The following interviews were collected as part of the Special Report to the United Nations on the Great Panic, also popularly called the "Zombie War" or "World War Z." Due to various factors, they were not included in the original report, nor the supplementary volume subsequently published privately as "oral history." The original investigator has graciously allowed us to make these additional interviews public for the first time.
The interviews are transcribed as accurately as possible from the original notes and recordings. The original investigator's questions and commentary appear in bold type. Our own additions, where relevant, appear in italics, and the footnotes have been renumbered for clarity. All attempts have been made to preserve the content and tone of the originals, without criticism or correction.
Santa Monica, California
John Sheppard looks the part of a beach bum in a ragged gray t-shirt and loose cargo shorts. Though the surf is high today and the weather warm, we are the only people visible on the beach in either direction. He waxes his surfboard while he speaks, seemingly intent on his task; his only protection is a gleaming Desert Eagle dropped almost carelessly on top of his towel.
I have a problem with authority figures. My guidance counselor told me that in high school, when I told him I wanted to join the Air Force. The shrinks at Walter Reed said basically the same thing. I always kind of felt it was the other way around, though.
Is that why you undertook the mission?
I undertook the mission because one of our guys was downed in enemy territory. I wasn't gonna sit on my ass in the officer's mess and wait around for him to show up on Al-Jazeera getting his head lopped off.
But you were under orders…
[A long pause. Sheppard briefly removes his sunglasses to examine his work, then continues applying wax.]
So tell me about the mission.
The one that I fucked up or the one I really fucked up? [He does not wait for an answer.] You probably read the specs on the first one. Transporting Special Forces, that's the kind of thing we did a lot of. That's how they fought the brushfire wars, one cave at a time.
How was this mission different?
The drop point was the mouth of this real deep canyon. I guess the insurgents were holed up down inside it or something. Normally on an op like that, dark of night, you have to fly basically on instruments—nothing else to see but the stars. But I could see something was weird as we came in—there was a fire burning in the canyon, and some small arms flashes.
After Tarnak Farm,1 we were all extra careful about anything unexpected. Hard to make a coalition of the willing if you keep shooting your partners, right? So I radioed back to base, asking if anybody else was supposed to be in the area. Answer was negative—no friendly units for miles around. I couldn't think of anything that would warrant that kind of a light show, but orders were to go ahead with the drop. I guess they figured the SFs guys would get a handle on the situation.
That was right about when the RPGs started coming in.
Were you being specifically targeted?
Hell, no—half the ordinance coming out of the canyon was going straight up in the air. At the time I figured the fire or whatever had hit a stockpile. Didn't really matter, though, because we were lined up real nicely with the mouth of the canyon and anything that didn't hit the walls was going right into our faces. I gave the order to abort right before I got winged by something, probably shrapnel, put a hole this big in my fuel tank. [He holds his fingers in a loose circle about three inches in diameter.] At that point all I was thinking about was getting back to base before I fell out of the sky. I didn't even see Holland get hit.
Captain Paul Holland?
Right—he was flying the second Pave Low. I heard his copilot start screaming over the radio, and he said he'd lost all his controls…
[Sheppard falls silent and drops the rag with which he's been buffing his board. For a few minutes, the only sound is the surf and, at some distance, a gurgling moan.]
I had these friends, probably the best friends I'd ever had, John Dexter and Mitch Schuermann. The got smeared on a canyon wall doing a search and rescue near Khabour, I guess three months before this op we're talking about. Two weeks before, my wife filed for divorce. Said she couldn't take the long deployments anymore. My daddy didn't love me enough when I was kid. That's the kind of thing the shrinks at Walter Reed talked about, after. I guess somebody really, really didn't want to court-martial me.
Because you went back for Captain Holland.
Right. Got my chopper down in one piece, barely, and asked for permission to go right back out in one that could fly—I did ask first, people keep forgetting that part. But apparently they had to talk to the government first—like their word mattered anywhere outside the capital. My CO told me to cool it. I told my crew we had authorization and shut off the radio until we were clear of the base.
Do you think they suspected anything?
Doesn't really matter, does it?
[The moaning sound is drawing closer. Sheppard chambers a round in the Desert Eagle and goes back to his surfboard.]
Holland's chopper was on fire when we got there, but some of the SFs had gotten clear of the wreck. I couldn't tell what they were shooting at, even with all the fireworks—you can't hear anything over the noise of a chopper. Looked like the insurgents were coming out of the canyon at them, but they were walking real slow…one of 'em was on fire. Still walking, like a goddamn human torch. I radioed them to get ready for extraction and asked if there were any other survivors. They said a bunch of the insurgents had got into the wreck, that Holland was still alive last they saw, but stuck in the cockpit. Started jabbering some other stuff about aiming for the head, but I didn't pay much attention to that. Told my copilot to take care of getting everyone else back to base while I went in to see if Holland was still alive.
Like I said, the chopper made it so I couldn't really hear anything. I grabbed an M16 from one of the SFs and just ran for it, for the wreck. There was blood all over the windshield, but no bodies inside…there was blood on the ground, though. Fresh enough to be worth following. The insurgents…I thought they were insurgents…they were all zeroing in on the chopper, just sort of stumbling up to it like a bunch of drunks, and I remember thinking to myself, why aren't they firing? They've got a target, it's literally the size of a goddamn bus, so why aren't they firing on it? But it didn't seem to matter, since they weren't coming at me.
