World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

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But of all our achievements at Windsor, nothing can rival the siphoning of crude oil and natural gas from the deposit several kilometers beneath the castle’s foundation. It had been discovered in the 1990s but never exploited for a variety of political and environmental reasons. You can believe we exploited it, though. Our contingent of royal engineers rigged a scaffolding up and over our wall, and extended it to the drilling site. It was quite an achievement, and you can see how it became the precursor to our fortified motorways. On a personal level, I was just grateful for the warm rooms, hot food, and, in a pinch…the Molotovs and flaming ditch. It’s not the most efficient way to stop a Zed Head, I know, but as long as you’ve got them stuck and can keep them in the fire…and besides, what else could we do when the bullets ran out and we were left with nothing else but an odd lot of medieval hand weapons?
There were quite a bit of those about, in museums, personal collections…and not a decorative dud among them. These were real, tough and tested. They became part of British life again, ordinary citizens traipsing about with a mace or halberd or double-bladed battle-axe. I myself became rather adept with this claymore, although you wouldn’t think of it to look at me.
[He gestures, slightly embarrassed, to the weapon almost as long as himself.]
It’s not really ideal, takes a lot of skill, but eventually you learn what you can do, what you never thought you were capable of, what others around you are capable of.
[David hesitates before speaking. He is clearly uncomfortable. I hold out my hand.]
Thank you so much for taking the time…
If you’re not comfortable…
No, please, it’s quite all right.
[Takes a breath.] She…she wouldn’t leave, you see. She insisted, over the objections of Parliament, to remain at Windsor, as she put it, “for the duration.” I thought maybe it was misguided nobility, or maybe fear-based paralysis. I tried to make her see reason, begged her almost on my knees. Hadn’t she done enough with the Balmoral Decree, turning all her estates into protected zones for any who could reach and defend them? Why not join her family in Ireland or the Isle of Man, or, at least, if she was insisting on remaining in Britain, supreme command HQ north above the Antonine.
What did she say?
“The highest of distinctions is service to others.” [He clears his throat, his upper lip quivers for a second.] Her father had said that; it was the reason he had refused to run to Canada during the Second World War, the reason her mother had spent the blitz visiting civilians huddled in the tube stations beneath London, the same reason, to this day, we remain a United Kingdom. Their task, their mandate, is to personify all that is great in our national spirit. They must forever be an example to the rest of us, the strongest, and bravest, and absolute best of us. In a sense, it is they who are ruled by us, instead of the other way around, and they must sacrifice everything, everything, to shoulder the weight of this godlike burden. Otherwise what’s the flipping point? Just scrap the whole damn tradition, roll out the bloody guillotine, and be done with it altogether. They were viewed very much like castles, I suppose: as crumbling, obsolete relics, with no real modern function other than as tourist attractions. But when the skies darkened and the nation called, both reawoke to the meaning of their existence. One shielded our bodies, the other, our souls.
[During World War II, this vast coral atoll served as the main forward base for the United States Pacific Fleet. During World War Z, it sheltered not only American naval vessels, but hundreds of civilian ships as well. One of those ships was the UNS Ural, the first broadcast hub of Radio Free Earth. Now a museum to the achievements of the project, she is the focus of the British documentary Words at War. One of the subjects interviewed for this documentary is Barati Palshigar.]
Ignorance was the enemy. Lies and superstition, misinformation, disinformation. Sometimes, no information at all. Ignorance killed billions of people. Ignorance caused the Zombie War. Imagine if we had known then what we know now. Imagine if the undead virus had been as understood as, say, tuberculosis was. Imagine if the world’s citizens, or at least those charged with protecting those citizens, had known exactly what they were facing. Ignorance was the real enemy, and cold, hard facts were the weapons.
When I first joined Radio Free Earth, it was still called the International Program for Health and Safety Information. The title “Radio Free Earth” came from the individuals and communities who monitored our broadcasts.
It was the first real international venture, barely a few months after the South African Plan, and years before the conference at Honolulu. Just like the rest of the world based their survival strategies on Redeker, our genesis was routed in Radio Ubunye. 1
What was Radio Ubunye?
