[As I park my car on the west side of the town square I’m struck by the sense of prosperity that Riverside emanates. Beds of flowers line the walkway as I cross the green, narrowly avoiding a trio of children splashing each other by the center fountain. The famous series of walls guarding the city center are visible, of course, and the standard fail-safes – many of which were invented within these very walls – can be found tucked unobtrusively into corners, but the overall feeling is one of pre-war normalcy. I am not sure what I expected from Riverside, the largest of the civilian-run blue zones to survive east of the Rockies, but this isn’t it.
A Ms. Rand meets me as I enter the unassuming building that serves as the town’s city hall. She escorts me politely to a small conference room where I meet Hikaru Sulu.]
I didn’t think it was a big deal, volunteering.
[He shrugs and looks away.]
California was finally secured from the zombies, the Zed. Took over a year and half past the Great Panic, when things really started getting rough here and everywhere else. They don’t talk about that much, do they? All of the US that couldn’t get north came west, sure, but we had our own outbreaks to deal with, just like everywhere else. Cleaning up San Francisco, alone… Between the hills and water on three sides it was a mess. I was in the city on leave from the base at Moffet Field during the first major outbreak, visiting family, and was involved in the fight from the start. Lots of dirty urban battles before we knew much about the enemy.
You were part of the Lombard Street Offensive?
Yeah. [Laughs.] Bet my parents never expected my fancy fencing lessons to get such a practical application, right? We took the city back from the Zed neighborhood by neighborhood, from the Presidio on down. Everyone with advanced hand-to-hand combat training from the Air Force was pulled into the fight – wasn’t a lot I could do to help out against them from a cockpit. So just as we were finishing up the fight to secure the new home front, the call for volunteers for the blue and green zones came in. All those outposts of civilization east of the Rockies that needed support to survive.
And you volunteered?
Yeah… I’d gotten off pretty easy, you know? Most of my family was safe, my hometown was secure. It felt like the right thing to do. General Pike – he’d just gotten the reins of the Continental Airlift – he asked for volunteers, and I just… raised my hand. Mom always said I had a bad habit of jumping into things headfirst.
Anyway, we were dropped in by pairs; one person with a critical skill that was needed by the survivors, one person with plenty of Zed experience to make sure that skill arrived - the muscle. [He gestures at himself depreciatingly with a lopsided grin.] This was before the Willow Creek Training Center was established, so the “critically skilled” folks generally didn’t know what they were getting themselves into with regards to the Zed. My partner – more of a charge to look after, really – sure didn’t. From the fighting and killing side, that is.
You’re referring to Dr. McCoy?
Yeah. We first met at the briefing with Pike the day before we were due to fly out to Riverside. I walked into command and there’s the guy, obviously a civilian with his jeans and stubble, waving a piece of paper – our mission briefing - in Pike’s face and ranting about planes and agoraphobia. [He smiles.] The doc hadn’t realized that Continental Airlift literally meant it when they said “drop in”.
Runways that were safe to land were hella rare east of Salt Lake City, and there was nothing available in Iowa - nothing in all of the Midwest, actually. So it was parachutes or nothing. Which is what I walked in on Pike telling him.
“Len,” Pike was saying, “There isn’t another option if you want to go out and see for yourself. It’s still one in a million, but Riverside’s your best bet. I know – know of – the guy heading up the survivors out there. He’s good.”
Pike clearly meant to say more, but that’s when the two of them noticed me, so. [He shrugs.]
The doctor - Leonard McCoy - nodded slightly, then went back to bitching about the plan and our supplies as Pike filled the two of us in. I’d say it was shocking to hear a U.S. Air Force General argue with a civilian doctor about military plans, but the eighteen months since the Great Panic had flattened plenty of hierarchies, military included. If you knew something – and McCoy clearly knew plenty about the medical supplies he’d be needing once he got to Riverside – you spoke up and fuck rank and protocol. We were all still reeling from the complete collapse of everything that we took for granted.
Were you curious about the conversation you’d walked in on?
Of course! But there were so many rumors circling around then; this was just one more mystery in a pile of them. I'd heard the idle chatter about what’d gone down in Atlanta with the CDC [Center for Disease Control] during the pull out, sure. But I didn’t have the first clue that McCoy had been there, that he’d been the one to tip off the reporter that finally broke the story with complete proof... And no one wants to believe that their government...
