He walked with a limp in his right leg. That was the first thing they noticed. The second was the calm clarity and certainty with which he spoke. Later, but not until much later and separately, they would figure out that he timed his meeting so that he would be alone with them in the long hallway between the Terminal and the B-Concourse. Even with his limp and the fast clip at which Slater walked, he’d have them exclusively for thirty seconds.
“Captain Slater, Miss Brooks. You have a problem.”
“Thanks for bringing that to our attention, buddy. Take a number. We’ll get right on it.”
“Well, actually, you have several. To be specific, those problems are 400,00 plus or minus 15,000, seven days, forty, too damn many, January 9th, plus or minus two days, and democracy.”
Clipboard, Slater, and Brooks sat at one side of the conference table. Court had been going quickly that night: two curfew violations, three fence violations, one robbery, four brawls, and one indecent exposure, which had been dismissed as a simple misunderstanding. They were waiting for the last five cases, who would be tried all at once for what Brooks called Kreznerkrime, urination or defecation outside a latrine. Those five would each get six hours of community service for their crime against public health–and were the most likely to be defended by Schick.
“You know, it’s funny. With all these Monday night court cases, we’ve never had a single accusation of rape or sexual assault,” said Slater. “Maybe this outbreak has been bringing out the best in people.”
“Give it time,” replied Brooks. “People will never change. Men will never change. Trust me.”
They both looked at Clipboard, whose face registered a momentary flash of discomfort before an instant return to his normal unperturbed placidity. Most people would not have noticed. Slater and Brooks were expert poker players.
He noticed they were staring at him. He cleared his throat and quietly said, “I don’t think that we’re going to have a problem with rape in the Zone.”
“I told some guys in Corpse Corps the story of Oneball Johnson.”
In the months since the outbreak, Charlie Mills had seen just about every horrific thing you could possibly imagine. He watched as his wife was torn from his hands. He saw friends kill their own family members. He saw others kill themselves because they couldn’t take it anymore. He became numb to it all.
Charlie found refuge with six dozen others outside Scranton, Pennsylvania. The first months since the panic were not pleasant for Charlie’s group. Each week their numbers would shrink while the monster’s grew.
It was mid-February, and there were now only seven left. Food was scarce. Heat was non-existent. The only consolation prize was that as they sat there freezing, Zack was too.
Before the winter, there was talk of a safe zone near Syracuse. They had even found a small plane and a pilot that was willing to make the trip. There was hope. On the morning of the first planned flight, word came down that Syracuse was overrun. They stayed in Scranton. They died.
“Did you have the same dream?” Slater said while sitting next to him. Both had a heavy coating of mud on their uniforms, the retreat from Yonkers had gone bad resulting in the two cut off from the rest of the unit.,All of whom were now dead or dying.
“No, this one was different.” He got up and slapped the bolt release on his M-4 after loading a fresh mag.
“Meaker, last night I caught someone trying to steal the sraps from our MRE’s.”Slater said.
“What do you want me to execute him?” Meaker said rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
“No, but he looks like you so I thought you would like to see.”
Meaker stood ad brought himself to the locked closet at the far side of the room, as meaker walked into the room he looked at the man sitting in the corner of the room.
He walked into the small room, lit up only by a lantern on a small bathroom matt. Meaker stared at the man for a moment before his eyes widened.
Meaker withdrew his blade from the temple of what was once a middle aged Businessman. The wet thud of the final Z hitting the road seemed deafening, only to be drowned out by the cheers of the Survivors behind him. Crowbars and lead pipes were thrust into the air in sync with the victory cries of those left standing. Meaker checked himself over to make sure he had not been bitten, his Kevlar plates were scratched and bitten but held up more than sufficiently. He wore a Black balaclava to ensure no Ghoul blood sprayed into his mouth, although most of his uniform was covered in the substance including his Balaclava, he managed to avoid infection again. The Sergeant, or more recent Lieutenant looked to the survivors left, More had survived the onslaught than he had expected, They had won the Battle of Mattydale. A small victory in a war that most of those cheering wouldn’t live to see the end of.
Slater and Meaker were sitting on top of an overheated M113. It was dripping something yellow from underneath its shell. The men inside had already found another ride. Like them it would sit there until it rusted. The trip from Albany had been quick but loud. The guys up front had plowed an awful lot of cars off the road to allow the army west. Like the steaming Abrams, they both knew this was the end of the line for them.
“This is a Marine Corps base? And Air National Guard? Maybe those guys aren’t such pussies after all…”
Slater cursed silently as he watched the snaking rivulets of blood and saline wind over the concrete toward the rusted drain. The words of the medic were drowning in a haze of screams and weeping from the young man who lay bleeding and thrashing on the stretcher. A woman with a rag mask stabbed a thick needle through his corps fatigues and pumped him full of something thick and clear and the youth’s cries faded into a pathetic whimper. Slater shook his head as the medic addressed him again.
“Sorry, Doc…repeat that?” He focused on the medic’s green eyes, and tried to ignore the nurse who began to say a prayer through her mask.