[In the distance, a single zombie approaches. It is naked and badly decomposed, but still capable of walking, if exceedingly slowly; a long piece of seaweed trails from one slimy ankle. Sheppard does not seem to notice it.]
I found Holland off in the dunes, near this rusted-out old Russian POS that'd probably been sitting there since whenever the hell it came down. He was face-down in the sand, not moving, and I thought maybe…it was a stupid idea, trying to use that old hulk for cover, but maybe we could hold out in there until another chopper came for extraction. If one came. I thought that was what Holland was trying to do, if I could just get him there…it was dark, and I wasn't looking at the blood anymore. My crew were off the ground, but still close enough that all I could hear was the chopper, not the moaning. I really thought we were gonna be all right.
I got to Holland and rolled him over. One leg was nothing but blood—probably nicked the femoral artery, probably why he couldn't get out of the cockpit fast enough. His face, though, his hands and arms, those were all sort of…chewed, I guess. Big cuts and gouges, all covered with some kind of crusty black shit. I started to check his pulse, but I realized he was moving again, sort of squirming, so I told him…yeah, I told him, "Hang in there, buddy."
By then I could hear the moaning, though. My chopper was long gone. The insurgents, what was left of them, they were all converging on me. They were getting close enough that I could see where they were missing hands, missing arms, missing parts of their faces…some of 'em were naked, you know, burnt black all over, but they were still walking, or dragging themselves along. I don't know if they set the fire in the caves themselves when they realized what they were really fighting, or maybe it was an accident and there just weren't enough people left alive to bring it under control. But they were all coming at us. At me.
I heard Holland moan from right behind me. Back then we didn't know the moan, but at the same time you just know it, you know what I mean? The first time you heard it, it got into your bones. When I looked down, his jaw dropped, and part of his face…I guess where he'd been bit the worst…it just tore right open. Both cheeks split back to his fucking ears.
What did you do?
[Sheppard wipes his hands on another rag, picks up the Desert Eagle and finally shoots the approaching zombie. It appears to be a nearly perfect shot, despite the incredible distance. He sets the gun aside again.]
I figure I took down maybe two dozen before dawn. Another five or six straggled out of the cave over the morning. I just hauled myself up on top of that Russian wreck and let 'em come to me. When the rescue finally showed up, and they saw the bodies…and Holland's body…well, I guess I don't blame 'em for sending me to the shrinks.
How long were you in Walter Reed?
Couple months, till General O'Neill2 showed up. We got kind of a routine going, you know? They asked me what happened, I told them I got attacked by zombies, they told me there was no such thing, I told them to fuck themselves. I already knew my career was over, you know, so what else could've gone wrong?
[He smiles thinly.] That's still classified.
[He removes his shades to examine the surf board again. Satisfied with the wax job, Sheppard strips down to a pair of swim trunks, revealing a disturbing display of scar tissue on his torso and the dog tags he still wears. Without another word, he heads fearlessly into the surf and begins to paddle out. I am forced to assume our interview is over.]
1The Tarnak Farms incident occurred early in the last brushfire war, when an American F-16 pilot mistakenly dropped a bomb on a group of Canadian soldiers conducting a live-fire exercise. The incident was blamed in part on lack of coordination between air and ground units.
2Brigadier Gen. Jack O'Neill commanded the so-called "Alpha teams" which comprised the United States' initial response to the undead plague. Immediately upon the end of the war, their battle records were sealed for 150 years. –Ed.
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, California
Rodney McKay is a difficult man to meet, but not at all difficult to find. His voice carries theatrically through the halls, well ahead of the man himself, who resembles nothing so much as a particularly harassed high school teacher. He has to be reminded of out appointment several times before he agrees to speak to me, and he insists on reading all the releases thoroughly before he signs them. He also pours himself a cup of coffee, representing a small fortune in imported beans, but does not offer any to me.
Everything that anybody has told you about Area 51 is a lie, of course. By which I mean it was all a lie to begin with—drug-addled cultists and conspiracy nuts and people who watched too much X-Files—but that was really a sort of smokescreen, you see, the Air Force quietly encouraged that kind of deluded ranting because it meant any actual breaches of security about the base would be tainted by association. You listen to a man with hair down to his elbows and a nervous tic explain how the Reticulans are building their interocitors so the military-industrial complex can monitor our microwaves, and then a nice man in a blue suit shows you the plain old buildings of Nellis Air Force base, some cargo planes landing and taking off, ha ha, isn't that a good laugh. You're so busy laughing you don't stop to ask about what those cargo planes are carrying, you see? Hiding in plain sight.
But what I really meant is that everything you hear about Area 51 these days is a lie because I'm the only person who left the base alive.
[Pause.] That sounded melodramatic, didn't it? I don't mean to be melodramatic, I just have a tendency to…well, never mind. I'm not exaggerating, that's the important point. I know I have a certain reputation in my field, but you can verify the records with the Air Force, they handed the extraction and the…the sanitation. Afterwards. They counted the bodies and everything, which is remarkably easy when they're just a few rads short of glowing in the dark.
I'm getting ahead of myself, sorry. Sorry. I'll just…I'll start over.