Shit, no one was sure of anything back then.
What I knew was that McCoy was a surgeon, that I had some experience in killing zombies, and that people out there needed their medical help to arrive safe and sound. I’d volunteered, and, for some reason, so had he, despite his obvious fear of planes and parachutes. That was enough.
So Dr. McCoy and you parachuted into Riverside?
Well, that was the plan.
At that time “Riverside” – the non-shambling-dead part of it – was just the Walmart Distribution Center on the south side of town. Our briefing stated that we were to land on the roof of the distribution center, where we would be met by the survivors, led by one Jim Kirk. Four hundred or so folks, who'd survived the initial outbreaks and had managed to eke out nineteen months by themselves in one big tin can of a building.
It shouldn’t have been that difficult, even with all our supplies and a tandem jump. Have you ever seen one of those distribution centers? They’re massive, easy to spot from a mile up with those gray flat roofs. Plenty of margin for error. And if we didn’t hit our target, well, this was winter in the Midwest, right?
But. We hadn't counted on running into a warm storm. We were ready for snow and ice – this was Iowa in December, after all. But heavy winds and rain – rain that kept the Zeds thawed out and moving?
McKenna, our pilot, did his best to get us underneath the worst of the storm, but that meant less wiggle room in correcting during the descent. That margin for error was looking smaller and smaller. Two minutes to jump time, plane’s shaking like a leaf in the wind, McKenna’s in the cockpit fighting the storm. I'm on the radio with Nyota - Nyota Uhura was the one in Riverside who managed to cobble together a shortwave radio from the odds and ends they had in the distribution center. Government wouldn't have even known of the existence of the Riverside group without her.
It was all bad news from her end. The storm was raging just as bad on the ground, and all of the Zed around the distribution center were fully mobile. She says - and I can still remember the sad but firm tone - that if we needed to pull out, they understood. That they'd get by, somehow. I looked over at McCoy… [He grins.] Dude just glared the fuck back at me, like I’d already called the mission a bust or something.
“You turn chicken if you want,” he said, still looking like he was about to throw up his lunch at the thought of voluntarily jumping out of a plane into a nest of Zed. “I’m going. There’s a kid down there who needs the spare kidney I’ve got on ice in my pack.”
I'd been fighting hand-to-hand for nineteen months, and an airman since I graduated college. No matter how many times you go into that sort of situation - and I'd had a hell of a lot more of experience than McCoy - it's always scary as shit. But I knew I'd be in good hands with him as my doc, no matter what the situation or folks in Riverside turned out like. Well, as long as their former neighbors didn’t end up eating us before we got to the distribution center.
So you didn’t land on the roof?
No, we landed in the worst fucking spot possible: on the ground a hundred yards out from the distribution center.
The zombies, you see, had been steadily massing around the building as soon as the survivors had holed up there. Nineteen months is plenty of time for Zeds to make their way across the heartland of America looking for prey. A bad gust of wind and we hit that half-frozen, half-mud heartland hard. The only thing that saved us from immediately being torn apart was an overturned semi between us and the nearest pack of ‘em. [Shakes head.] Jim Kirk.
That overturned semi is Jim Kirk, in a nutshell.
Tactical genius. You must’ve heard that about him, right? It wasn't chance that made Riverside the largest group surviving east of the Rockies, it wasn't chance that let us grow from the four hundred and thirty survivors - thirty two - when McCoy and I arrived to over a thousand before the U.S. Army managed to get back here. Jim’s the reason everyone here survived, time and again. His crazy genius that came up with the idea of erecting a corn maze around the distribution center, except, you know, made of steel semitrailers.
I hadn’t realized it during the jump and following descent; I was too busy trying for and completely missing that big gray bull’s-eye of a roof. But all the semis around the distribution center – and Walmart has a shitton of trucks - had been tipped over. All of them. And not in some random order, either. Zeds aren’t the smartest of opponents, after all. They go after their prey in a straight line and they’re crap at climbing any rope ladders they might find when they reach a dead end in a canyon created out of trailers. But McCoy and I – after I managed to cut us free from the chute - had no problem climbing those oh-so-handy ladders. It wasn't a permanent fix, of course. Eventually any pile of zombies will get high enough that some lucky fellow can reach the goal by climbing over the rest. But it kept us alive for a few extra minutes, long enough for the cavalry to come.
