon drawing.
The infected are already almost upon her as the second cow, a black and white spotted beauty, lands less than a hundred yards from the 1st. She’s also bellowing like hell, and it splits the undead mob like an asexual single-celled organism.
The third cow is a quarter-mile away, still dropping steadily. I can see the ranks closing in, and they reach into the golden calf’s flesh as if she was made out of butter. She screams as a rooster tail of blood arcs from her body like a rainbow of solid red. Amidst the groans from the Legion, I can hear that scream, human and feminine. I can hear the blood, gallons of it, smacking into the street. Proctor’s face has left his monitor momentarily, presumably to throw up. A hundred yards away, the brown and white bossy is on her side as more zombies are tearing through her ribcage, snapping her thick rib bones like dried tinder and hauling out great glossy looping coils of her entrails. They glisten in the sun.
Many hands make light work. Within minutes, the 2 cows are little more than bones. I look for the 3rd one. A few seconds ago it was just a big black shape floating lazily towards McDowell road. Now it’s gone. Impossibly, a severed blue chute begins floating up Central like a large, spectral jellyfish.
Before I have time to ponder this, Proctor’s voice chirps into my earbud. “It’s happening.”
He sounds shrill. I think the earlier attack may have fucked him up a little. Still, when the pheromones begin to work their dark magic, it’s a tremendous sight. The infected – slow, sated and confused from having binged on several metric tons of cow flesh – begin to take notice of each other.
You see, the pheromones that have been injected into the cows, they transfer into whatever organism consumes them. What happens next is hard to describe in a way that will do it justice.
It’s what farmers call a “pecking party”, when chickens become overcome with the blood fever after they waste one of their one, and in seconds the whole coop is a bloody, feathery mess. It’s the aftermath of a feeding frenzy, when the sharks turn on each other and boil the very ocean. The Ancient Greeks had a myth about the Uroboros; a great snake that created the universe by swallowing its own tail. It’s a little like that. It’s a death metal mosh pit after you feed two warring clans of skinheads enough PCP to kill a stampede of wild moose.
Mostly though, it’s what hell’s going to look like for the worst of us. It’s a seething, boiling, frenzy of cannibalism. It’s an army of human shaped death consuming itself as fast as it can, and it wastes no part of the animal. Pieces of what used to be human are flung away, only to crawl back into the fray, under the spell of whatever demonic forces compel them, as more and more of the undead are drawn out from whatever dark spaces in which they reside. Soon there will be nothing left but the maggots and flies that ride their backs like the legion horsemen of the apocalypse, and hail, hail the gang’s all here.
In the earlier days of the cleanouts, a surprising number of casualties occurred from convicts falling from the tops of buildings. What nobody at the time understood was the sheer psychological trauma that comes from hearing the cries of the dead firsthand. It’s the same as locking eyes with one of them, especially the older ones; the crypt-keepers. It’s disorienting, like staring into the sun for too long. The cries, especially as the legions begin to tear each other apart, drove many a healthy convict to commit suicide, instantly and on the spot. I’m keenly aware of this, and it’s for this reason that as the carnage reaches its fever pitch that I take a few steps away from the ledge.
Proctor notices me, and asks if I’m alright. I nod, but he must have seen that I’m pretty fucking far from okay. The cacophony below is one of the worst I’ve ever seen. Despite the recent campaigns, there must be a couple thousand of them down there, or at least there were a few minutes ago. Central Avenue is flooded to the curbs with the blood of the infected.
“Why don’t you go get some shade?” Proctor says.
It’s a huge breach of protocol – no convict is ever supposed to get more than 20 yards from their escort, but I’m too sick to argue. I wave to him in thanks and he hollers back “Don’t get too far.”
I can hear the whine of his plasma rifle heating up. He’s going to pick off the stragglers. I don’t need to see this part. I lurch off towards the large AC handling boxes. There must be at least 60 or 70 feral pigeons watching me, each one as big as turkeys. There’s something else watching me too. I’m so startled that I drop my cattlebolt and it rolls several feet beyond my reach.
I don’t know where she came from. I don’t even know if she’s real or not – she shouldn’t be, but she’s too solid to be a ghost. I take a step towards her, and she backs up. I know then that no matter what she is, she’s not infected. Zombies do not retreat, not ever – they have 2 modes, either slumber or attack.
This little girl couldn’t be more than 7 or 8 years old. She’s either Mexican or of Native American descent and she’s wearing the ratty remains of a pink, prima ballerina tutu, complete with rhinestones and a matching pink feather boa. She’s got a tiara on her head, and she looks like she hasn’t had a shower in months. None the less, she appears healthy.