So everything you've heard about Area 51 is a lie. Probably. I mean I don't know what you've heard but it's probably been exaggerated or distorted or downright falsified, like those absurd movies they used to show during the war, the so-called documentaries by what's-his-name. Radioactive zombies make a good story, a nice urban legend to scare the kiddies with so when they see a regular old ghoul slouching out of the trees they call the civil defense like they're supposed to. But the main release of radiation happened well after the base was overrun, after I was rescued, so it's not like anyone was fighting hand-to-hand in lead pajamas or anything.
In fact, I'd say we were better prepared than most places, including most military installations, for when the panic started. All the personnel were briefed by those, whatchamacallits, the Alpha teams, and when the first outbreaks in Vegas started they put us on a special lockdown status and shot anything unauthorized that came within range of a sniper rifle. And before you ask, no, I can't confirm that they included civilians, so stop asking me about it. They could've been using Bambi's mother for target practice for all I know or care. It's the same principle as the South African plan3, so if you're going to argue with it you're arguing with the whole strategy and just…no. Don't even get me started.
Of course they weren't prepared to fire on each other, and that was the real problem. When the big swarms started appearing, you know, especially down in Los Angeles, the DOD sent three dedicated Alpha teams to Area 51. Why? Who knows? Maybe they were still deluding themselves to thinking this would blow over, or that the projects we were working on would still be relevant…they're still classified, you know. We won't have the funding or facilities to move any of them forward in my lifetime, but you still need security clearance higher than God to get any information on them. That's what nobody talks about, you know, in the costs of the war, is the cost to science, when ninety per cent of the world's brightest minds were eaten and the rest put to building power plants and gun factories and asinine over-priced anti-zombie lasers…
[He continues in this vein for some time.]
…but, um, yes, where was I? Right, the Alpha teams. One of them was assigned specifically to patrol my building, well, I didn't use the whole building, but it was the building with my lab in it. We were on the edge of the facility and sometimes, you know, if you squinted you could see them, the Gs—that's what the military types call them, right?—these dried-up, sunburned things slouching out of the old nuclear testing grounds. There was a communication blackout, I guess to keep us all from panicking like the rest of the population, but when you see zombies getting picked off every day for a week, for two weeks, you know, half of us were members of Mensa, we were capable of adding two and two.
[He snaps his fingers.] Ford, that was his name. The Alpha guy. Good kid. The first day he was assigned, I think he almost shot me when I told him what I thought of him using my office window as his firing position, but after that somebody must've told him something because he turned very friendly. Very annoying. Always smiling, always joking. Asking me about my research, like he understood two words of it. Telling me these long stories about his grandparents. Do I look like I cared about his grandparents? When he found out I was Canadian he asked me if there were any black people in Canada. I mean, seriously. Who asks that kind of question?
[He pauses, toying with his empty coffee cup.]
You know, not everyone got infected from bites. There was that guy, the heart patient, in Brazil.4 There were rumors about contaminated blood supplies. All it takes is a scratch, or a scrape, or a, a pimple, even, and one little microscopic fleck of infected fluid or tissue to contaminate the wound. Those cases, the slow ones, not even the sniffer dogs could catch them all. Ford was on base for days, following me around, stealing my coffee and asking inane questions, and I never really asked him anything. I mean, I didn't want to ask him anything. I didn't care. But he'd been on an Alpha team, so he'd been fighting Gs, up close and personal, for months at that point.
I never asked about the Band-Aid on his hand.
So, um, yes, radioactive zombies. Which, there weren't any at first, as I've just been explaining. In fact, I didn't see any until…well, I've been told I'm a bit of a workaholic, and that just happens to have saved my life, because I was in my lab when the alarms went off not the bunkhouse they'd opened up.
Did I explain about the bunks? Before the war most all the contractors lived off-base or at Nellis, but when Area 51 went into lockdown, well, they had to put us up somewhere. So they turned one side of a storage hanger into this bunkhouse, with empty crates for walls and open showers and just…do you really blame me for not wanting to hang around down there? They wouldn't even let me bring my cat, because Kavanaugh had allergies. Believe me, I understand completely about allergies, but there's a difference between an intelligent living animal and, I don't know, an ornamental lemon tree. Besides, Kavenaugh wasn't even going to die, the worst he could've suffered was an asthma attack. Now, I, on the other hand…
[He explains about his allergies at length.]
…But I was talking about the bunkhouse, right. It was ugly and stuffy and it smelled bad and it was about as secure as a cardboard box in the end…. Wait, I'm getting ahead of myself.
I was still in my lab, reviewing some data…and, all right, playing Spider Solitaire…when the alarms started going off. I hadn't even noticed when Ford wasn't on duty that day, I didn't have a damn clue, but my building…it wasn't exactly some kind of fortress, but it housed the reactor and so it had above-average security measures. Steel-cored security doors, electronic locks, steel shutters on the windows, that sort of thing. It was one of the sturdier places on the base.
Yes, yes, the reactor, I saw your eyes light up when I mentioned that, here comes the good part, right? The reactor…it's still a mostly classified project…it supplied partial power to the base grid, but it was mainly for producing and harvesting certain exotic isotopes. There, that's not giving away anything, is it? If we hadn't been compromised, we actually would've been in good shape, between the reactor and our stockpiles and…some other stuff I'm not allowed to talk about. But somehow we had some of the most well-armed, highly-trained soldiers on the damn planet and one zombie managed to overcome them all.
