A Zombie Novel
By David Wellington
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 2004 David Wellington
All rights reserved.
Osman leaned over the rail and spat into the grey sea before turning again to shout orders at his first mate Yusuf. The GPS had died two weeks out to sea and in the fog we would be lucky not to crash into the side of Manhattan at full speed. With no harbor lights to follow and nothing at all on the radio he could only rely on dead reckoning and intuition. He shot me an anxious look. "Naga amus, Dekalb," he said, shut up, though I hadn't said a word.
He ran from one side of the deck to the other, pushing girls out of his way. I could barely see him through the mist when he reached the starboard rail, ropy coils of vapor wrapping around his feet, splattering the wood and glass of the foredeck with tiny beads of dew. The girls chattered and shrieked like they always did but in the claustrophobic fog they sounded like carrion birds squabbling over some prize giblets.
Yusuf shouted something from the wheelhouse, something Osman clearly didn't want to hear. "Hooyaa da was!" the captain screamed back. Then, in English, "quarter steam! Bring her down to quarter steam!" He must have sensed something out in the murk.
For whatever reason I turned then to look ahead and to port. The only thing over that way was a trio of the girls. In their uniforms they looked like a girl band gone horribly wrong. Grey headscarves, navy school blazers, plaid skirts, combat boots. AK-47s slung over their shoulders. Sixteen years old and armed to the teeth, the Glorious Girl Army of the Free Women's Republic of Somaliland. One of the girls raised her arm, pointed at something. She looked back at me as if for validation but I couldn't see anything out there. Then I did and I nodded agreeably. A hand rising from high above the sea. A bloated, enormous green hand holding a giant torch, the gold at the top dull in the fog.
"This is New York, yes, Mr. Dekalb? That is the famous Statue of Liberty." Ayaan didn't look me in the eye but she wasn't looking at the statue, either. She had the most English of any of the girls so she'd acted as my interpreter on the voyage but we weren't exactly what you'd call close. Ayaan wasn't close with anybody, unless you counted her weapon. She was supposed to be a crack shot with that AK and a ruthless killer. She still couldn't help but remind me of my daughter Sarah and the maniacs I'd left her with back in Mogadishu. At least Sarah would only have to worry about human dangers. I had a personal guarantee from Mama Halima, the warlord in charge of the FWRS, that she would be protected from the supernatural. Ayaan ignored my stare. "They showed us the picture of the statue in the madrassa. They made us spit on the picture."
I ignored her as best I could and watched as the statue materialized out of the fog. Lady Liberty looked alright, about like how I'd left her five years before, the last time I'd come to New York. Long before the Epidemic began. I guess I'd been expecting to see something, some sign of damage or decay but she had already gone green with verdigris long before I was born. In the distance through the mist I could make out the pediment, the star-shaped base of the statue. It seemed impossibly real, hallucinatorily perfect and unblemished. In Africa I'd seen so much horror I think I'd forgotten what the West could be like with its sheen of normalcy and health.
"Fiir!" one of the girls at the rail shouted. Ayaan and I pushed forward and stared into the mist. We could make out most of Liberty Island now and the shadow of Ellis Island beyond. The girls were pointing with agitation at the walkway that ringed Liberty, at the people there. American clothes, American hair exposed to the elements. Tourists, perhaps. Perhaps not.
"Osman," I shouted, "Osman, we're getting too close," but the captain just yelled for me to shut up again. On the island I saw hundreds of them, hundreds of people. They waved at us, their arms moving stiffly like something from a silent movie. They pushed toward the railing, to get closer to us. As the trawler rolled closer I could see them crawling over one another in their desperation to touch us, to swarm onboard.
I thought maybe, just maybe they were alright, maybe they'd run to Liberty Island for refuge and been safe there and were just waiting for us, waiting for rescue but then I smelled them and I knew. I knew they weren't alright at all. Give me your tired, your poor, your wretched refuse, my brain repeated over and over, a mantra. My brain wouldn't stop. Give me your huddled masses. Huddled masses yearning to breathe. "Osman! Turn away!"
One of them toppled over the side of the railing, maybe pushed by the straining crowd behind. A woman in a bright red windbreaker, her hair a matted lump on one side of her head. She tried desperately to dog-paddle toward the trawler but she was hindered by the fact that she kept reaching up, reaching up one bluish hand to try to grab at us. She wanted us so badly. Wanted to reach us, to touch us.
Give me your tired, your so very, very tired. I couldn't take this, didn't know what I had thought I could accomplish coming here. I couldn't look at another one. Another dead person clawing for my face.