I squat on my haunches and reach out a hand to her. I don’t bother to say anything like “It’s okay,” or “You’re perfectly safe,” because that would be stupid. Out here, in the down-below, nothings okay and nobody is perfectly safe, and in the two seconds since I’ve seen this girl, I’ve decided I’ll never lie to her.
She comes to me, and takes my outstretched hand. I smooth down her matted hair and flatten my palm against her forehead. There’s no fever. I look around, but there’s nobody with her. She must have seen us land and followed us up here.
Proctor is at the ledge firing a volley of shots, methodically, evenly. The plasma rifles are silent and efficient cutters, and the remaining undead fall with nary a whisper, like stalks of wheat at harvest time. I pick-up the cattlebolt, and a row of pigeons squawk in protest at the intrusion. The chattering causes Proctor to turn around.
“Oh?” he says. And: “Jesus, where did you find her?” And: “Little girl, where did you come from?” I know what’s going to come next. Hitchhikers are automatically dealt with in the same way as an infected. The belief is that if the virus were ever to mutate and go airborne, it would happen in Unsecured Quarantine. So, when we find survivors the most humane thing to do is put them down on the spot. Otherwise, they get rounded up and dissected by CDC.
The look in Proctor’s eyes conveys the message. It’s obvious what I’m supposed to do.
He says to the little girl, “Can you give us a minute?”
She sticks a finger in her mouth and sucks on it, and then she says “Okay.” Her voice is high and clear. It sounds like bells. It sounds like brookwater. Her hand squeezes mine for a moment and then she lets go.
Proctor takes me away from her and towards the edge of the building. “I’m going to give you a choice,” he says.
This is part of the reason they bring convicts along in the first place. We’re not supposed to mind getting blood on our hands. The choice is no choice. It’s a bolt to the head or off the side of the building. Those are the choices I have. She’s not coming back, is what he doesn’t want to say. He doesn’t have to say it. This is my job, and it’s the last time I’ll ever have to do something like this. Tomorrow I’m free.
She has her back to us, and is watching the pigeons talk to each other in incomprehensible bubblespeak. I don’t even have to charge the bolt. I can move as quiet as a cat. The screams of the dead below are waning. Soon there won’t even be anything for the maggots and flies.
I have less than an hour left on my official sentence.
I say to Proctor “Your fly is open.”
I’d like to think he didn’t buy that for a second, but I’ll never get to ask him. As he looks down I swing the canister as hard as I can, and smash the monitor screen into a thousand tiny shards of glass. My body armor is showered in acrid electrical sparks, igniting small flames across my forearms. I beat them out as Proctor sinks to one knee. Blue, electrical fire arcs from the stump where his head once was. I kick him in the chest and he goes down, twitching.
I’ve got to get the girl off of this roof, quickly, but there’s something I have to do first. I don’t want to damage the cattlebolt any more than it is already, but if I can wrest the plasma rifle free of its moorings, then it’s worth the risk. I swing two, three more times against the heavy surrogate suit. The armor plates bend at the seams, almost enough for me to get a finger hold. In another couple of seconds, the failsafe is going to begin counting down. Already, a piercing alarm bell begins to ring from deep within the suit’s chest. I swing again, aware of the sensation of air pressure steaming from the canister. The plate cracks and I drop the bolt.
Reaching down with both of my hands, I pull as hard as I can. With a terrific groan, the plate comes free. I’m sprayed in the face with a fine clear mist. Coughing with surprise, I stand and clear my goggles, realizing instantly what has just happened.
They built a second failsafe into the suit, and I’ve just been sprayed with pheromone concentrate. There’s no time to really consider the implications of this, as the 2nd failsafe is going to go off any second now. I tear the suit all the way open, and pull out a small first aid kit, a length of rope, tool kit, and yes, the plasma rifle. On impulse, I wrest off the leather duster and shrug it over my shoulders. The units are lightweight by design, the idea being if one of them gets damaged, a con can maneuver it easily enough to the pick-up site, and if he wants to come back, he better. But the damages are usually minimal enough that the Harriers can still move somewhat. In this case, I’ve totally smashed the CPU and dead weight is always the hardest to haul. Still, by lying down, bracing myself against the air handling box, and shoving my heels into its side, I get the thing to budge. A low, rhythmic beep indicates the countdown. The suit slides several inches and gets caught on the lip of the ledge. It’s like pushing a car over a speed bump. I dig in harder, until spots begin to dance across my field of vision, and then it moves again. I feel something go over, a leg perhaps, and then gravity takes hold and the whole fucking thing slides off the roof.