They fought through the surrounding zombies to retrieve you?
What? Naw… [Laughs.] There must’ve been twenty or thirty thousand Zeds surrounding the distribution center at that point. No way anyone could fight through it with the resources we had in Riverside at the time.
That flight didn’t come with a return ticket. Both McCoy and I were in Riverside for the duration - it was we as soon as our feet hit the ground. An offensive push from the west to reclaim the rest of the country wasn't even in the cards at the time. I knew what I was getting into when I volunteered, and so did McCoy. Although I think we both could have done without the happy reminder of a thousand moaning zombies surrounding our trailer just a few feet below.
Luckily, it only took a few moments - a few long moments - for a makeshift suspension bridge to be lowered from the distribution center roof to the trailer. I learned later it was something Scotty had whipped up in advance from a bunch of old shipping crates and twine, pretty much. Thing didn’t look stable, but McCoy and I scrambled across anyway. A few Zeds tried to clamber on as we went, but a couple of jabs with my katana and they stopped being a problem.
It was risky as fuck, of course, creating a path from zombie territory up to your shelter, but McCoy and I weren’t exactly in a position to complain. Not that that stopped him, of course. That’s how we met Jim and the rest of the “command crew” of Riverside – the leaders of the survivors – with McCoy bitching about proper Zed safety to a group that'd survived nineteen months in the thick of it.
[He blushes slightly, and pulls absently at the hair at the nape of his neck, then points a finger at me.]
Look, I know it's ridiculous to tell an interviewer, "don't tell anyone I said this", so I won't. But warn me before this hits the street, okay?
[Hair sticking up, he flashes me a quick smile.]
I'm pretty sure that's when Jim fell smitten. I mean no one - except Nyota, maybe - would have guessed it from the slack-faced expression Jim had at being lectured by the guy he'd just saved. But here he is, with the responsibility of the entire Riverside community on his shoulders, everyone looking at him for answers, and he finally meets someone, well, someone like Leonard. Wasn't long before Jim got over his surprise and started grinning as McCoy continued to rail on about "idiot children inviting doom upon the whole group" or whatever the hell it was. [He snorts, hair still mussed.] McCoy gets grumpy as fuck when he's terrified. Defense mechanism, he says.
Fortunately for everyone trying to hold in their laughter, that was when Spock stepped forward with Joanna McCoy riding on his shoulders. [Laughs.] Yeah, I'm pretty sure I looked like you do right now. I had no idea McCoy had a daughter, of course. But it was pretty easy to figure out who she was between the looks and the way she flung herself at him screaming "Daddy!" Second time a McCoy managed to surprise Kirk too in as many minutes. [Quieter, with a small smile.] Jim moved instinctively to intercept Jo-Jo - to protect her - before he quite realized what was happening. I'm pretty sure that's the instant when Leonard fell for him too.
Eventually wiser heads prevailed, and we were able to move the reunion from on the roof to under it while the full story came out. Spock had been lead of biochemical research at the CDC. McCoy worked there too, tracking the organ black market. He eventually stumbled on a few of the infected organs coming out of China, brought them to Spock. Digging together they'd found evidence of the various governmental cover-ups. It was clear at that point that the Alpha teams the government was sending into the hot spots weren't going to contain it, but no one higher up in the administration was willing to stick their necks out enough to say so. So the two of them sent every last shred of evidence they could collect to the media.
I know some people still hold them responsible for the Great Panic and the unnecessary deaths that resulted as people ran scared. And I know I'm biased, but, fuck, what else could they have done? Sit on the information like their seniors until it the outbreaks burned out of control all around the country? I was there when the very first outbreak hit San Francisco - trust me, it wouldn't have been better that way. Chaos is chaos, sure, but Zeds are a lot more efficient at dealing out death than panicked people.
Anyway, when the news broke everyone in the CDC was put in lock-down, then essentially kidnapped and relocated to a safe location in the Rockies. If you had a "critical skill", as the administration put it. [He chuckles bitterly.] You went, didn't matter if you had someone, a family, on the outside. Spock was able to get out before the lock-down; McCoy wasn't.
But he knew where Spock and Joanna had escaped to?
What? No. He knew they'd gotten out of Atlanta along with Nyota and were headed north; the cell network was still up for a bit and texts could get through. The rest was just blind luck.
Well, and Jim Kirk. [Smiles.] He has a way of attracting talented people.