I don't know what really happened, of course, if it was even Ford who reanimated first, or at all. The security camera footage was recovered later, but I never bothered to watch it. I've got enough nightmares, thank you. I just know that the alarms went off and with a choice between waiting out the alert in my lab, where I had coffee and Solitaire, or in the bunks with Kavenaugh, I chose the lab. There were a few other people in the building, lab assistants, security guards, some janitors, and the security guards told everyone to just hunker down somewhere while they put the building into lockdown. So I locked myself in my office and figured I'd take a little nap while I waited for the all-clear.
Only there wasn't any all-clear.
I don't really know what all happened outside. Steel shutters, remember? I could sort of hear the moaning, and gunshots, but I couldn't raise the shutters without compromising the lock-down…and I didn't really want to know. I kept telling myself the soldiers were going to take care of it, because that was their job, to kill things and protect me. And, you know, everyone else. It's funny, but all that time I was doing weapons research for the military…and no, that's not giving anything away, what do you think I was doing at a place like Area 51, breeding hamsters? I built my first nuclear weapon for the grade six science fair, but I'd never touched a gun before in my life. That was not in my job description.
So I don't really know what was happening, but I could take a pretty good guess. Especially when the phones went dead. See, the Groom Lake facility was built on the assumption that the Soviets were wining the space race and by 1960 we'd all have Sputniks reading over our shoulders. Substantial parts of the facility were underground—pretty deep underground, in some places. That was where the water treatment plant was, parts of the reactor core, all our telecommunications equipment, supply stockpiles, vaults…and of course there were tunnels, just miles of them, connected everything together. I remember they made us do emergency drills where we used those tunnels for evacuations. I hated them—dim, low ceilings, wide enough to drive a truck through in some places and narrow enough in others that two people couldn't walk side-by-side.
And you know, of all the effort they put into securing the perimeter, I don't think anybody thought twice about how they were going to secure and defend those tunnels. I mean, that's basically how we almost lost the war, isn't it?
So, by six or seven in the morning, when there hadn't been an all-clear and the noise outside was dying down, that was when I started getting nervous. I tried to call Colonel Simmons' office—he was in charge of the facility at the time—well, I already said the phones were down. The power was on, but probably only because I was in the same building as the reactor. I tried to go through the computers, to access surveillance systems or anything, but the mainframe was down—all I could access was the secure research server in the same building, the one that wasn't wired to the internet, so what good was that going to me? But all of that made sense if there had been a problem in the tunnels, and the only reason for there to be a problem in the tunnels was if the tunnels were infested. Which made me so happy that they were a major part of all our emergency plans.
But the lockdown should've sealed the stairs that lead into the tunnels, too, so at the time I wasn't exactly worried. Except, um, I was, seeing as it meant we were sealed in. I mean, I kept some MREs and candy bars in my office, since I'm hypoglycemic and those things are guaranteed not to contain any hidden doses of citric acid. Plus we had vending machines and I probably could've started going through other people's desks eventually, but there were seven or eight people in the building and God only knew how long it would take someone to rescue us. Especially if Nellis had been overrun—I mean, they're practically inside Vegas city limits.
So I left my lab, first to check on the vending machine situation and then to ask the security people what we were going to do about supplies. Like I said, that was kind of their job. And I found them all—the lab monkeys and the janitors and the security people—in front of the door that lead down to the tunnels. They were opening it up.
I think that that point I said something like, "Oh my god, are you people suicidally insane?"
Apparently they'd entirely forgotten I was in the building, see. And they'd drawn all the same conclusions I had about food without making the connections between the lack of phone communications and the presence of ghouls in the tunnels. I tried to explain that to them, but the two guards were convinced that the tunnels couldn't possibly be infested, the phones and computers and things could've just as easily been knocked out in an exchange of fire on the surface, or maybe by an EMP5--and that was a personal dig at me, even though it only happened the one time, and it didn't even spread outside the building. Much.
Anyway, they wouldn't believe me, and they were determined to go ahead with their idea of a plan, which was to use the tunnels to get to the base stockpiles. It was the two security guys, two lab assistants and the big janitor. They had an override code for the doors, so they could open them up one at a time. I asked them what the rest of us were supposed to do—meaning me, another assistant and the janitor who was about four feet tall—and they said to guard the door. I asked what we were supposed to guard it with, an the wiseass little punks gave me a fire ax.
C'mon, be truthful here. Does this look like the physique of someone who should be wielding an ax? [He gestures at himself.] I don't think so. But apparently I missed the part where they were hanging out the good weapons because the little janitor got to carry a gun and I got an ax. Seriously.
Still, I wasn't intending to go down without a fight, so I stood back while they opened the door. And, okay, maybe I'd been exaggerating a tiny bit when I used the phrase "swallowed up by an undead tide," but they apparently assumed that when they didn't see any Gs right away, I was proven totally wrong and they were somehow guaranteed success.
(Susan and Rosalita. Those were the lab assistant and the janitor. I just remembered that now. Sorry, I'm bad with names.)
They went down the stairs and told us they'd be back in a couple hours. Oh, and we had a radio we were supposed to keep on, to keep in touch with them. So of course once they were out of sight I shut the security door and sealed it again.
What? Don't look at me like that. Just because Sergeant Hubris and Corporal Death Wish were certain the tunnels were clear doesn't mean I was taking a chance. If they made it back and it was safe to open the door, they could radio us the override code. Otherwise…I wasn't going to play the hero, holding the door open until the last second, okay? I'm not that brave.