I tear off my protective mask and pitch it down, too. With any luck the flames will consume it before that pheromone bomb invites every fucking zombie in the Valley of the Sun to come a-calling, and would they please bring their appetites. I look for the girl, but she’s disappeared.
“Honey?” I call out. “I’m sorry, but he was a bad man. He was going to hurt you.” Shit, she could be anywhere, and I don’t have time to play hide and seek. I need to get the rest of the outer suit off. By now, I’m no better off than one of the damn cows, and the longer I keep this gear on, the greater the chance of the pheromone getting into my skin. If that happens, I’m completely fucked, but taking off the armor fills me with dread, too. I’ll be completely exposed.
I call for her again, and then I see movement by the pigeons. It’s her – Jesus are those things her family? I’m walking towards her as I shed my gear bit by bit, reciting a litany of platitudes I’d feel a lot better not saying it at all, things like “The bad man is gone,” and “I’m here to protect you.”
I’m tripping over myself trying to kick out of the pants as the surrogate unit explodes at the base of the building, sending up a great noxious ball of orange fire. I fall, and the pigeons take flight, one releasing a great warm gout of shit on the back of my head as I struggle to my feet. The girl comes out of her hiding place, tentative as a feral cat. I let her come to me. She closes her hands around mine as the second, larger explosion rocks the building, causing the whole roof to list alarmingly to one side.
I ask her, “Do you trust me?”
She does. I don’t know how I feel about that.
Move or die, baby. The retractable scaffolding is on the side opposite the burning wreck of Proctor’s surrogate suit. Thank God for small favors. With a minimum of effort and probably only one herniated disk, I manage to get one end of it over the edge. Tomorrow, if I live to see tomorrow, I’ll barely be able to walk. Something to look forward to, although I’m probably only kidding myself – there’s no way we’re going to live that long.
The scaffold drops about ten feet or so before it begins to buck against its webbing like a deranged marionette. On the side opposite, orange flames are chewing up the building, shitting black smoke out of the tops of their heads. The girl lets go of my hands and backs away several steps. She’s crying, and her tiara has gone askew.
“I thought you trusted me,” I said. I step towards her, and she doesn’t back away. I reach for her, not to take her hand, but to straighten out the tiara.
“My mom took me up here so we could jump together,” she says. And: “She went without me, when I wouldn’t come.”
I don’t even know how to fucking process this information. My entire face feels numb. “Well, we’re not jumping,” I manage to say, my voice only wavering a little. “We’re going to climb down, nice and slow. You can watch me go first, and if it doesn’t look kosher, I’ll come right back up.”
“What does kosher mean?”
“It means okay.”
She thinks about it for a moment. “No,” she says. “We’ll go together. I like that better.”
I’m painfully aware of how poorly I’m managing the extra gear as I take her to the ledge. I’m scared fucking shitless that I’m going to drop her, but as I lower her onto the scaffold our eyes are locked, and she’s telling me that it’s okay with the calm placid expression on her face. As her feet hit the sheet metal, a gust of wind hits the side of the building hard enough for the scaffold to sway. It almost knocks the tiara off my little girl’s head but she clamps down on it with her free hand.
I don’t trust myself to jump. I’m moving like an old man all of a sudden. I’m not myself. I lower myself gingerly on the platform, and when I finally get the switches to start moving, my hands are shaking.
All the way down, I’m checking my equipment over and over again, as if I’ve forgotten something. We stop at the second floor. “Back away, sweetie,” I tell her before hitting the window with the butt of the rifle. It takes three swings to shatter the plate glass – I should have used the cattlebolt, but I know if I start unhooking things I’m going to drop something.
I don’t even have to go inside to know that we’re not going that way. The fire is no longer contained strictly to the west end, and smoke is surging up through the floor boards as the carpets start blistering. This means that I’m going to half to lower the rope and we’re going to have to shimmy down the rest of the way, outside, exposed.
With all the noise we’ve made, every fucking zombie in Phoenix is on their way to this very spot. It doesn’t matter how many the trick with the cows managed to kill, more are coming – a lot more. They’re probably already on the other side of the building, sorting out in their own primitive, implacable way, how to get around the fire.
I’ve got about 150 lbs of additional gear slung around my neck that human beings were never designed to carry. The Proctor Harrier units weren’t heavy but they definitely aren’t ergonomic, and now I’ve got to figure out a way to get all of this crap plus the little girl down about thirty feet. Below us is a sea of implacable, punishing concrete. Above us, windows are starting to explode, raining down glass.