One of the girls opened up with her rifle, a controlled burst, three shots. Chut chut chut chopping up the grey water. Chut chut chut and the bullets tore through the red windbreaker, tore open the woman's neck. Chut chut chut and her head popped open like an overripe melon and she sank, slipping beneath the water without so much as a splash or a bubble and still, pressed up against the railing on Liberty Island, a hundred more reached for us. Reached with pleading skeletal hands to clutch at us, to take what was theirs.
Your huddled masses. Give me your dead, I thought. The ship heeled hard over to one side as Osman finally brought her around, nosed around the edge of Liberty Island and kept us from running up on the rocks. Give me your wretched dead, yearning to devour, your shambling masses. Give me. That was what they were thinking, wasn't it? The living dead over there on the island. If there was any spark left in their brains, any thought possible to decayed neurons it was this: give me. Give me. Give me your life, your warmth, your flesh. Give me.
Shattered light and pale shadows swirled before Gary's eyes. He couldn't remember opening them, could barely remember a time when they weren't open. Slowly he was able to resolve the image. He could see that he was looking up from underneath at a molten drift of ice cubes. Something hard and intrusive was pushing air into his lungs in a rhythmic pumping that was not so much painful. No, his body was half-frozen and he didn't feel any pain at all. But it was incredibly uncomfortable.
He reared up so fast that spots swam before his eyes and with cold-numbed fingers tore at the mask taped across his face, tore it away and then pulled, pulled at an impossibly long length of tubing that came out of his chest, from somewhere deep down with a tugging sensation then a tearing but still there was no pain.
He looked around at the bathroom tiles, at the tub full of ice and yellowish water. At the tubes attached to his left arm. He tore those away too, leaving a deep gouge in his arm when the shunt there tore open his rubbery wet skin. No blood seeped from the wound.
No. No, of course not.
Gary began a careful self-check of his faculties. The spots that danced in front of his eyes to the tune of tinnitus weren't going away. There was a buzzing at the back of his head. It made him want to reach for the telephone. Not a sign of brain damage, that impulse, just simple Pavlovian response, of course. You heard a ringing tone in that particular frequency and you rushed to answer it, the way you'd been doing all your life. There weren't any telephones anymore, of course. He would never hear a ringing telephone again. He would have to unlearn the behavior.
His legs felt a bit weak. Nothing to panic about. His brain ... had survived, had come through almost unscathed. It had worked! Before he could celebrate though he had to assuage his vanity. He stumped over to the sink, held onto the porcelain with both hands. Looked up and into the mirror.
A trifle cyanotic, maybe. Blueness in his jaw, at his temples. Very pale. His eyes were shot with red where capillaries had burst open ... perhaps that would heal, in time. If he could heal anymore. A vein under his left cheek lay dead and swollen so blue it was almost black. Peering, prodding, stretching the skin of his face with his fingers he found other clots and occlusions, web-like traceries of dead veins. Like the veins in a piece of marble, he thought, or a nice piece of Stilton. Without the veins a piece of marble is just granite. Without the blue veins a piece of Stilton is just plain cheese. The dead veins gave his face a certain character, maybe, a certain gravitas.
It was better than he'd hoped for.
He pushed against his wrist with two fingers, found no pulse. He closed his eyes and listened and realized for the first time that he wasn't breathing. Primordial urges swelled up in his reptilian cortex, inbred terrors of drowning and suffocation and his chest spasmed, flexed, tried to suck in air but couldn't.
Panicking—knowing it was panic, unable to stop he knocked over the stolen dialysis machine and heard it smash on the floor as he pushed his way out of the enclosed bathroom, pushed his way out toward light and air. His legs twisted beneath him, threatening to topple him at any second, his arms stretched out, the muscles straining, stretching taut as steel cables beneath his cold skin.
He stumbled forward until his legs gave way, until he smashed down onto the white shag carpet. His body heaved and shuddered trying to catch a breath, any puff of air at all. Just instinct, he screamed in his mind, it's just reflex and it'll stop, it'll stop soon. His cheek rubbed back and forth across the shag and he felt the heat of friction as his body moved spasmodically.
Eventually his system quieted, his body gave in. His lungs stopped moving and he lay still, energy gone. Kind of hungry. He looked up, looked at the bluest sky beyond his windows. The white fleecy clouds, passing by.
It was all going to work out.
Six weeks earlier:
Sarah slept, finally, under the threadbare blanket they'd given her when I bitched long enough. She was learning to sleep through anything. Good kid. I kept an arm around her, shielding her whether or not there was any immediate threat. It had become an instinct, to keep as much of my body between her and the world as I could. Even before the Epidemic I'd done that. We'd seen things in Africa nobody was supposed to, discovered in ourselves resources that just shouldn't have been there. I had done things ... it didn't matter. I'd gotten us out of Nairobi. I'd gotten us across the border to Somalia. There had been three of us and now there were two. But we made it. Sarah's mother was, was, was not around any more but we made it. We made it to Somalia, only to be picked up by a bunch of mercenaries at a roadblock and dumped in this cell with a bunch of other Westerners. Thrown here to await the pleasure of the local warlord.