So…we waited. Susan and Rosalita, I mentioned that was their names before, right? We waited, and I played around with the radio some, but all the channels were dead air or that moaning, which, I suppose, can also be described as "dead air" in a way…sorry, that's grim. No, wait, I'm not sorry, because this is a grim story and that's the closest thing to humor I can find in the situation. We waited on those assholes for hours, but the damned radios went out of range. I don't have a clue where they died. Susan told me how they'd listened on the radios as the bunkhouse was overrun, because somebody—and I know it's bad taste to speak ill of the dead, but this just screams of Kavenaugh's way of thinking—somebody thought they could escape by ramming the hangar door open with a Humvee and just drive over the fences to freedom. I mean, how could that possibly work outside the movies? All they did was give the Gs an easy in. Easier, since the other entrances were swarmed, too. I mean, Jesus.
But as for us, we waited by the door, to see if the others were going to make it back, so we heard the gunfire from the tunnels. Susan tried to use the radio, but whoever was doing the shooting either didn't have one or he was too busy to answer. I told you we were all briefed by the Alpha people, right? Including the part about shooting them in the head? Well, whoever was doing the shooting in the tunnel apparently hadn't heard that part, because he was on full automatic, just, brrrrrrrrrt, and we could hear the ricochets ping off our door at one point.
And then the power went out.
I forgot to mention why it matters that the power went out. Those fancy locks and shutters and things were all electronic, see. And because this was a laboratory and not, you know, a prison or whatever, whoever designed the system figured that if there was ever a crisis that killed the power, anybody inside the building was probably better off having a chance to evacuate than being sealed inside with no lights or air circulation. So the whole lockdown ended once Trigger-Happy Jack down in the tunnels hit the fusebox or whatever it was he did.
The other thing that happened when the power went out was that the reactor…well, it's complicated and slightly classified…basically the coolant pumps went to their back-up batteries, which are only supposed to last long enough to either restore grid power or get the reactor to shut down. And when that happened, alarms started going off, which were audible over the entire base. So, basically, one stray bullet turned our previously very secure location into a buffet with a dinner bell.
We ran for it, of course, to the extent that there was anywhere to run to--we were still trapped inside the fences with however many Gs had reanimated by that point. We went upstairs, and I really think if I'd had time to reason more carefully I could've found the components necessary for a pipe bomb and blown the stairs behind us. Well, maybe. Instead we headed back into my lab and locked ourselves in. Stupid idea, I know. I suppose we were still waiting for somebody to save us. Even over the alarms, we could hear the moaning from outside now, the swarm coming for us—I could see out my windows now and it was just a mess, half-eaten corpses in the road, just dozens of zombies in uniforms, all kinds of black smoke coming from the other side of the base where something was burning out of control, and I thought, well, so much for the military-industrial complex.
But Susan, you know, she actually asked a reasonable question for a postdoc, which was, "Can we turn those alarms off?" And I realize in hindsight it was already too late to do anything, the dead were already coming for us, but it at least gave us something else to do besides, you know, die. Or maybe it just didn't occur to her that it was too late and she really thought she was helping. I certainly wasn't thinking as clearly as I could've been…
Susan Todd. That was her name. I remember her last name because that was the same as the second Robin. Anyway.
The network had switched over completely to battery backup, so even though we didn't have overhead lights I could still use my computer, at least for a while. I managed to access the reactor controls and figured we had a couple hours, at the most, before the coolant pumps went down, and once that happened we'd be on track for a full-blown meltdown. I realized that I couldn't actually send the reactor into a complete shut-down from a remote station, but what I could do was…um…something complicated and classified. Sorry. I know that doesn't make a very good story. All my stories usually end like this and it really makes it hard for people to appreciate exactly how important my work…
You know what? Never mind.
The point. Um. I, we, uh, myself and Susan, we found another way to cool the reactor core that would delay a meltdown. It meant circulating radioactive gasses into the underground tunnels, but, um, I think it's pretty obvious at this point that none of us was planning to go down there, you know, ever again, and the dead certainly don't mind. I don't remember what Rosalita was doing at this point…I think maybe she was praying. She was leaning against the door and she was praying, and I don't think I mentioned that my lab door had a window in it before now, but it did, and that's how the first zombie got her. Just…punched through the glass, and seriously, if you're going to shell out for steel security doors, get better glass…not that there's anyone left to complain to about it…
They couldn't get through the door, but we couldn't get out. Rosalita shot through the open window and killed a few of them, enough to let her go, but she was already…they'd got her by the hair, and just…
[He goes and fixes himself another cup of coffee. When he sits again, he seems to have regained his composure.]
So you remember how I had that ax? I don't know why I brought it with me upstairs, it was a stupid idea. But Susan and I, we couldn't stay in the room, and the door was blocked, so…so I cut a hole in the wall with the axe. I'm serious, I really did. It was drywall over a steel frame, pretty easy to break through, and there was just enough space between the studs to squeeze by them once we found a spot that didn't have any ductwork or pipes in the way. Rosalita kept firing through the door while we broke through to the next lab, and next to that was another stairwell.
