World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War
[Joe is disabled.]
Can you believe that? Here we were with mass extinction knocking on the door, and she’s trying to be politically correct? I laughed. I laughed right in her face. What, did she think I just showed up without knowing what was expected of me? Didn’t this dumb bitch read her own security manual? Well, I’d read it. The whole point of the NST program was to patrol your own neighborhood, walking, or, in my case, rolling down the sidewalk, stopping to check each house. If, for some reason, you had to go inside, at least two members were always supposed to wait out in the street. [Motions to himself.] Hell-o! And what did she think we were facing anyway? It’s not like we had to chase them over fences and across backyards. They came to us. And if and when they did so, let’s just say, for the sake of argument, there was more than we could handle? Shit, if I couldn’t roll myself faster than a walking zombie, how could I have lasted this long? I stated my case very clearly and calmly, and I even challenged her to present a scenario in which my physical state could be an impediment. She couldn’t. There was some mumbling about having to check with her CO, maybe I could come back tomorrow. I refused, told her she could call her CO, and his CO and everyone right up to the Bear 1 himself, but I wasn’t moving until I got my orange vest. I yelled so loud everyone in the room could hear. All eyes turned to me, then to her. That did it. I got my vest and was out of there faster than anyone else that day.
Like I said, Neighborhood Security literally means patrolling the neighborhood. It’s a quasi-military outfit; we attended lectures and training courses. There were designated leaders and fixed regulations, but you never had to salute or call people “sir” or shit like that. Armament was pretty nonregulation as well. Mostly hand-to-hand jobs—hatchets, bats, a few crowbars and machetes—we didn’t have Lobos yet. At least three people in your team had to have guns. I carried an AMT Lightning, this little semiauto .22-caliber carbine. It had no kick so I could shoot without having to lock down my wheels. Good gun, especially when ammo became standardized and reloads were still available.
Teams changed depending on your schedule. It was pretty chaotic back then, DeStRes reorganizing everything. Night shift was always tough. You forget how dark the night really is without streetlights. There were barely any houselights, too. People went to bed pretty early back then, usually when it got dark, so except for a few candles or if someone had a license for a generator, like if they were doing essential war work from home, the houses were pitch-black. You didn’t even have the moon or the stars anymore, too much crap in the atmosphere. We patrolled with flashlights, basic civilian store-bought models; we still had batteries then, with red cellophane on the end to protect our night vision. We’d stop at each house, knock, ask whoever was on watch if everything was okay. The early months were a little unnerving because of the resettlement program. So many people were coming out of the camps that each day you might get at least a dozen new neighbors, or even housemates.
I never realized how good we had it before the war, tucked away in my little Stepford suburbistan. Did I really need a three-thousand-square-foot house, three bedrooms, two baths, a kitchen, living room, den, and home office? I’d lived alone for years and suddenly I had a family from Alabama, six of them, just show up at my door one day with a letter from the Department of Housing. It’s unnerving at first, but you get used to it quickly. I didn’t mind the Shannons, that was the family’s name. We got along pretty well, and I always slept better with someone standing watch. That was one of the new rules for people at home. Someone had to be the designated night watchman. We had all their names on a list to make sure they weren’t squatters and looters. We’d check their ID, their face, ask them if everything was all quiet. They usually said yes, or maybe reported some noise we’d have to check out. By the second year, when the refugees stopped coming and everyone got to know each other, we didn’t bother with lists and IDs anymore. Everything was calmer then. That first year, when the cops were still re-forming and the safe zones weren’t completely pacified…
[Shivers for dramatic effect.]
There were still a lot of deserted houses, shot up or broken into or just abandoned with the doors left wide open. We’d put police tape across all doorways and windows. If any of them were found snapped, that could mean a zombie was in the house. That happened a couple of times. I’d wait outside, rifle ready. Sometimes you’d hear shouts, sometimes shots. Sometimes, you’d just hear a moan, scuffling, then one of your teammates would come out with a bloody hand weapon and a severed head. I had to put a few down myself. Sometimes, when the team was inside, and I was watching the street, I’d hear a noise, a shuffling, a rasping, something dragging itself through the bushes. I’d hit it with the light, call for backup, then take it down.