Fuck it. I wouldn't blame myself for what I'd done. We were alive. We were still among the living. We were in the happy minority.
"I can't understand it," Toshiro said. One sleeve of his suit was ripped at the shoulder, revealing a good quarter inch of fluffy padding underneath but he kept his tie perfectly knotted at his neck. Even in the heat of the cell he was a salaryman. He waved his cell phone around the room. "I'm getting a perfect signal. Four bars! Why can I not raise Yokohama? No one in the office is answering. In the old economy we never let this occur!"
In the far corner the German backpackers clutched one another and tried not to look at him. They knew where Yokohama had gone as well as I did but in those first bad days of the Epidemic you didn't talk about that. It wasn't so much a matter of denial as of scale. All of Europe, as far as we knew, was gone. It might as well not be there anymore. Russia was gone. By the time you got to wondering where America went there just wasn't any more room for it in your brain. A world without an America just couldn't happen—the global economy would collapse. Every two-penny warlord and dictator in the Third World would have a field day. It just wasn't possible. It would mean global chaos. It would mean the end of history as we knew it.
Which was exactly what had happened.
The civilized countries, the ones with bicameral parliaments and honest police forces and good infrastructure and the rule of law and wealth and privilege, the entire West—when the dead came home they couldn't hold out. It was only the pisspots of the world that made it. The most dangerous places. The unstable countries, the feudal states, the anarchic backwaters, places you wouldn't dare walk out the door without a gun, where bodyguards were fashion accessories—those places did a lot better in the end.
From what we'd heard the last refuge of humanity was the Middle East. Afghanistan and Pakistan were getting along just fine. Somalia didn't even have a government. There were more mercenaries in the country than farmhands. Somalia was pretty much okay. I used to be a weapons inspector, with the UN. We used to have a map of the world in my office in Nairobi. It showed the countries of the world shaded various colors to depict how many firearms there were per capita there. You could take the legend off that map now and put a new one in its place: World Population Density.
"Four bars!" Toshiro whined. "I helped build this network, it is all digital! Dekalb—you must have some news for me, yes? You must know what is happening? I must be re-connected. You will help me with that. You have to help me. You are UN. You have to help anyone who asks!"
I shook my head but not with much conviction. So tired, so hot. So dehydrated in that little cell. We'd never wanted for water in Kenya before the Epidemic, the three of us. When the dead started coming back to life. In Nairobi with our valet and our chauffeur and our gardener there had been a fountain in our enclosed little world and we kept it splashing all year round. Although she knew it was for the best, Sarah hadn't wanted to leave to go to the International Boarding School in Geneva next year, she'd liked Africa so much.
Jesus. Geneva. I had a lot of friends there, colleagues at the UN field office there. What must it have been like? Switzerland had some guns. Not enough. Geneva had to be gone.
The door opened and hot light spilled across all of us. A silhouette of a girl gestured at me. For a second I didn't understand—I had thought I was going to be in the cell for good. Then I stumbled to my feet and picked up Sarah in my arms.
"Dekalb! You ask them about my connection! Damn you if you don't!"
I nodded, a sort of farewell, a sort of assent. I followed the girl soldier out of the cell and into the sun-colored courtyard beyond. The smell of burning bodies was thick but better than the smell of the latrine bucket in the cell. Sarah pushed her face against my chest and I held her close. I didn't know what was going to happen next. It could be our turn to get some food, the first we'd had in two days. The girl soldier might be leading me to a torture chamber or a refugee center with hot showers and clean bedding and some kind of promise for the future. This could be a summons to an execution.
If Geneva was gone, so was the Geneva Convention.
"Come!" the soldier said.
Six weeks earlier, continued:
A Chinese-built helicopter stirred up the dust in the courtyard with its lazily turning rotor. Whoever had just arrived must be important—I hadn't seen an aircraft of any kind in weeks. In the shade of the barracks building a group of huddled women in khimars and modest dresses held their hands over the mortars where they'd been grinding grain.
The girl soldier lead me past a pair of "technicals"—commercial pickup trucks with heavy machine guns mounted in their beds. A particularly Somali brand of nastiness. Normally technicals were crewed by mercenaries but these had been hastily emblazoned with Mama Halima's colors: light blue and yellow like an Easter egg. The vehicles belonged to the Free Women's Republic now. Girl soldiers loitered around the trucks, their rifles slung loosely in their arms, chewing distractedly on qat and waiting for the order to shoot somebody. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Monster Island by David Wellington. Copyright © 2004 David Wellington. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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