There were zombies on the stairs, but they'd just made it up to our floor, so we managed to run past them. All the way to the roof. God, it was hot up there—I think it was getting to be noon by then, and the roof was all concrete and weather vanes. The last flight of stairs was one of those fold-out kinds, you know, so the dead couldn't get up after us, and at that point I think we'd both snapped a little bit because, well. Because. So we pulled up the stairs and just went to sit on the edge of the roof. I think we even laughed a little.
I could really see the whole base from the roof. It was the armory that was on fire, and I could see the smashed-up front of the Humvee coming out of the hangar with the bunkhouse, and there was steam coming out of the storm drains—radioactive steam, I'm positive, from our little reactor trick. It didn't work—I think I should mention that it didn't work, there was still a meltdown, but much later than it could've been and much less severe. I guess all the zombies inside the fence were making enough noise to draw in swarms from across the desert…or maybe that was the alarm…because we were building up quite the crowd at the fences.
I think that's really when I gave up. Stopped laughing and all Seeing that many zombies in one place…I hadn't seen the news footage, yet, of the superwwarms or the Battle of Yonkers, so in a way I still didn't appreciate at the time just how many dead there were. And also, um, rooftop. Nevada. Summer. No water, no shade. I just sort of lay down, with my ax, and decided it was over. I think Susan must've had the same idea, because she told me, "Thank you." I'll always remember that. "Thank you, for trying." Not the big damn heroes who got themselves killed in the tunnels, not Rosalita who covered our backs while she was dying, but me. "Thank you."
I didn't say anything back. I should've said something back.
When the Alpha guys from Edwards arrived to clean up the base, we'd been on the roof for I guess thirty-six hours. It wasn't so bad, at night, but after the sun came up, I mean we both got so sunburned we were blistered and I was delirious enough that I thought the helicopters were a hallucination. I was delirious enough that I thought Susan was still alive. I kept asking about her until they got me hydrated and explained she was already dead, really thoroughly dead, by the time they got to us. Me. Got to me. Heat stroke.
[He pauses a long time, staring at the wall of his office, where a Standard Infantry Rifle hangs. Dr. McKay holds patents on three different elements of the famous weapon's design.]
So, yeah. Last living man at Area 51. But as I've tried to indicate, none of the base personnel got through the fences after they reanimated. All those radioactive zombies they found in Vegas and LA, they could've walked through the steam clouds from the meltdown, but they weren't base personnel. And anyway, they weren't dangerous enough to pose a health threat in the short term. Nothing like the ones from Iran and Pakistan, oh no.
That doesn't mean they're reopening the facility, though. Like I said, we didn't actually prevent the meltdown, and the Groom Lake area is going to be toxic for…well, a long time. So all those rumors about a secret lab doing studies on captured zombies, that's not Area 51, that's never going to be Area 51. Though I suppose it could be just another smokescreen.
[He looks at the mug on the desk.]
You want some coffee?
3South African plan: American name for the Redeker plan of civil defense. Dr. McKay's analogy may reflect an imperfect understanding of the plan's underlying logic. –Ed.
4Unconfirmed allegations circulate to this day that the undead virus spread via the black market in human organs. The Special Report and the Oral History both address this claim.—Ed.
5EMP: electromagnetic pulse. A burst of energy capable of disabling all electronic equipment in its radius.
I meet Ronon Dex by chance in one of the largest nortecubano6 bars in town. Like many private security contractors, he carries a secondary hand weapon—specifically, an ornate sword—as well as a slightly more conventional custom-made long-bore pistol. He speaks English with a neutral American accent but gives no specific details as to where his tale took place or who he is working for now.
It was a stupid plan. It would've been murder if it worked and suicide if it failed. I would've done it for Melena.
We were one of the expendable units. Zack bait. Our orders were to hold the stadium to the last man. We had six thousand people camped out on a soccer field with a moat7 of maybe half a million, half a million moaning day in and day out. Maybe that made Kell a little crazy. I don't know.
I knew him since basic training. Since before basic. Friend of the family, you know? Don't know how we ended up in the stadium together. Don't know why we were the expendable ones.
I would've tried it for Melena.
[He takes a shot of rum.]
Kell had this idea, a sort of mini Redeker. We'd start a fire at one end of the stadium, herd the civilians towards the main gates, then blow those open. Zack would head for the point of entry and we could get out the other end, covered by the fire. Retreat down the coast, find ourselves a little island and clear it off.
Six thousand civilians. There were a couple dozen of us. We weren't getting any supply drops, and people were hungry and angry and sick all over. Maybe that's why he suggested it. Maybe he went crazy from the moaning. Maybe it was something else. Maybe he just didn't see why we had to die for six thousand stinking, shitting, starving Zack snacks while the brass fell back to safety.
He asked me, when he first told me, "Do you want to die? If we run, we live. If we stay here we'll destroy each other before the dead get in. Do you want to look for Melena in Hell?"
[He signals the bartender for another shot of rum. When she brings it, he tips her nearly a hundred pesos and ignores her spluttering incredulity.]
He called a meeting in the old locker rooms under the stadium. We left a minimum presence up top and crammed ourselves in. He gave the same speech to the men, basically, laying out what he meant to do, asking them if they wanted to die here. I could see some of 'em nodding, the young ones in particular. Some of 'em were shaking their heads. But nobody wanted to interrupt him, not Kell—too famous, too high up.
But we were all supposed to be expendable.
