The sun was just starting to set when they came across the next round of zombies.
Mills pulled the motorcycle to a stop as fast as he could without toppling them, about a hundred feet before the pack, stumbling and groaning towards the road. He flipped up the visor of his helmet and turned around. "Dammit," Mills said over his shoulder. "You got enough ammo?"
"Je crois, oui," Foucault said, reaching around and checking to see how many more box magazines were in the ammunition case they had bungee-corded to the back of the motorcycle. "I think it will be better if we are driving already."
"You sure?" Mills watched as Foucault fitted a new magazine into the the Barrett M82 they'd liberated from Jefferson Proving Ground, two states back. "I'm not precisely keen on you taking off my head."
"Professor Mills, I have shot the rifle many times from this motorbike, and your head is still attached. Turn on the fucking engine."
The pack was getting closer, making those disconcerting moaning noises that almost sounded like speech from a distance. The wind was blowing so you could smell them. What surprised Mills every time they got this close was that the zombies didn't smell like dead things; especially once they'd left the city, there was a distinct scent of corn and sunshine, as if the grasses they wandered through had transmuted them, made them something other than shambling corpses with an unlikely taste for human brains.
Anyway. That was too poetic. Mills kicked the starter, and his BMW R1200 R roared to life. Foucault held on tighter to the base of the machine with his legs, and Mills guessed he must be glad, for more than the usual reasons, that he had invested well in leather pants. He flipped up the visor of his helmet and took aim, bracing the long barrel of the gun over Mills's shoulder. "OK," he said. "Let's go."
They peeled off towards the pack, Mills feeling his usual rush of pride in his bike; it was singularly out of place, given what they were using it to do, but he felt it anyway. The pack--pod? They'd been going back and forth on terms for these bizarre formations the zombies seemed to favor all week--had started to clump together, which seemed to be their preferred formation in open country, shambling across the asphault to catch whatever crossed their path. At least they were in Nebraska, now; the wide open terrain made it easier to see the bastards coming. Back East, they'd jumped out from overpasses, behind rock walls. That had been how they'd lost Habermas and, what's her name, that girl, Judy something, back in Pennsylvania. He shouldn't think about that, especially now. At least he had Foucault; the guy might be wrong about everything, but he sure as hell could shoot. He gunned the engine and leaned down.
Foucault stood up just a little, leaned over him to finish aiming, locked, and pulled the trigger. Three shots as preliminary cover, and then another four to take down the ones that weren't running; Mills was glad he'd worn the helmet, like every time they did this, or he would have gone deaf from the noise by now. Ahead, the pack was starting to implode; a few at the front had been taken out by the shots, and they had others pinned beneath them, writhing in confusion. Others were scattering, which he guessed meant they had some sense of self-preservation in the end. Foucault aimed again and fired off the last three shots in the magazine at the bunch to the right, who seemed primed to reorganize and shamble up in an attempt to eat them again. (Did you refer to zombies as "who"? They hadn't talked about that one yet. It made a certain amount of sense, but he wasn't quite sure.)
The recoil from the shots and the angle Foucault was leaning at threw the balance of the bike off, and Mills leaned away, trying to avoid a spin out. And there were the bodies, still wriggling in the road; there wasn't any good choice but to drive straight for the remnant pod starting to reorganize on the left. "Hold on!" he shouted, hoping that Foucault could hear over the roar of the engine, and threw them into the swerve.
"Baissez-vous!" Foucault shouted back. Mills had no idea what that meant, but he realized that Foucault was lifting the now-empty rifle to use as a battering ram, so hunched even closer to the chassis. He felt more than saw the swing of the thing knocking away the reaching arms. There were a couple of momentary tugs, but then they were free of the pack, and he accelerated as quickly as he could without toppling, trying to put some distance between them and the last few. Behind him, he felt Foucault grab one of the grenades off the chain where they kept them, which must have meant that there was a group trying to follow them. The momentum of the throw was surprisingly sharp, and he leaned in to the bike and willed it to go faster. He had no desire to be too close to a grenade explosion, not today, not ever.
As the heat and noise of the explosion reached him, he decelerated and pulled the bike over. He took off his helmet, and felt Foucault do the same. They sat there, on the bike, watching the flames leaping from body to body, flirting with the dry grass at the edge of the road.
"Putain de zombies," Foucault said.
"Absolutely," said Mills.
"I do not mean to criticize your motorbike," Foucault said, laying flat on his pallet, staring up at the night sky. "But I do rather prefer that you had gotten one designed for two riders."
"I never thought I'd be doing a cross-country trek with a testy Nietzchean on the back," Mills said, poking at the fire with a long stick. "Do you think we can afford to leave it going?"
"I am concerned about the grasses. They burn, no? The zombies, I do not know if they notice."
Mills looked around, trying to see evidence of movement out there. "Damn shame neither of us is a biologist."
"I am not sure of that. For a biologist, he would have no ability to classify something that does not properly belong to one of his orders. Scientific knowledge is not available freely, it must be first ratified and approved by the hierarchy. It will be years before we have an account of this period, and I do not think that account would be helpful to us, for our purposes." He took a large bite of an apple they'd collected from an orchard back in New Jersey. "These apples have started to ferment. Perhaps we should try to make cider."
