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Only What You Can Carry

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Free State of San Carlos, Aztlán

 

     [Kate Macer is a handsome woman, tanned and lean. She’s come in from her shift in the vegetable garden inside the Spanish citadel’s innermost courtyard – the oldest  garden in what is still called a Free State despite its voluntary, peaceful annexation by the new Mexican state, on behalf of which Ms. Macer holds the title of Regional Co-Governor. The young man, who brings us a plastic pitcher of well water and two cups, calls her by her first name but uses the polite form of address. Kate Macer’s English is faintly accented after years of living among a mostly Spanish- and Nahuatl-speaking population. Throughout our interview, her eyes rove between my face, the sparse furniture in the room where we sit, and the remains of the town of Perote just visible through the window behind me.]

 

You’d think the dead rising would have exhausted my lifetime stock of surprise and shock, but no. That happened when Alejandro knocked on my door one morning soon after the talking heads on TV stopped yammering only about a treatable condition and started using phrases like ‘end of the world.’ I’d never thought to see him again, and there he was, large as life and ordering me around again.

 

He told me to bring what I could, nothing sentimental, pack the most essential stuff into a knapsack I could carry easily if we had to bail from his car for whatever reason. Well, it turns out ‘only what you can carry’ is fucking heavy and a hell of a lot of crap, no matter how much you pare it down. I had a bag left over from a backpacking trip of Europe I took in college, one of those great big ones with straps for a bedroll on top. If I filled it to the brim, there was no way I could run for more than a quarter of a mile with it strapped to my back, and anything I took out seemed essential: a Swiss army knife, a lighter, a packet of beef jerky…

 

I’d let myself become kind of a mess when things started to fall apart. My partner at the Bureau got killed in one of the anti-immigration riots. Militiamen convinced that illegal immigrants were bringing the zed virus north of the border in order to destroy America, didn’t take kindly to an African-American with government credentials telling them to disperse in an orderly fashion. Showing up for work quickly became redundant, cash and credit had no value next to things you could barter. I hadn’t left my apartment in over a week when Alejandro turned up. I was running low on food. Water no longer came out of the taps, so I’d been drinking Red Bull and Wild Turkey and taking wet-wipe showers, when I bothered to wash at all.

 

Well, packing my bag while Alejandro told me to bring this not that and I cursed at him, was a real head-clearing adrenaline kick. He consented to my bringing one extra which didn’t fit in my backpack, in addition to a down jacket and spare hiking boots he approved: a box of tampons from Costco, about six months’ worth. I think Alejandro was annoyed he hadn’t thought of it himself. [Her tone turns wistful.] I really, really miss tampons. The scented, soft-as-a-kitten, mass-produced kind in the pink paper wrappers. Civilizational decadence sometimes rocked.

 

I felt a little better about everything once I saw Alejandro’s vehicle. I’m not kidding, it was the best thing I laid my eyes on since those first TV reports about the outbreak. It had bulletproof windows, bumpers modified for ramming, and the trunk and the backseat were packed tight with bottled water, packaged food, firearms and boxes of ammo, gas cans, spare tires, spare car battery, machetes, an axe, a saw, other hand tools, seed packets, liquid pesticide, water-purification tablets, antibiotics, several first-aid kits. A regular survivalist’s Walmart in an SUV. On the passenger seat sat a bag of oranges, a road map, a compass, and a loaded Uzi. Alejandro had even brought an extra sleeping bag for me. I remember I told him, “How thoughtful of you.” He’s always had a stimulating effect on my defense mechanisms. You know what he replied? “You’re no use to me if you’re too cold and sick to fight or run, and I’d rather not have to shoot you again.”

 

        [She laughs at my expression.]

 

That’s a different story, from before the world went to shit. For a while back then, I used to think things couldn’t get any worse for me, but I sure got proven wrong. Anyway.

 

What was your first encounter with the dead on the road?

 

It happened just as we were leaving Phoenix. We came across an open fire hydrant which was somehow still working. Not gushing like they used to do, more like a steady trickle. A crowd had gathered with buckets, bottles, whatever. There was no semblance of order, people shoved each other out of the way, people slipped and fell in the puddles. Alejandro stayed with the SUV while I grabbed a couple of empty canisters. Yeah, he’d even packed those. [Briefly she drops her voice in imitation of a man speaking.] “All eventualities.” I was trying to decide how best to fight my way to the hydrant when I heard an old man raise his voice: “Birdie, Birdie! Sweetheart, please don’t be like this.” I looked around and saw a man with a walker tugging on the hem of a woman’s dress. She had blue-rinsed hair. An empty gallon jug hung loose in her hand.