And at the end of this little speech, Kell asked the men—he said, let's put it to a vote. Whether we stay and live or go and die. He passed around some torn-up paper, and he picked me to collect the votes. Guys knew I was close with Kell, most of 'em. Some of 'em even thought I was kinda scary looking.
[He grins, not to express humor but to show his teeth.]
So I let everybody vote on it. Collected the ballots in my helmet, brought 'em up to Kell. He asked me if I was planning to put my vote in.
That's when I shot him.
Nobody stopped me. Not even the guys who'd been nodding. I asked them if they thought I'd done wrong and nobody moved. I asked them if they were planning on leaving, and nobody moved. I told 'em that if one more cowardly son of a bitch tried to even think about opening up the gates, I'd shoot him, too. I said we'd sworn our lives to serve our country and the country was the people and the people were out on the field. I asked if we were gonna do our duty and I got them to say yes. Not all of them. Enough of them.
[He toys with his shot glasses, looking thoughtful.]
I'd have gone with Kell if Melena had been there. But Melena wouldn't have gone with us, you know? She stayed in the hospital to the end, with Gs coming out of the goddamn walls, she wouldn't leave her patients…I asked her, you know. Said I'd get her a uniform and get her through the lines, somewhere safe. She told me to go to hell, she wasn't leaving her patients. Somebody must've taken a pot shot at a G and hit an oxygen line, because the last thing I saw was just fire…
Doesn't matter, anyway. She wasn't there. She did her duty. I did mine.
[He lays down another extravagant tip, even if it's also meant to cover the cost of my beer. He does not indicate where he is going, and during the rest of my time in Havana I never see him again.]
6Nortecubano: Cuban slang for the 5 million refugees, mostly from the United States, who emigrated to their country at the start of the Great Panic. –Ed.
7Moat: a nickname for the large swarms of zombies that gathered outside refugee outposts. –Ed.
The UN Commission on Ecological Restoration has poured money into thousands of environmental projects meant to restore the natural world to its pre-war level of health. This is not one of them. Using hand tools and a considerable private investment, Teyla Emmagen's crew of two dozen men and women have already planted nearly sixty acres of trees on this denuded stretch of Indian Ocean coastline, navigating around the mass graves and the ruins of villages and towns. When a fine rain begins to fall in the afternoon, the workers pause, and Ms. Emmagen takes a break to speak to me. Several men twice her size bring us bottled water, and bow to her before leaving.
The people here did not have the luxury of a foraging season, not like the countries above the snow line. The dead never froze solid, and the tens of thousands in Mombasa8 needed to eat, to bathe, to heat their homes and distill their water. Who can blame foraging parties for taking whatever was to hand? The trees of the forest were better use as fuel than as a shield for the dead. I was not here; I cannot question their choice.
No, when the war began, I had just finished my first year at York University in Toronto. If you had not already guessed, [she gestures at herself, perhaps indicating her complexion] my mother was Canadian, and thus I had dual citizenship at the time. It made studying there much less complicated that it could have been, and I felt that a First World education was necessary if I would continue the work my father started, of fostering democracy and fighting corruption.
At least, that was my dream at first. By the end of my first semester I simply wanted to return home. [She pauses, then laughs.] It was so cold! I thought my father's relative wealth had made me so cosmopolitan, so wise in the ways of the world, but in some ways Torono was like living on an alien planet. I could not wait to return home…but of course by the end of the term the travel restrictions had begun, and by summer half the world seemed to be in flames.
Tell me about the beginning of the Panic. How was it for you?
For me personally, or for all the students who were accused of carrying "African rabies?"9[She raises an eyebrow.] The lightness of my skin helped me blend, but many others were no so lucky. A friend of mine, an Algerian, was attacked in his dormitory. Others were confronted at all hours of the day, demanding to know why we had brought this disease with us—as if we could speak for a whole continent of peoples, as if we were somehow immune. Only the Chinese students received more unwanted attention, because of the Taiwan Straits incident. At times I thought it did more for Chinese relations with the continent of Africa than all the infrastructure projects in the world.
I don't mean to say that everyone was so cruel and thoughtless. There were plenty of people who were kind and helpful, who defended us, or who simply did not care. But you can see why some of us were quite eager to get out of town that summer, among trusted friends, especially when the reports of infestation were arriving daily. We planned a camping trip, which was perhaps the luckiest choice we ever made; with our gear and our car, it was easy to continue running ahead of the worst traffic. When our gas ran out, we had warm clothes and study shoes, and so we began to hike.
And that's how you ended up in a Blue Zone?
Blue Zone…the Canadians used different nomenclature. Areas not yet overrun by the dead were rated single-A to five-A, based on their size, resources, and judgments about sustainability and security. Ours was only rated two-A; we were open to the Hudson Bay, and when my friends and I made it within the fences the local people had erected, we made a round fifty people.
That's awfully small.
Indeed it was. But in a way, our smallness was an asset as well as a burden…it was easier to maintain noise discipline among our group, for one thing, so as not to draw the dead to us. There were fewer hands to work and guard us, but also fewer mouths to feed. And we had an improbable collection of resources on our side—a working gas station, for instance, and cars we could use to forage during snowy weather. A retired nurse-practitioner lived in the town, and her husband had been a combat engineer and knew much of building fortifications. Many people were hunters, and so we had no shortage of weapons, even if buckshot is not as accurate as one may desire.