South Africa’s broadcasts to its isolated citizens. Because they didn’t have the resources for material aid, the only assistance the government could render was information. They were the first, at least, to my knowledge, to begin these regular, multilingual broadcasts. Not only did they offer practical survival skills, they went so far as to collect and address each and every falsehood circulating among their citizens. What we did was take the template of Radio Ubunye and adapt it for the global community.
I came aboard, literally, at the very beginning, as the Ural’s reactors were just being put back online. The Ural was a former vessel of the Soviet, then the Russian, Federal Navy. Back then the SSV-33 had been many things: a command and control ship, a missile tracking platform, an electronic surveillance vessel. Unfortunately, she was also a white elephant, because her systems, they tell me, were too complicated even for her own crew. She had spent the majority of her career tied to a pier at the Vladivostok naval base, providing additional electrical power for the facility. I am not an engineer, so I don’t how they managed to replace her spent fuel rods or convert her massive communication facilities to interface with the global satellite network. I specialize in languages, specifically those of the Indian Subcontinent. Myself and Mister Verma, just the two of us to cover a billion people…well…at that point it was still a billion.
Mister Verma had found me in the refugee camp in Sri Lanka. He was a translator, I was an interpreter. We had worked together several years before at our country’s embassy in London. We thought it had been hard work then; we had no idea. It was a maddening grind, eighteen, sometimes twenty hours a day. I don’t know when we slept. There was so much raw data, so many dispatches arriving every minute. Much of it had to do with basic survival: how to purify water, create an indoor greenhouse, culture and process mold spore for penicillin. This mind-numbing copy would often be punctuated with facts and terms that I had never heard of before. I’d never heard the term “quisling” or “feral”; I didn’t know what a “Lobo” was or the false miracle cure of Phalanx. All I knew was that suddenly there was a uniformed man shoving a collection of words before my eyes and telling me “We need this in Marathi, and ready to record in fifteen minutes.”
What kind of misinformation were you combating?
Where do you want me to begin? Medical? Scientific? Military? Spiritual? Psychological? The psychological aspect I found the most maddening. People wanted so badly to anthropomorphize the walking blight. In war, in a conventional war that is, we spend so much time trying to dehumanize the enemy, to create an emotional distance. We would make up stories or derogatory titles…when I think about what my father used to call Muslims…and now in this war it seemed that everyone was trying desperately to find some shred of a connection to their enemy, to put a human face on something that was so unmistakably inhuman.
Can you give me some examples?
There were so many misconceptions: zombies were somehow intelligent; they could feel and adapt, use tools and even some human weapons; they carried memories of their former existence; or they could be communicated with and trained like some kind of pet. It was heartbreaking, having to debunk one misguided myth after another. The civilian survival guide helped, but was still severely limited.
Oh really?
Oh yes. You could see it was clearly written by an American, the references to SUVs and personal firearms. There was no taking into account the cultural differences…the various indigenous solutions people believed would save them from the undead.
Such as?
I’d rather not give too many details, not without tacitly condemning the entire people group from which this “solution” originated. As an Indian, I had to deal with many aspects of my own culture that had turned self-destructive. There was Varanasi, one of the oldest cities on Earth, near the place where Buddha supposedly preached his first sermon and where thousands of Hindu pilgrims came each year to die. In normal, prewar conditions, the road would be littered with corpses. Now these corpses were rising to attack. Varanasi was one of the hottest White Zones, a nexus of living death. This nexus covered almost the entire length of the Ganges. Its healing powers had been scientifically assessed decades before the war, something to do with the high oxygenation rate of the waters. 2 Tragic. Millions flocked to its shores, serving only to feed the flames. Even after the government’s withdrawal to the Himalayas, when over 90 percent of the country was officially overrun, the pilgrimages continued. Every country had a similar story. Every one of our international crew had at least one moment when they were forced to confront an example of suicidal ignorance. An American told us about how the religious sect known as “God’s Lambs” believed that the rapture had finally come and the quicker they were infected, the quicker they would go to heaven. Another woman—I won’t say what country she belonged to—tried her best to dispel the notion that sexual intercourse with a virgin could “cleanse” the “curse.” I don’t know how many women, or little girls, were raped as a result of this “cleansing.” Everyone was furious with his own people. Everyone was ashamed. Our one Belgian crewmember compared it to the darkening skies. He used to call it “the evil of our collective soul.”