“Still trust me?”
She does. I take the remainder of the rope and jury-rig a harness for her that slings over the back of my neck and down in between my legs. As a result, the minute we go over the scaffold, she begins to drop lower, and the rope begins to cut off the circulation both around my neck and between my balls, as if a pair of giant hands are twisting and rearranging me like a fun-time balloon animal. Meanwhile I still have to lower us, hand by hand, no fancy stuff.
She drops even lower below me, now her head is even with my ankles, now she’s almost a full body-length away. “Mister…” She’s calling out to me.
I look down, there’s a zombie moving towards us about a hundred yards away, what used to be a full-grown man. He’s circling the building, but not far enough away to avoid the flames. As we watch, a lick of fire is climbing up the sleeve of his shirt, and within seconds it swallows his head like a greasy orange blob. He takes a knee, and then slowly lies down. The movement is almost languid, like watching a fat housecat find a particularly warm sunbeam. His feet kicking and jittering break the illusion. I begin to move faster - more are coming.
By the time I get her to the ground, she’s dropped at least 10 or 12 feet below me, my balls feel like they’ve been smooshed into a single compact unit, and the cord is so tight around my neck that I’m seeing black spots. It’s all I can do to make sure she’s not directly underneath me, as inevitably my hands slips and them I’m falling, feeling weightless until I hit the ground with a horrendous smack!
If it wasn’t for the lightweight Kevlar undergarments I would have broken something, I’m sure of it. As I lay there, flexing my fingers and rolling my feet around in my boots, the little girl’s face fills my field of vision. The plastic tiara catches the sun’s rays and sparkle, blinding me a little.
She’s saying you have to get up mister get up please and I know that she’s right, I know they’ve got to be almost on top of us, but I still just lay there gasping for a minute until her face starts to crumple up and that gets me at least to sit up and croak “I’m alright.”
That’s when I see the crypt keeper coming towards us. He’s a big ugly bastard, at least 6 and a half feet tall. He’s plowing through the cascade of fire and glass that the building is dumping on the pavilion and generally not giving a shit. More dark shapes are slithering through the wreckage, but it’s him I’m worried about. I can feel the pull of him, that soul-sucking pathological despair that overcomes you when you get face to face with one of the Old Ones. Their blank eyes have a way of mesmerizing you, like a snake. And they can wail loud enough to knock a man down flat.
The plasma rifle feels woefully inadequate, like a cheap child’s toy, but I put it to my shoulder anyway and aim right in between his dead star eyes and I pull the trigger. I’m so sure that nothing is going to happen that the recoil of the rifle actually surprises me and I miss. He opens his mouth and I know what’s about to happen.
I say “Cover your ears, sweetie.” And she must know too, because she clamps her hands down hard on the sides of her head and she squeezes tight.
A split second later my head is filled with a noxious cacophony of graveyard gas. Something at the front of my skull just pops, and a freshet of hot blood squirts out of my nose. I can barely see straight, but somehow I get the rifle raised and squeeze off another shot, this time hitting the fucker dead center in his ugly mug, and erasing his countenance from the face of the earth.
More of them are coming. I don’t have the time for the dizzy spell that’s threatening to knock me right back on my ass again, so I pinch the bridge of my nose as hard as I can, hard enough to bring the stars back temporarily, and then I’m okay. Not good, mind you, just okay. I’m limping just as bad as the fucking zombies are, and the little girl is ten paces in front of me, dancing like she has to pee.
Some fucking preternatural instinct in me warns me that she needs to move, now. I run towards her but something about me is spooking the little girl and so she’s backing up away from me, which is bad, and not watching where she’s going, which is worse.
I’m saying “Honey come here,” and “don’t be afraid,” which I know sounds ridiculous, but it’s all I got. She stops and comes back towards me, just as a pane of glass about as big around as a grand piano drops, right where she was standing a second ago. The massive fucking thing explodes into a thousand little fragments, but she’s in my reach and I snatch her up, turn and duck, feeling the shards peppering my back like buckshot. If it wasn’t for the Kevlar, she and I would look like that greasy spot on Central where the cow landed.
Move or die. She’s holding on to my belt now as we circle towards Thomas Road. I ask her what her name is.
“Isobel,” she says. And: “What’s yours?”
I think on this for a minute. “Call me Rabbit,” I say.
This seems to please her very much. “Like a bunny?”
“Just like a bunny, Isobel.”