 

I saw her eyes. They were empty of… everything. Next thing I knew, she’d bared her teeth and sunk them in her husband’s cheek. He screamed, the crowd took notice. Some people took up the screaming, others started to run away, still others clung to their water containers. Several were armed. One of them shot the woman before she could bite anyone else. Her husband was crying, clutching his cheek. I looked at him, looked at the blood coming out of his face, looked at my service Glock – I don’t remember pulling it out of its holster – then I shot him, once in the chest, and once in the head.

 

After that, it’s a bit of a blur. I know I was sitting in a puddle of water, the Glock in my lap, clutching my head and feeling like I might vomit. The canisters, full of water, appeared on the ground in my line of sight. Alejandro told me to get up. “I can’t.” “Are you bitten? Scratched?” I shook my head. He put his hand on the back of my neck. “Get up and carry the water, Kate.” I got up, then, alright. I jumped up, shook off his hand, and started screaming at him. “Fuck you! Stop being so fucking calm! I just shot an unarmed man before he’d even reanimated, and I don’t want to rationalize it, OK? Fuck!” Or words to that effect. A bunch of people were still gathered around the fire hydrant. The two corpses didn’t faze them, but they were all watching the show I was putting on. Alejandro said nothing, just picked up one of the canisters and headed back to the car. I stood raging a second longer, then I got the second canister and my gun and hurried after him. He was getting me out of Phoenix, but I wouldn’t have put it past him to drive away and leave me if I became too much trouble. Of course, once I’d calmed down it occurred to me he wouldn’t have left the second canister behind if he’d really been about to leave me stranded.

 

So you drove south, across the border?

 

If you could still call it a border at that point. This was at the very beginning of what they now call the Great Panic, but already any semblance of border control was a joke. People were crossing both ways, some had heard zed could freeze in extreme cold, so they wanted to reach Canada or Alaska. Others thought zed would decompose faster in the warm south. I guess that latter group had never heard of the difference between deserts and jungles. Yeah, both Mexico and the United States saw a sharp spike in illegal immigration in those days.

 

Alejandro Gillick had a plan, though.

 

He had a plan, alright. He’d done a lot of questionable shit when I first knew him, before, but this was the first time I seriously questioned his sanity. I mean, Veracruz is over 2000 miles from Phoenix, gas stations and stores along the way were likely to be looted or burned down, cities were at best war zones, and there were thousands, maybe millions of refugees and zed and refugee-zed roaming everywhere. The world was falling down around our ears, and Alejandro wanted us to head for some Spanish fortress-turned-prison-turned-tourist-attraction he’d toured once, years ago, while working as a prosecutor in Old Mexico. The only reason I didn’t tell him to go to hell and leave with my backpack was that I didn’t have a goddamn clue where else I might go or what else I might try to survive. And Alejandro always had a way about him. Even when he frightened me, I felt safe around him. Like he was always the most dangerous person around, so other dangers paled by comparison. One thing I noticed: when the dead rose, all the bullshit got stripped away. People decided their allegiances in the blink of an eye, and I knew what I was getting into with Alejandro.

 

How fast was your progress south?

 

Even slower than I’d feared. You could have made that trip in a day and a half of steady driving, before. It took us nearly three weeks. The Uzi I’d found on the passenger seat came in handy whenever we came across an improvised roadblock, some asshole setting himself up as king of the ashes and wanting to extort travelers. We also passed zed in ones and twos and small groups, but we didn’t run into the first bigger group until we were south of the border. They were milling around a plain beneath a line of rolling hills. We knew if we tried to drive through them, we’d just attract their attention, so we decided to pick them off from our vantage point on top of the hills. There were maybe fifty of them, and we had sniper scopes and plenty of ammo.

 

Were those the first dead you killed?

 

I don’t know. Maybe. I’d seen them in Phoenix, while the Bureau and the local PD still bothered with them, but this was the first time I could be certain it was zed I was killing and not some crazed homeless junkie with really bad skin. My FBI training was OK for stopping living targets, but of course center of mass doesn’t do shit to zed. You have to get a headshot or you’re just wasting ammo and making sure they notice you. Alejandro was very good at headshots, which irritated me to no end. It also spurred me to get better faster. I wanted to live, but I also wanted to show him up. The two sort of went hand in hand.

 

How did shooting zed make you feel?

