Authors: Joe McKinney
For Clay McKinney and David Snell.
Thanks for making it happen.
We’re about to take a long walk together through the wasteland, but before we get started I want to take a moment to thank a few people who deserve a lot more than the mere mention I’m about to give them. No book is ever a solo journey, and this one was no exception. These kind folks helped me get from beginning to end:
Jacob Kier, David Snell, Arthur Casas, Jim Donovan, Gary Goldstein, Lisa Morton, David Wellington, Brian Keene, Kevin Luzius, Amy Grech, Bruce Boston, Marge Simon, Mitchel Whitington, Michelle McCrary, Tobey Crockett, Mark Onspaugh, Mark Kolodziejski, Michael McCarty, Lee Thomas, Charlie Delgado, Michael Starnes, Adam Zeldes, Donald Strader, Gabrielle Faust, Shawn and Grady Hartman, Joe and Jennifer McKinney, Alexander Devora, Tiffany and Clay McKinney, Thomas McAuley, Beckie Ugolini, Caren Creech, Joel Sutherland, Harry Shannon, Kim Paffenroth, Matt Staggs, Angie Hawkes, Chris Fulbright, Greg Lamberson, Corey Mitchell, Michelle McKee, Ray Castillo, A. Lee Martinez, John Picacio, Sanford Allen, Matt Louis, Norman Rubenstein, Richard Dean Starr, Michelle Mondo, David Pruitt, Steven Wedel, John Joseph Adams, Nate Kenyon, Bev Vincent, Brian Freeman, Louise Bohmer, Weston Ochse, Judy Comeau, Graeme Flory, Fran Fiel, and Gene O’Neill.
And, as always, to my lovely wife, Kristina, and my daughters, Elena and Brenna, who make this a world worth living in.
They asked him, then, whether to live or die was a matter of his own sovereign will and pleasure. He answered, certainly. In a word, it was Queequeg’s conceit, that if a man made up his mind to live, mere sickness could not kill him: nothing but a whale, or a gale, or some violent, ungovernable, unintelligent destroyer of that sort.—HERMAN MELVILLE
Down there in the ruins it was low tide. Galveston Bay had receded, leaving the wreckage of South Houston’s refineries and trailer parks up to their waists in black water. Moving over the destruction at eight hundred feet in a Schweizer 300, the thropping of the helicopter’s rotors echoing in his ears, Michael Barnes scanned the flooded ruins for movement. The Schweizer was little more than a pair of lawn chairs strapped to an engine, but its wide-open bubble cockpit offered an unobstructed view of what had been, before Hurricane Mardell ripped the skin off the city, a vast cluster of tankers and docks and refineries and arterial bayous, the breadbasket of America’s domestic oil and gas industry. Now the world below Michael Barnes’s helicopter looked like a junkyard that had tumbled down a staircase.
Flying over the flooded city, Barnes remembered what it was like after the storm, all those bodies floating in the streets, how they had bloated and baked in the sun. He remembered the chemical fires from the South Houston refineries turning the sky an angry red. A green, iridescent chemical scum had coated the floodwaters, making it shimmer like it was alive. That mixture of rotting flesh and chemicals had produced a stench that even now had the power to raise the bile in his throat.
What he didn’t know—what nobody knew, at the time—was the awful alchemy that was taking place beneath the floodwaters, where a new virus was forming, one capable of turning the living into something that was neither living nor dead, but somewhere in between.
Before the storm, Barnes had been a helicopter pilot for the Houston Police Department. Grounded by the weather, he’d been temporarily reassigned to East Houston, down around the Galena Park area, where the seasonal floods were traditionally the worst. The morning after the storm, he’d climbed into a bass boat with four other officers and started looking for survivors.
Everywhere he looked, people moved and acted like they’d suddenly been transported to the face of the moon. Their clothes were torn to rags, their faces glazed over with exhaustion and confusion. Barnes and his men didn’t recognize the first zombies they encountered because they looked like everybody else. They moved like drunks. They waded through the trash-strewn water, stumbling toward the rescue boats, their hands outstretched like they were begging to be pulled aboard.
The city turned into a slaughterhouse. Cops, firefighters, National Guardsmen, and Red Cross volunteers went in thinking they’d be saving lives but emerged as zombies, spreading the infection throughout the city. Barnes considered himself lucky to have escaped. When the military sealed off the Gulf Coast, they’d trapped hundreds of thousands of uninfected people inside the wall with the zombies. Barnes emerged with his life, and his freedom; nearly two million people weren’t so lucky.
And with the rest of America in an unstoppable economic nosedive after the death of its domestic oil, gas, and chemical industries, he considered himself lucky to get a job with the newly formed Quarantine Authority, a branch of the Office of Homeland Security that was assigned to protect the wall that stood between the infected and the rest of the world.
But all that was two years ago. It felt like another lifetime.
Today, his job was a routine sweep with the Coast Guard. Earlier that morning, a surveillance plane had spotted a small group of survivors—known as Unincorporated Civilian Casualties by the politicians in Washington, but simply as “uncles” by the flyboys in the Quarantine Authority—working to wrest a wrecked shrimp boat loose from a tangle of cables and nets and overgrown vegetation. Most of the boats left in the Houston Ship Channel were half-sunken wrecks. And what hadn’t sunk was hopelessly, intractably mired in muck and garbage. There was no chance at all that a handful of uncles could get a boat loose from all that mess and make a run for it. And even if they could, they’d never be able to beat the blockade of Coast Guard cutters waiting just off shore. They’d be blasted out of the water before they lost sight of land. But the Quarantine Authority’s mission was to make sure nobody escaped from the zone, and so the order had gone out, as it had numerous times before, to mobilize and neutralize as necessary.