I can see them now, shambling out of the Subway and the Circle K, spilling out of the Park Central Mall like fire ants, the ones that didn’t make it in time for the first drops, hungry and infuriated (make no mistake, the bastards will get angry) and zeroed in on us like a school of sharks. I scoop Isobel up and sling her small skinny body across my shoulders. She’s gripping on to her tiara and that’s okay.
“I want you to listen to me Isobel, you’re going to hang on tight and don’t let go, okay?”
“Okay Mr. Rabbit.”
“It’s just Rabbit honey, just Rabbit for you, okay?”
“Okay Rabbit,” she says.
“And I want you to promise you’re going to shut your eyes good and tight, okay?”
I begin to fire, slowly and methodically. I aim for the heads, and I hit them, time and again. Step, aim, fire, step, aim, fire, and one by one, they all fall down. But for every one of them that goes down in a twitching, headless heap, two more pile out from somewhere. I make it as far as the gas station on 3rd St when I realize we’re completely surrounded. I cross the lot with her on my shoulders and set her down between a pair of pumps by the door. It’s locked and there’s a steel rollup shutter. The charge on the gun is almost completely used up. I look at Isobel, curled up into a ball in her dirty pink tutu with her tiara sitting crooked on her head and I wonder for a moment if there’s enough air in the bolt to finish her off. She trusts me enough to close her eyes, I’m pretty sure of that.
Then I hear the thunder, only it’s not thunder but it’s thundering, a down-low, mean percussive sound. It’s the banging of a hundred jackhammers cracking the earth. Isobel looks up and I scoop her back up again and we both see the 3rd drop, the one that got away, moving like God’s swift vengeance down Thomas Rd.
It’s a solid black Brahma Bull. It must weigh 6000 lbs if it’s so much as an ounce and it is tearing through the undead ranks like a chainsaw through a row of paper dolls. They should run in the face of such fury but knowing no better than their own ceaseless hunger they rush towards their own destruction wide mouthed, and with open arms.
The bull is a God of Vengeance. Its long scimitar horns mow them down like wheat. Its eyes are burning red coals and the great dromedary hump on its back pumps and glistens like a great diesel heart. Whistling gouts of steam shoot from its nose as it flattens everything in its path, then turns 180 degrees and it stomps out some more, putting out the undead like a typhoon over a wildfire. I can only watch so much of this, without feeling like we are pushing our luck, so when the bull hits its westernmost apogee I take advantage of the opportunity to shoot off the lock to the gas station and sneak Isobel inside.
There’s a brief few seconds in which I realize the movement in the garage is not imaginary. Isobel crawls under one of the soda fountains without even being asked. I watch the silhouette through the sheet of grease paper that’s tacked over the window, and sure enough it’s paying somewhere between zero and fuck-all attention to the two of us, just banging its hands against the roll-up doors and mewling at the bull sprinting in circles. I take aim at the back of its head and fire right through the door and never mind the glass.
We’re alone now. I squat down and smooth Isobel’s hair across the back off her neck.
“Is it safe now, Rabbit?” she asks.
“For now,” I say. And: “Are you hungry?”
She is. We scout the store and come up with an ever growing pile of beef jerky and banana chips, power bars and trail mix. Peanut M&Ms. Bottles of Gatorade and spring water. Beer – I haven’t had a beer in fucking years, but I hold off on that, it may go straight to my head and I still need just about all of my wits.
After the stockpile rises to a point just above my knee, which is to say Isobel’s waist, we dive in. For a few minutes there’s nothing but the sound of cellophane tearing, and chewing. In some aspects we’re not all that different from the walking dead. Past a certain point we’re all driven by our guts.
I’ve pulled off the rest of the armor, as well as Proctor’s duster. At the sight of the leather overcoat draped on the floor, I grow curious. The proctor units are all unmanned, and yet for some reason he insisted on putting this thing on the unit every time we went out for the last few weeks. Last I heard, Harrier Units don’t get chilly. I pick it up now, and pat down the pockets. When I find what I’m looking for I cry out, only a little.
Isobel drops a bottle of Gatorade, spilling neon green juice across the linoleum. Her face is twisted with alarm. “Are you okay, Rabbit?”
I run a hand across my face and try to calm down a little. “I’m fine,” I say, and at least for the moment, it’s the truth. My fingers are trembling as I rummage through the kit – antibiotics and ammo chargers and a laminated square that I already know is a map, just like I already know there’s an envelope in there before I find it, and what’s going to be in the letter inside. “We’re going to be fine, Isobel.”
Proctor went down a little too easy, I had thought, quite rightly so. I begin to read.