 

You sound like a shrink. Takes me back. Psych evals. [She sighs.] I tried not to feel anything much. It was easier if they were obviously dead, in a state of advanced decomp, that kind of thing. Then it was just a matter of defending ourselves from a predator, like a rattlesnake. When they were freshly dead, though, that could be tough. One time…

 

     [She rubs her eyebrow, drinks her water.]

 

I’m not sure I should tell you this. Alejandro might not appreciate it… What the hell. We inched our way south and gave Mexico City a wide berth. It added a few days to our travel time, but we knew better than to get within 20 miles of a major population center. Only this used to be an overpopulated world, you couldn’t ever get too far from human habitation. We hit a knot of zed outside an abandoned village, maybe 200 of them. They were shambling right down the middle of the road, covering it completely, and the landscape there was all rough scrub and scree and big rocks. We couldn’t risk damaging the SUV’s undercarriage or getting a puncture if we got off the road to skirt around them. So we did the sensible thing: we plowed straight through them, where the herd was thinnest but we could keep all four tires on the tarmac.

 

You ever seen human tissue smeared across a windshield? Yeah, our visibility dropped like we’d entered a thick fog, but we kept going as straight as we could. When we were through and had put distance between us and them, I suggested we stop and clean the windshield. Then I heard it. The moan. You can’t ever mistake it for anything else, like police sirens and ice-cream trucks used to be. It was coming from my side of the vehicle. I pressed my face against the window to look down the side of the car and saw her: a girl, maybe 10 years old when she died, clinging to the door handle and lifting herself to face me. I couldn’t see the lower half of her body, maybe she’d lost it while hanging on as we dragged her along the road.

 

Then we were eye to eye. She was long dead. We stared at each other like something in a cowboy movie. Then she started bashing her face against the window, gnashing her teeth, trying to get through to me, and moaning all the time.

 

Alejandro told me to unbuckle my seatbelt and lie down across the front seat so my head and shoulders would be on his side of the car. He pulled out his gun. One of his guns, I mean, we always kept at least two each on us, plus spares under the front seats and in the glove compartment. Anyway, once I was in position, lying across my seat and his lap, he told me to hit the button to lower my window and pull my hand away quickly.

 

The window needed about three seconds to lower completely. After one second, the girl had her right arm through the widening gap and was reaching for me. Alejandro shot her arm off at the shoulder – she was really a long time dead – but she still had her left arm and didn’t lose her grip on the car door. Two seconds, and she stuck her head in through the window, kept snapping her teeth and straining her neck to try and get within biting distance of me. Alejandro’s second shot took half her head off. She stopped moving, but her left hand was still wrapped around the door handle.

 

I got up off Alejandro’s lap, kicked the door open just to make sure there was distance between me and her. I glanced back at him, wanting to say I could get her body off the car, Alejandro had done enough.

 

He was… I’d never seen him like that before. I’ve never seen him like that since. There was a look on his face, like he might shoot himself next, or shoot me. Or, I don’t know, cry. He lost a child, you see, long before, a little girl, and… Well. I told him to stay put, then I got out of the car, pried the body away, and carried it into the scrub. I grabbed a bottle of water from the back, sluiced down the windshield and the window, got back in, and he was still clutching his gun and staring at the horizon. “Alejandro,” I said. “We need to go. There’s 200 zed coming up behind us. Are you OK to drive or do you want me to take over?” “I’m fine,” he lied. “I’m fine. I’ll drive.”

 

What happened next?

 

We drove more or less nonstop for 36 hours, took turns sleeping in our vehicle. Between zed, refugees, and human gangs, damage to the roads, and having to detour down unpaved goat trails, our average speed was maybe 5-10 miles per hour. We only stopped to piss and refuel. The car, not ourselves, we ate and drank while driving. On the second day, we found an empty villa on a hilltop with two roads leading up to it and good sightlines. Big attached garage with the door still on it to hide the SUV. We were pretty wiped out by then, so we decided to risk spending the night. We rigged up some tripwires around the doors and downstairs windows, just in case anyone else – alive or zed – happened to come wandering in.

 

The place must have belonged to some narco. Inside it was all marble and red upholstery. A single zed trapped in the basement, easy to take out from the top of the stairs. We found gold jewelry, US dollars, and white powder all over the floor of the master bedroom, bullet holes and blood smears on the walls. My guess is, no one walked out of there fully alive.

 

Anyway, you don’t want to know about the décor, you want to know what happened at the villa. Well, what happened was that Alejandro had been even quieter than usual ever since the girl, and I kept thinking that he and I had this pretty fucked-up history, and then he turned up to whisk me away on his white horse when the dead rose, and how much I wanted something to make me feel alive. I wanted an indulgence, something unnecessary for basic survival. I could have shot at people, never mind zed, for a full pack of cigarettes and the leisure to smoke them.

