World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War
As I was about to leave, she stopped me and asked if there was anything I’d forgotten to do. I remember that moment clearly. I turned back to Rollins. He was just starting to open his eyes again. I felt like I should say something, apologize, maybe, then I put a round through his forehead.
Mets told me not to blame myself, and no matter what, not to let it distract me from the job I had to do. She said, “Stay alive, stay alive and do your job.” Then she added, “And stop using up your weekend minutes.”
She was talking about battery power—she didn’t miss a trick—so I signed off and started moving north across the swamp. My brain was now on full burner, all my lessons from the Creek came rolling back. I stepped, I halted, I listened. I stuck to dry ground where I could, and I made sure to pace myself very carefully. I had to swim a couple times, that really made me nervous. Twice I swear I could feel a hand just brush against my leg. Once, I found a road, small, barely two lanes and in horrible disrepair. Still, it was better than trudging through the mud. I reported to Mets what I’d found and asked if it would take me right to the freeway. She warned me to stay off it and every other road that crisscrossed the basin. “Roads mean cars,” she said, “and cars mean Gs.” She was talking about any bitten human drivers who died of their wounds while still behind the wheel and, because a ghoul doesn’t have the IQ points to open a door or unbuckle a seatbelt, would be doomed to spend the rest of their existence trapped in their cars.
I asked her what the danger of that was. Since they couldn’t get out, and as long as I didn’t let them reach through an open window to grab me, what did it matter how many “abandoned” cars I passed along the road. Mets reminded me that a trapped G was still able to moan and therefore still able to call for others. Now I was really confused. If I was going to waste so much time ducking a few back roads with a couple Zack-filled cars, why was I heading for a freeway that was sure to be jammed with them?
She said, “You’ll be up above the swamp. How are more zombies gonna get to you?” Because it was built several stories above the swamp, this section of the I-10 was the safest place in the whole basin. I confessed I hadn’t thought of that. She laughed and said, “Don’t worry, honey. I have. Stick with me and I’ll get you home.”
And I did. I stayed away from anything even resembling a road and stuck to as pure a wilderness track as I could. I say “pure” but the truth was you couldn’t avoid all signs of humanity or what could have been humanity a long time ago. There were shoes, clothes, bits of garbage, and tattered suitcases and hiking gear. I saw a lot of bones on the patches of raised mud. I couldn’t tell if they were human or animal. One time I found this rib cage; I’m guessing it was a gator, a big one. I didn’t want to think about how many Gs it took to bring that bastard down.
The first G I saw was small, probably a kid, I couldn’t tell. Its face was eaten off, the skin, nose, eyes, lips, even the hair and ears…not completely gone, but partially hanging or stuck in patches to the exposed skull. Maybe there were more wounds, I couldn’t tell. It was stuck inside one of those long civilian hiker’s packs, stuffed in there tight with the drawstring pulled right up around its neck. The shoulder straps had gotten tangled on the roots of a tree, it was splashing around, half submerged. Its brain must have been intact, and even some of the muscle fibers connecting the jaw. That jaw started snapping as I approached. I don’t know how it knew I was there, maybe some of the nasal cavity was still intact, maybe the ear canal.
It couldn’t moan, its throat had been too badly mangled, but the splashing might have attracted attention, so I put it out of its misery, if it really was miserable, and tried not to think about it. That was another thing they taught us at Willow Creek: don’t write their eulogy, don’t try to imagine who they used to be, how they came to be here, how they came to be this. I know, who doesn’t do that, right? Who doesn’t look at one of those things and just naturally start to wonder? It’s like reading the last page of a book…your imagination just naturally spinning. And that’s when you get distracted, get sloppy, let your guard down and end up leaving someone else to wonder what happened to you. I tried to put her, it, out of my mind. Instead, I found myself wondering why it had been the only one I’d seen.