One time I almost got tagged. We were clearing a two-story job: four bed, four bath, partially collapsed from where someone had driven a Jeep Liberty through the living room window. My partner asked if it was cool to take a powder break. I let her go behind the bushes. My bad. I was too distracted, too concerned with what was going on inside the house. I didn’t notice what was behind me. Suddenly there was this tug on my chair. I tried to turn, but something had the right wheel. I twisted, brought my light around. It was a “dragger,” the kind that’s lost its legs. It snarled up at me from the asphalt, trying to climb over the wheel. The chair saved my life. It gave me the second and a half I needed to bring my carbine around. If I’d been standing, it might have grabbed my ankle, maybe even taken a chunk. That was the last time I slacked off at my job.
Zombies weren’t the only problem we had to deal with back then. There were looters, not so much hardened criminals as just people who needed stuff to survive. Same with squatters; both cases usually ended well. We’d just invite them home, give them what they needed, take care of them until the housing folks could step in.
There were some real looters, though, professional bad guys. That was the only time I got hurt.
[He pulls down his shirt, exposing a circular scar the size of a prewar dime.]
Nine millimeter, right through the shoulder. My team chased him out of the house. I ordered him to halt. That was the only time I ever killed someone, thank God. When the new laws came in, conventional crime pretty much dried up altogether.
Then there were the ferals, you know, the homeless kids who’d lost their parents. We’d find them curled up in basements, in closets, under beds. A lot of them had walked from as far away as back east. They were in bad shape, all malnourished and sickly. A lot of times they’d run. Those were the only times I felt bad, you know, that I couldn’t chase them. Someone else would go, a lot of times they’d catch up, but not always.
The biggest problem were quislings.
Yeah, you know, the people that went nutballs and started acting like zombies.
Could you elaborate?
Well, I’m not a shrink, so I don’t know all the tech terms.
That’s all right.
Well, as I understand it, there’s a type of person who just can’t deal with a fight-or-die situation. They’re always drawn to what they’re afraid of. Instead of resisting it, they want to please it, join it, try to be like it. I guess that happens in kidnap situations, you know, like a Patty Hearst/ Stockholm Syndrome–type, or, like in regular war, when people who are invaded sign up for the enemy’s army. Collaborators, sometimes even more die-hard than the people they’re trying to mimic, like those French fascists who were some of Hitler’s last troops. Maybe that’s why we call them quislings, like it’s a French word or something. 2
But you couldn’t do it in this war. You couldn’t just throw up your hands and say, “Hey, don’t kill me, I’m on your side.” There was no gray area in this fight, no in between. I guess some people just couldn’t accept that. It put them right over the edge. They started moving like zombies, sounding like them, even attacking and trying to eat other people. That’s how we found our first one. He was a male adult, midthirties. Dirty, dazed, shuffling down the sidewalk. We thought he was just in Z-shock, until he bit one of our guys in the arm. That was a horrible few seconds. I dropped the Q with a head shot then turned to check on my buddy. He was crumpled on the curb, swearing, crying, staring at the gash in his forearm. This was a death sentence and he knew it. He was ready to do himself until we discovered that the guy I shot had bright red blood pouring from his head. When we checked his flesh we found he was still warm! You should have seen our buddy lose it. It’s not every day you get a reprieve from the big governor in the sky. Ironically, he almost died anyway. The bastard had so much bacteria in his mouth that it caused a near fatal staph infection.
We thought maybe we stumbled onto some new discovery but it turned out it’d been happening for a while. The CDC was just about to go public. They even sent an expert up from Oakland to brief us on what to do if we encountered more of them. It blew our minds. Did you know that quislings were the reason some people used to think they were immune? They were also the reason all those bullshit wonder drugs got so much hype. Think about it. Someone’s on Phalanx, gets bit but survives. What else is he going to think? He probably wouldn’t know there was even such a thing as quislings. They’re just as hostile as regular zombies and in some cases even more dangerous.