 

     [She laughs.]

 

Some priorities, huh? Zed scared me, sure, and I saw lots of disturbing shit along the way. But nicotine withdrawal, now that’s a real horror show. Well, I couldn’t have a cigarette, the bar in the villa’s gilt-and-marble lounge was empty or the bottles were broken, there wasn’t even any marijuana at the narco’s house, can you believe that? So I snuck out to the garage. A few days earlier, during a pit stop to refuel, I was rummaging around in the car when what should I find inside a box with bars of hand and laundry soap but a big pack of condoms. All eventualities, indeed. I didn’t say anything at the time, but I memorized how to find that box again. Then I marched into the bedroom Alejandro had claimed for himself and asked him if he was ever going to make a move, or was he waiting for me to bat my eyelashes and wonder out loud how I could ever thank him for saving my life. He stared at me in silence, but I could see the fog clearing. He was more like himself again. So I took a chance that I might kiss him and he wouldn’t make me regret it.

 

     [Brief silence.]

 

And then?

 

Yeah, I’m not giving you a blow-by-blow. It was nice, let’s leave it at that. We both felt properly alive. We also felt like shit in the morning, because we hadn’t had much sleep, and we couldn’t risk staying put for more than a night. So back in the car we went and kept driving south then east. We got here five days later. End of the yellow-brick road.

 

Did you find any other survivors inside the fortress?

 

No, but there were enough zed to suggest some people must have made it inside before they turned. It took us a while to clear the whole place and be able to move around in relative safety. Eventually other people turned up. There were even some other Americans among them. We shut everyone up in what had used to be cells for solitary confinement, until they passed quarantine. If they refused, they had to leave. This was the first thing Alejandro and I agreed on once we’d cleared the fortress of zed. We knew other refugees might join us, letting in anyone who might be infected would have been about the dumbest thing we could have done.

 

Who came up with the name, the Free State of San Carlos?

 

Alejandro and I didn’t call it anything, or maybe just ‘the fortress.’ When people started trickling in, we worked out shifts for everyone: gardening, washing, kitchen and mess hall, laundry and bakery, mending and maintenance, patrols, gathering fuel, digging and clearing wells and latrines, later on there was the school and the nursery to run, the hospital and the graveyard to manage, the monthly market to oversee, fields around the fortress to tend, cows and horses to mind and dogs to train, marauders and roaming zed to watch out for. We were besieged twice, which required keeping a close eye on discipline and morale inside the fortress. Other than that, we let people sort themselves out, provided no one stole from or assaulted anyone else. I guess people felt relatively free of fear in a place like this. At first, before the village was built, we all slept in rooms which used to be cells while the fortress was a prison. I joked once that the population of the Free State of San Carlos was its gen pop. The others didn’t know the term, but they liked it, and it stuck. Now they call themselves that: the Gen Pop of San Carlos.

 

It has a ring to it. You must have done more than draw up work rotas?

 

We maintained order, arbitrated disputes before they escalated. Of course, there were always problems, people who thought they were the exception to every rule, however basic or commonsensical. People who challenged every authority because they wanted everything and everyone to bend to them. They didn’t last long.

 

What happened to them?

 

[She shrugs, her expression neutral.] What always happens when the good of the many is endangered by a few greedy individuals: the example made of them served as a deterrent and an example to others.

 

Can you explain what you mean by that?

 

I’d rather not go into specifics. Alejandro told me once the US-Mexican border had become a land of wolves. This was before, you know, with the cartels and everything. I guess when the dead rose, wolves became the least of anyone’s concerns.

 

I have asked to interview Mr. Gillick.

 

And he said no. Don’t feel bad, he didn’t single you out. Since the annexation, Alejandro shuns whatever now passes for publicity.

 

He’s still Regional Co-Governor.

 

We’re private people.

 

I was hoping you might speak to him on my behalf.

 

I’ve never been able to change Alejandro’s mind about anything. I’d accept his refusal and move on, if I were you. Plenty of other people here you can speak to.

 

But not anyone else who founded the Free State of San Carlos and negotiated the terms of its annexation. Nearly 400 people survived here, under your joint leadership, before Aztlán reasserted its authority. It’s natural that people are curious.

 

[She shrugs again, though a smile graces her face.] You got my story, at least. Take what you can get and only as much as you can carry, and be grateful. There’s a life motto we can all embrace.