That was a practical survival question, not just idle musings, so I got on the radio and asked Mets if there was something I was missing here, if maybe there was some area I should be careful to avoid. She reminded me that this area was, for the most part, depopulated because the Blue Zones of Baton Rouge and Lafayette were pulling most of the Gs in either direction. That was bittersweet comfort, being right between two of the heaviest clusters for miles. She laughed, again…“Don’t worry about it, you’ll be fine.”
I saw something up ahead, a lump that was almost a thicket, but too boxy and shining in places. I reported it to Mets. She warned me not to go near it, keep on going and keep my eyes on the prize. I was feeling pretty good by this point, a little of the old me coming back.
As I got closer, I could see that it was a vehicle, a Lexus Hybrid SUV. It was covered in mud and moss and sitting in the water up to its doors. I could see that the rear windows were blocked with survival gear: tent, sleeping bag, cooking utensils, hunting rifle with boxes and boxes of shells, all new, some still in their plastic. I came around the driver’s side window and caught the glint of a .357. It was still clutched in the driver’s brown, shriveled hand. He was still sitting upright, looking straight ahead. There was light coming through the side of his skull. He was badly decomposed, at least a year, maybe more. He wore survival khakis, the kind you’d order from one of those upscale, hunting/safari catalogs. They were still clean and crisp, the only blood was from the head wound. I couldn’t see any other wound, no bites, nothing. That hit me hard, a lot harder than the little faceless kid. This guy had had everything he needed to survive, everything except the will. I know that’s supposition. Maybe there was a wound I couldn’t see, hidden by his clothes or the advanced decomposition. But I knew it, leaning there with my face against the glass, looking at this monument to how easy it was to give up.
I stood there for a moment, long enough for Mets to ask me what was happening. I told her what I was seeing, and without pause, she told me to keep on going.
I started to argue. I thought I should at least search the vehicle, see if there was anything I needed. She asked me, sternly, if there was anything I needed, not wanted. I thought about it, admitted there wasn’t. His gear was plentiful, but it was civilian, big and bulky; the food needed cooking, the weapons weren’t silenced. My survival kit was pretty thorough, and, if for some reason I didn’t find a helo waiting at the I-10, I could always use this as an emergency supply cache.
I brought up the idea of maybe using the SUV itself. Mets asked if I had a tow truck and some jumper cables. Almost like a kid, I answered no. She asked, “Then what’s keeping you?” or something like that, pushing me to get a move on. I told her to just wait a minute, I leaned my head against the driver’s side window, I sighed and felt beat again, drained. Mets got on my ass, pushing me. I snapped back for her to shut the fuck up, I just needed a minute, a couple seconds to…I don’t know what.
I must have kept my thumb on the “transmit” button for a few seconds too long, because Mets suddenly asked, “What was that?” “What?” I asked. She’d heard something, something on my end.
She’d heard it before you?
I guess so, because in another second, once I’d cleared my head and opened my ears, I began to hear it too. The moan…loud and close, followed by the splashing of feet.
I looked up, through the car’s window, the hole in the dead man’s skull, and the window on the other side, and that’s when I saw the first one. I spun around and saw five more coming at me from all directions. And behind them were another ten, fifteen. I took a shot at the first one, the round went wild.
Mets started squawking at me, demanding a contact report. I gave her a head count and she told me to stay cool, don’t try to run, just stay put and follow what I’d learned at Willow Creek. I started to ask how she knew about Willow Creek when she shouted for me to shut up and fight.
I climbed to the top of the SUV—you’re supposed to look for the closest physical defense—and started to measure ranges. I lined up my first target, took a deep breath, and dropped him. To be a fighter jock is to be able to make decisions as fast as your electrochemical impulses can carry them. I’d lost that nanosecond timing when I hit the mud, now it was back. I was calm, I was focused, all the doubt and weakness were gone. The whole engagement felt like ten hours, but I guess in reality, it was more like ten minutes. Sixty-one in total, a nice thick ring of submerged corpses. I took my time, checked my remaining ammo and waited for the next wave to come. None did.