The world outside was eerily quiet. Dead silence rang through John’s ears. His wife and two children were lying on his bed before him, the fresh blood still pooling on the surface mixing with the gasoline he had poured under a minute ago.
He stood silently smoking his fourth cigar, his stomach heaving from the adrenaline, the smell of the corpses, the gasoline fumes, and the nicotine. The first cigar was for his wife, the next two were for each of his children, and the last was for the part of him that had died with his loved ones. He finished the Hampton Court, dropped the butt at his feet and said his final I love you as he lit the bodies of his family aflame with his Army insignia Zippo that his wife had gotten him off of eBay for Christmas the first year they were married. He never went on a mission without it.
Slater stood outside of the command tent. He had just debriefed his battalion on the mission and was taking in the sunset. The cool May breeze washed over him; it was relaxing. The stress of late was taking its toll. The never ending headaches and late nights were prying at his willpower, but he remained resilient.
His peace was disturbed by the smell of smoke. He turned to see Sgt. Meaker smoking a cigar, admiring the sunset about ten feet away.
Meaker took a long, slow draw on the cigar. The orange end lit up slightly in the dying sunlight, reflecting off the water in front of the two. Slater wasn’t too bothered by the smoke: It was better than the spitting.
“Nice evening we got here,” Slater said, looking away from the Sergeant.
“Yes sir. Yes, it is,” replied Meaker after blowing a breath of smoke out into the ocean breeze.
The two stood next to one another, not speaking for a good five minutes before Slater turned to the Sergeant once more.
“You know, you don’t have to do this. You can go west with the others. I wouldn’t think any less of you. No one would.” Slater spoke solemly. He was hoping to convince the Sergeant to leave with the rest of America’s military in the push west. He knew they would need Meaker’s help.
Meaker took another slow draw on the cigar.
“I know. Sir, But I’m staying. I told my team to go with the others. They didnt want to, but they are good soldiers. They will get the job done.”
A convoy of Chinooks flew overhead. Meaker’s cigar smoke was blown away by the rotor wash. The Chinooks were hauling off the last of the survivors, the last buses out of New York.
The Sergeant pulled the one-inch cigar butt out of his mouth and closed his eyes before taking in a long breath. “Im sure gonna miss these things.” He flicked the butt out into the Atlantic ocean.
“Why are you staying, Meaker? What’s your motive?”
“I’ve got my reasons, Sir.”
Meaker turned around and began to walk off when the radio silence was broken. The outposts were under attack, and soon New York would fall like the rest of the east coast had. Slater watched the Sergeant march off to fight his enemy, the new blade attatched to his right hand extended out where his missing finger had been. Slater was uneasy letting him be. He had been bitten. Why hadn’t he turned yet?
Slater turned to look at the sun as it finally dipped below the horizon behind him before taking in a deep breath and following.
It was seven feet tall, bright orange, and aesthetically unpleasant. Whoever did it put it halfway between the entrances to the A & B concourses. Whoever did it had never bothered to burden his or her talents with anything as inconvenient as an art class.
Slater looked at Asher. “When I find out who did it, I’ll have them flogged.”
Asher asked, “Do you think you ever will?”
“Not a chance in hell.”
They turned away from the spray-painted Z and headed toward the office in the base of the control tower. By a week later, they were saluting it every time they entered the terminal. It just seemed like the right thing to do.
Tom Slater finally had some time to relax. He picked up an old Stars section from the Post Standard and folded it into crisp quarters. He had four minutes to enjoy the last New York Times crossword puzzle he would ever attempt.
A kid from 76th Squad named Winger burst through the door. Winger had run cross country for F-M and had been one of the best in the state when he graduated. Even so, Slater could see the perspiration running down his face and the throbbing veins. This kid had come far and fast.
“Sir. We need help. Quickly. There were hundreds of them. We couldn’t take them all. There were only twelve of us–the 61st, 67th, and us. They sent me back for reinforcements.”
“You were trying to clear the Cicero Walmart?”
“Yes, sir. They got us front on and closed us off from behind when we distracted. The guys from the 61st–Homer, Gomer, Cooter, and Stoner cleared me a path out, but they… I saw Gomer get it.”
“What about other squads in the area?”
“It was just us and the 67th today. It was supposed to be clear. Only the 61st came when we called. Zack was thick and he kept coming.”
It had been at least 25 minutes since Winger left the scene. It would take another forty to get more there. He had only ten squads in reserve. They would not be enough. They wouldn’t get there in time. He knew how it would end. He dispatched Winger to round up the 43rd through 51st squads for a level 3 search and rescue. If Winger was surprised by the level 3—pull out at first danger—he did not show it to the captain.
Slater sat back down at his desk, shaken. He picked up the newspaper again, but his heart wasn’t in it.
11 Down: Tienanmen & My Lai, e.g.
Slater swore loudly, threw the puzzle in the trash, and wished for the first and last time he had never volunteered to stay behind.