"And what are our purposes?" Mills took an apple as well, and threw it into the coals to bake. "I mean, do you really have a grand theoretical outlook here? I figured we were just running like hell."
"Beh oui, but is that not a purpose? This notion that we must have a teleological endpoint, I think we should be past it as a species. There is only this moment, wherein we do not want our brains to be eaten. That in itself, it should be sufficient."
He poked the apple with the fire tongs. "And that, right there, is why post-modernism is too easy an out, Michel. What use is social theory if we can't use it to make a statement about what can make a better world? How can we say one thing is better than another, that something represents progress? You can't! That's defeatist at best, criminally uncreative at worst."
"Yes, I do remember your comment back at the conference," Foucault said, dismissively.
The conference. It seemed so long ago, now, like a different world: wine and cheese and heated arguments held across auditoriums, the hush of devoted graduate students and the collective buzz of thinking. It had been going so well, too, and then the first text messages had started to arrive, suggesting that something was happening. Then the zombies started running down Fifth Avenue, tried to bash in the door of the building, and took them all by surprise. No one had ever expected a critical theory conference to end so poorly. The worst you could usually expect was that someone would get wine thrown on them.
"So, Professor Mills--"
"You can call me Wright, you know."
"If you say. What is your diagnosis? What work can your theory do here that mine cannot, eh?"
He looked out at the wide empty spaces of Nebraska, only pockets of humanity left between the zombie hordes. The wind rustled the long grass; somewhere nearby, cattle were making lowing noises to each other. "It's funny," he said. "But there is a sense in which this is apt. The ways in which the everyday man is so divorced from his own experience, incapable of making sense of it, works pretty well as a description of these zombies. This is the mass society on some sort of new level: a place where we become only animal instincts, living moment to moment, forming only the most basic relations to others. They've stopped thinking for themselves, and, therefore, have eventually stopped thinking all together. We've all been cultural zombies for a while. Somehow, whatever did this, it tipped right in and made it literal."
Foucault dug through his bag and pulled out a packet of cigarettes. He took one, lit it, and offered the pack to Mills. Mills shook his head, busy with fishing the apple out of the fire and getting it onto the metal plate from the camping kit, and Foucault shrugged and dropped it back into the bag. "But this story you tell, Wright, it is totalizing, no? Is not the zombie an act of resistance against the anomie you describe? For the zombie is himself a proactive being, who goes out, joins collectively with others, and seeks to capture what he does not have--that is, the brain. They have taken the opportunities granted to them and made something of it. You speak of wanting a generative, creative social process. But what else is this but that generation? The zombies, they are nothing if not new."
Mills blew on the apple, and poked at it with a fork. It released a cloud of steam that smelled like his childhood memories of apple pie. "Honestly, Michel, are you nuts? Zombies are not a source of social good. They want to eat our brains."
"Beh, oui." Foucault shrugged and resumed looking up at the stars. "I do not see how something cannot both be a form of resistance to totalizing discourses and a great error at the same time. Not all resistance must be morally approvable. In fact, many are not. So we can resist them as well, yes? There is no easy end point to the process of social change."
"So, what do we do now, from your point of view?"
"There are many forms of resistance. Myself, I prefer the rocket launcher." Foucault stubbed out the end of his cigarette on the ground. "How many more days do you think, until Berkeley?"
"Depends what kind of time we can make, and the weather over the Rockies," Mills said. "Two more, maybe, if we're lucky. Why, you in some kind of rush?"
"It is just that I have never spent this much time in--what is the expression? The country you fly over."
Mills snorted. "Well, I'm sure we'll have you back to the zombiefied version of San Francisco again in no time. Sorry you're having to cope with the rest of us for a few days."
Foucault looked over at him, as if assessing him. "Your wife, I am sure she is fine."
He sighed. "Yeah, I'm sure." Figures the week that the zombie apocalypse happened Yaroslava'd be doing a show in San Francisco. He took another bite of apple. The fire crackled. "What about you? You got anyone to hurry home to?"
Foucault shook his head. "There are friends, but..." He made a hand gesture. "More I am interested in the spectacle that the city will become under these conditions."
"Yeah." Mills threw the eviscerated remains of the apple skin into the weeds. "You want to take first watch?"
"I think it is prudent. You are, after all, the one who must drive." Foucault got up, and sat down on the other side of the rifle that Mills had been sitting next to. "Do you know where is my book? I think perhaps I will read until the fire burns out."
"It's in the pack," Mills said. "I can't believe you bought it just because it's got your name on the cover."
"It was necessary!" Foucault dug around for it. "Every argument he makes is wrong. I cannot believe someone would write such a thing." He pulled out his new copy of Foucault Against Himself, and a worn-down pencil. "It cannot be more clear within the body of my work that I do not have a self."
"So what are you going to do? I don't think the academic publishing industry is going to be accepting a lot of rebuttal articles these days." Mills bunched up his leather jacket to use as a pillow and crawled into the bedroll.
"I will write about it on my blog." Foucault opened the book to his bookmark and held his pencil at the ready.
Mills yawned. "Wake me when it starts getting light. I'd hate to see you wielding that thing sleep deprived."
Foucault made an affirmative noise. "Sleep well," he said.
Mills looked up at the stars, and hoped, very much, that he wouldn't have to wake up to fight zombies before dawn.