It was another twenty minutes before Mets asked me for an update. I gave her a body count and she told me to remind her never to piss me off. I laughed, the first time since I’d hit the mud. I felt good again, strong and confident. Mets warned me that all these distractions had erased any chance of making it to the I-10 before nightfall, and that I should probably start thinking about where I was gonna catch my forty.
I got as far away from the SUV as I could before the sky started to darken and found a decent enough perch in the branches of a tall tree. My kit had this standard-issue microfiber hammock; great invention, light and strong and with clasps to keep you from rolling out. That part was also supposed to help calm you down, help you get to sleep faster…yeah, right! It didn’t matter that I’d already been up for close to forty-eight hours, that I’d tried all the breathing exercises they taught us at the Creek, or that I even slipped two of my Baby-Ls. 6 You’re only supposed to take one, but I figured that was for lightweight wussies. I was me again, remember, I could handle it, and hey, I needed to sleep.
I asked her, since there was nothing else to do, or think about, if it was okay to talk about her. Who was she, really? How’d she end up in this isolated cabin in the middle of Cajun country? She didn’t sound Cajun, she didn’t even have a southern accent. And how did she know so much about pilot training without ever going through it herself? I was starting to get my suspicions, starting to piece together a rough outline of who she really was.
Mets told me, again, that there would be plenty of time later for an episode of The View. Right now I needed my sleep, and to check in with her at dawn. I felt the Ls kick in between “check” and “in.” I was out by “dawn.”
I slept hard. The sky was already light by the time I opened my eyes. I’d been dreaming about, what else, Zack. His moans were still echoing in my ears when I woke up. And then I looked down and realized they weren’t dreams. There must have been at least a hundred of them surrounding the tree. They were all reaching excitedly, all trying to climb over each other to get up to me. At least they couldn’t ramp up, the ground wasn’t solid enough. I didn’t have the ammo to take all of them out, and since a firefight might also buy time for more to show up, I decided it was best to pack up my gear and execute my escape plan.
You had planned for this?
Not really planned, but they’d trained us for situations like this. It’s a lot like jumping from an aircraft: pick your approximate landing zone, tuck and roll, keep loose, and get up as quick as you can. The goal is to put some serious distance between you and your attackers. You take off running, jogging, or even “speed walking”; yes, they actually told us to consider this as a low-impact alternative. The point is to get far enough way to give you time to plan your next move. According to my map, the I-10 was close enough for me to make a run for it, be spotted by a rescue chopper, and be lifted off before these stink bags would ever catch up. I got on the radio, reported my situation to Mets, and told her to signal S&R for an immediate pickup. She told me to be careful. I crouched, I jumped, and cracked my ankle on a submerged rock.
I hit the water, facedown. Its chill was the only thing that kept me from blacking out from the pain. I came up spluttering, choking, and the first thing I saw was the whole swarm coming at me. Mets must have known something was up by the fact that I didn’t report my safe landing. Maybe she asked me what had happened, although I don’t remember. I just remember her yelling at me to get up and run. I tried putting weight on my ankle, but lightning shot up through my leg and spine. It could bear the weight, but…I screamed so loud, I’m sure she heard me through her cabin’s window. “Get out of there,” she was yelling…“GO!” I started limping, splashing away with upwards of a hundred Gs on my ass. It must have been comical, this frantic race of cripples.
Mets yelled, “If you can stand on it, you can run on it! It’s not a weight-bearing bone! You can do this!”
“But it hurts!” I actually said that, with tears running down my face, with Zack behind me howling for his lunch. I reached the freeway, looming above the swamp like the ruins of a Roman aqueduct. Mets had been right about its relative safety. Only neither of us had counted on my injury or my undead tail. There was no immediate entrance so I had to limp to one of the small, adjoining roads that Mets had originally warned me to avoid. I could see why as I began to get close. Wrecked and rusting cars were piled up by the hundreds and every tenth one had at least one G locked inside. They saw me and started to moan, the sound carried for miles in every direction.
Mets shouted, “Don’t worry about that now! Just get on the on-ramp and watch the fucking grabbers!”