I guess I have no right to complain. My life was never in danger, my belly was always full. I might not have slept often but at least I could sleep without fear. Most importantly, I never had had to work in the Ural’s IR department.
Information Reception. The data we were broadcasting did not originate aboard the Ural. It came from all around the world, from experts and think tanks in various government safe zones. They would transmit their findings to our IR operators who, in turn, would pass it along to us. Much of this data was transmitted to us over conventional, open, civilian bands, and many of these bands were crammed with ordinary people’s cries for help. There were millions of wretched souls scattered throughout our planet, all screaming into their private radio sets as their children starved or their temporary fortress burned, or the living dead overran their defenses. Even if you didn’t understand the language, as many of the operators didn’t, there was no mistaking the human voice of anguish. They weren’t allowed to answer back, either; there wasn’t time. All transmissions had to be devoted to official business. I don’t want to know what that was like for the IR operators.
When the last broadcast came from Buenos Aires, when that famous Latin singer played that Spanish lullaby, it was too much for one of our operators. He wasn’t from Buenos Aires, he wasn’t even from South America. He was just an eighteen-year-old Russian sailor who blew his brains out all over his instruments. He was the first, and since the end of the war, the rest of the IR operators have followed suit. Not one of them is alive today. The last was my Belgian friend. “You carry those voices with you,” he told me one morning. We were standing on the deck, looking into that brown haze, waiting for a sunrise we knew we’d never see. “Those cries will be with me the rest of my life, never resting, never fading, never ceasing their call to join them.”
World War Z
[Hyungchol Choi, deputy director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, gestures to the dry, hilly, unremarkable landscape to our north. One might mistake it for Southern California, if not for the deserted pillboxes, fading banners, and rusting, barbed wire fence that runs to either horizon.]
What happened? No one knows. No country was better prepared to repel the infestation than North Korea. Rivers to the north, oceans to the east and west, and to the south [he gestures to the Demilitarized Zone], the most heavily fortified border on Earth. You can see how mountainous the terrain is, how easily defensible, but what you can’t see is that those mountains are honeycombed with a titanic military-industrial infrastructure. The North Korean government learned some very hard lessons from your bombing campaign of the 1950s and had been laboring ever since to create a subterranean system that would allow their people to wage another war from a secure location.
Their population was heavily militarized, marshaled to a degree of readiness that made Israel look like Iceland. Over a million men and women were actively under arms with a further five in reserve. That is over a quarter of the entire population, not to mention the fact that almost everyone in the country had, at some point in their lives, undergone basic military training. More important than this training, though, and most important for this kind of warfare was an almost superhuman degree of national discipline. North Koreans were indoctrinated from birth to believe that their lives were meaningless, that they existed only to serve the State, the Revolution, and the Great Leader.
This is almost the polar opposite of what we experienced in the South. We were an open society. We had to be. International trade was our lifeblood. We were individualists, maybe not as much as you Americans, but we had more than our share of protests and public disturbances. We were such a free and fractured society that we barely managed to implement the Chang Doctrine 1 during the Great Panic. That kind of internal crisis would have been inconceivable in the North. They were a people who, even when their government caused a near genocidal famine, would rather resort to eating children 2 than raise even a whisper of defiance. This was the kind of subservience Adolf Hitler could have only dreamed of. If you had given each citizen a gun, a rock, or even their bare hands, pointed them at approaching zombies and said “Fight!” they would have done so down to the oldest woman and smallest tot. This was a country bred for war, planned, prepared, and poised for it since July 27, 1953. If you were going to invent a country to not only survive but triumph over the apocalypse we faced, it would have been the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.