As for my friends and I…more my friends than myself, I admit…we had lived much of our lives without dependable electricity, trustworthy water service, flushing toilets. We may have known little about the plants and animals of the region, but we knew how to dig latrines, how to plant and keep a garden, how to can and dry our food, how to eat the same plain dishes for days on end without complaint. These were lessons our new neighbors had to learn by experience, just as we learned in hard ways the symptoms of frostbite and how to drive in snow.
Was there any tension between you and the native Canadians?
Of course. And there was tension between the men and the women, between the Catholics and the Methodists and our few Muslims, between the hockey fans and the football fans, between the Liberals and the Conservatives…shall I go on? The media of the postwar world likes to gloss over how very normal life inside A-zones could be…all the same stresses and worries and pettiness, and new ones besides, but none of the old traditional ways to avoid or vent or correct them. My Algerian friend, he once compared it to a pot of boiling rice…well, my attempts to boil rice. He meant there was always too much water or too little, too much starch or scorched grains, or water boiling over the sides of the pot—never were we all truly at peace, not even when the dead stood at the fences.
How did you cope with it?
Patience, prayer for some…I have long practiced a form of meditation. And we spoke, often, and at length, and thus learned to air our grievances with calm. The unofficial leader of the town was a man named Christopher Halling, and he was a good man…he reminded me very often of my father. My friends looked to me as our spokesperson, at first, and so we worked often together. Later there was less of a difference between outsiders and insiders…we were all neighbors. My Algerian friend even taught Halling's son how to shoot.
So you were cooped up with the same people for all those years.
There were a few changes…our nurse died, I am sad to say. I sang at her cremation. When the supply drops from across the mountains began, our rating was increased to three-A, and eventually a soldier volunteered to parachute into our location. He brought with him a very good radio, and gunsmithing tools…we had grown quite low on ammunition at that point. More than that, though, he was a new face, and he bore our fascination with him well—as soon as he touched down, he invited us to call him Chuck. I am sure we all seemed quite mad to him, but he was never less than friendly and courteous.
You sound fond of him.
He was a good man as well; he spent many hours with that radio, trying to communicate to our friends and families in our many homelands, though he must've known it was futile. We had all listened to Radio Free Earth, of course, and we knew how badly most of Africa was overrun—ironic, considering it was the Redeker plan that saved the world, no? But too many places lacked infrastructure, lacked safe ways to travel even without the lurking dead…and too many people made rash and foolish choices. [She looks over the irregular rows of young trees.] This forest was cut for firewood. Others simply burned, out of control, their trees killed by the changing weather and then ignited by scared and foolish people. The living did as much damage as the dead, and we will be a long time repairing it.
What was it like being liberated?
It is an interesting word, liberation. It did not feel like liberation at the time. The Canadian Forces swept through in winter, and so they camped for many days nearby, searching for the frozen dead under the snow as best they could. Some of us helped them; some of us hid; some of us walked dazedly among their camps, unsure of how to live among strangers after so long. Chuck told us of his plans to return to Edmonton and seek out some relatives who may have survived. It was many days before it truly hit me what he meant—that we could leave our flimsy fences. We could go home.
But not right away, surely.
Oh, of course not. But it was a start. We returned to Toronto when the city was cleared…not that our belongings from before were good to us…and we began to look for options. The UN multinational force was just forming, the South Africans were barely to their own prewar borders, but the Libyans—oh, we used to hate the Libyans—they had raised an army large enough to sweep all along the Mediterranean coast. Eventually, with a bit of luck, we made it across the border into the United States, and from there on a ship to Oran.
With your Algerian friend?
[She smiles.] By then he was much more than a friend. Our families would never have permitted it…but by then, we were very much a family of our own. [She looks fondly at a small boy, perhaps ten years old, and a man with Middle Eastern features who are eating apples in the back of one old pick-up truck.] Kanaan does not have the temperament to be a soldier, so he stayed in Oran with Torren when I joined the Multinational Force. It was eighteen months before the African Campaign was declared over.
That must've been hard.
Harder than flying to a new continent, a new world, with one suitcase and a brand-new passport? Harder than eating burnt rice for weeks on end when our supplies ran short? [She shakes her head.] Physically it was impossibly demanding—we crossed the Sahara on foot, digging the dead out of the sand, and we carved our way through jungles—I cannot count how many trees I felled, how many I have yet to replace. But those dark hours were a battle I fought not just for the abstract future of my country or our species, but for my son. He will be raised among his own people—both of them—and he will know a world of the living, not the dead. It is the greatest gift I could have given him.
Is that why you're planting trees?
[She smiles, and begins ticking off on her fingers.] Planting trees, yes. We—my foundation, which I named for my father and my son—we also clean rivers and harbors, build roads, teach sustainable farming methods…if there is any good thing to be pulled from so much death and destruction, it is that chance to begin again, and to do better. Every nation has this chance, but some more sorely needed it. No longer can we blame our problems on the British or the French or the Belgians, and if we miss this opportunity, we cannot blame the dead, either. We reclaimed our countries inch by painful inch, and now we must decide what to do with them. If someday my grandchildren can play among these trees we plant…it will be victory enough for me.
8Mombasa Island served as a wartime capital of Kenya, under their version of the Redeker Plan.
9"African Rabies" was an early name given to the undead virus, when the true nature of the plague was still being covered up. –Ed.