Well, for one thing, they didn’t freeze. I mean, yeah, they would if they were exposed over time, but in moderate cold, if they’d gone under while wearing warm clothes, they’d be fine. They also got stronger from the people they ate. Not like zombies. They could maintain over time.
But you could kill them more easily.
Yes and no. You didn’t have to hit them in head; you could take out the lungs, the heart, hit them anywhere, and eventually they’d bleed to death. But if you didn’t stop them with one shot, they’d just keep coming until they died.
They don’t feel pain?
Hell no. It’s that whole mind-over-matter thing, being so focused you’re able to suppress relays to the brain and all that. You should really talk to an expert.
Okay, well, that’s why we could never talk them down. There was nothing left to talk to. These people were zombies, maybe not physically, but mentally you could not tell the difference. Even physically it might be hard, if they were dirty enough, bloody enough, diseased enough. Zombies don’t really smell that bad, not individually and not if they’re fresh. How do you tell one of these from a mimic with a whopping dose of gangrene? You couldn’t. It’s not like the military would let us have sniffer dogs or anything. You had to use the eye test.
Ghouls don’t blink, I don’t know why. Maybe because they use their senses equally, their brains don’t value sight as much. Maybe because they don’t have as much bodily fluid they can’t keep using it to coat the eyes. Who knows, but they don’t blink and quislings do. That’s how you spotted them; back up a few paces, and wait a few seconds. Darkness was easier, you just shone a beam in their faces. If they didn’t blink, you took them down.
And if they did?
Well, our orders were to capture quislings if possible, and use deadly force only in self-defense. It sounded crazy, still does, but we rounded up a few, hog-tied them, turned them over to police or National Guard. I’m not sure what they did with them. I’ve heard stories about Walla Walla, you know, the prison where hundreds of them were fed and clothed and even medically cared for. [His eyes flick to the ceiling.]
You don’t agree.
Hey, I’m not going there. You want to open that can of worms, read the papers. Every year some lawyer or priest or politician tries to stoke that fire for whatever side best suits them. Personally, I don’t care. I don’t have any feelings toward them one way or the other. I think the saddest thing about them is that they gave up so much and in the end lost anyway.
Why is that?
’Cause even though we can’t tell the difference between them, the real zombies can. Remember early in the war, when everybody was trying to work on a way to turn the living dead against one another? There was all this “documented proof” about infighting—eyewitness accounts and even footage of one zombie attacking another. Stupid. It was zombies attacking quislings, but you never would have known that to look at it. Quislings don’t scream. They just lie there, not even trying to fight, writhing in that slow, robotic way, eaten alive by the very creatures they’re trying to be.
[I don’t need a photograph to recognize Roy Elliot. We meet for coffee on the restored Malibu Pier Fortress. Those around us also instantly recognize him, but, unlike prewar days, keep a respectful distance.]
ADS, that was my enemy: Asymptomatic Demise Syndrome, or, Apocalyptic Despair Syndrome, depending on who you were talking to. Whatever the label, it killed as many people in those early stalemate months as hunger, disease, interhuman violence, or the living dead. No one understood what was happening at first. We’d stabilized the Rockies, we’d sanitized the safe zones, and still we were losing upwards of a hundred or so people a day. It wasn’t suicide, we had plenty of those. No, this was different. Some people had minimal wounds or easily treatable ailments; some were in perfect health. They would simply go to sleep one night and not wake up the next morning. The problem was psychological, a case of just giving up, not wanting to see tomorrow because you knew it could only bring more suffering. Losing faith, the will to endure, it happens in all wars. It happens in peacetime, too, just not on this scale. It was helplessness, or at least, the perception of helplessness. I understood that feeling. I directed movies all my adult life. They called me the boy genius, the wunderkind who couldn’t fail, even though I’d done so often.