Now, along with three other pilots from the Quarantine Authority, Barnes was slowly moving south toward the Houston Ship Channel. Once there, they’d rendezvous with the boys from the Coast Guard’s Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron, known as HITRON, and act as forward observers while the H-Boys took care of any survivors who might be trying to escape to the Gulf of Mexico.
“Good Gawd, would you look at them?” said Ernie Faulks, one of the Quarantine Authority pilots off to Barnes’s right. In the old days, Faulks had made his living flying helicopters back and forth from the oil rigs just offshore. He was an irredeemable redneck, but cool under pressure, especially in bad weather.
Barnes glanced up from the ruins below and saw a string of seven orange-and-white Coast Guard helicopters closing on their position. Even from a distance, Barnes could pick out the silhouettes of the HH-60 Jayhawks and the HH-65 Dolphins.
“You know what those babies are?” said Paul Hartle, a former HPD pilot and Barnes’s preferred flanker. “Those are chariots of the gods, my friend. Ain’t a helicopter made that can hold a candle to those bad boys.”
“I’d love to fly one of them things,” answered Faulks. “I bet they’re faster than your sister, Hartle. Sure are prettier.”
“Fuck you, Faulks.”
Faulks made kissy noises at him.
“All right, guys, kill the chatter,” Barnes said.
Technically, he was supposed to write up the guys when they cussed on the radio, but he let it slide. A little friendly kidding was good for morale. And besides, as pilots, Barnes and the others were seen as hotshots within the Quarantine Authority. They were held to different standards, given special privileges, looked up to by the common guys on the wall. Being pilots, they had to do more, take bigger risks. It was why all these guys loved flying, why they kept coming back.
But in every profession there is a hierarchy, and while Barnes and his fellow Quarantine Authority pilots had a firm grip on the upper rungs of the status ladder, the very top rung was owned by the H-Boys from the Coast Guard’s HITRON Squadron. Originally created to stop drug runners in high-speed cigarette boats off the Florida coast, the H-Boys now did double duty patrolling the quarantine zone’s coastline. They flew the finest helicopters in the military, and their gun crews had enough ordnance at their disposal to turn anything on the water into splinters and chum. The pilots in the Quarantine Authority worshiped them, wanted to be them when they grew up. It was the Quarantine Authority Air Corp, in fact, that had come up with the H-Boys’ nickname.
“Papa Bear calling Quarter Four-One.”
Quarter Four-One was Barnes’s call sign. Papa Bear was Coast Guard Captain Frank Hays on board the P-3 Orion that was circling overhead.
“Quarter Four-One, go ahead, sir.”
“I’d like to welcome you and your men to the show, Officer Barnes. Now, all elements, stand by to Susie, Susie, Susie.”
“Mama Bear Six-One, roger Susie.”
Barnes scanned the line of orange-and-white helicopters until he saw one to the far right dipping its rotors side to side. That was Mama Bear, Lt. Commander Wayne Evans, the senior officer in the squadron and the quarterback for this mission. Once the sweep got under way, he would be the link between the individual helicopters and Papa Bear up in the P-3 Orion. Barnes had worked with Evans before and knew the man had a talent for keeping a cool head and an even cooler tone of voice on the radio when things got sticky.
“This is Echo Four-Three, roger Susie.”
“Delta One-Six, roger Susie.”
“This is Bravo Two-Five, roger Susie.”
The pattern continued down the line of Coast Guard helicopters, each one answering up with their call sign and the code word “Susie,” which was the signal for the sweep to begin.
When they’d all answered up, Mama Bear said, “Quarter Four-One, you and your men drop to three hundred feet and recon the quadrants north of here. Sound off if you spot any uncles.”
“Yes, sir,” Barnes answered.
He gave the orders for his team to drop altitude and spread out over the area. They had done this many times before, and they all knew the drill. And they all knew that the order to sound off if they spotted any uncles was superfluous. The HITRON boys had the finest heat-sensing equipment in the world. Their cameras would spot any bodies down there long before Barnes and his men could. What Barnes and the others were expected to do was identify whether or not the bodies spotted were uncles or zombies. The HITRON boys would only get involved if they had uncles.
But telling the difference under the current conditions wasn’t going to be easy. They had maybe thirty minutes of usable daylight left, and there was a spreading shadow over the ruins that gave everything, even at three hundred feet, a monochromatic grayness.
Barnes recognized the ghostly outlines of Sheldon Road beneath the water. Its length was dotted with tanker trucks and pickups that, even at low tide, were a good five or six feet beneath the surface. He looked east, across a long line of metal-roofed warehouses that shimmered with the reddish-bronze glare of sunset. From frequent flyovers, Barnes knew that at low tide the water was only about two or three feet deep on the opposite side of those warehouses. If they were going to find uncles, that’s where they’d be.
Within moments his instincts proved true. Boats and cranes and even a few larger tankers had been spread by the tides across the flooded swamp that had once been a huge tract of mobile homes. In and among the debris and stands of marsh grass he spotted a large number of people threading their way toward three medium-sized shrimp boats waiting just offshore. One of them already had its engines going. Barnes could see puffs of black smoke roiling up from beneath the waterline.
Several faces turned up to track his movement over their location. He felt like he could see the desperation in their expressions, and he turned away. He didn’t like doing this, but it was necessary.
“Quarter Four-One, I’ve got uncles east of the warehouses.”
There was a pause before Mama Bear answered up. “Quarter Four-One, roger that. You sure they’re uncles?”
Barnes could hear the indignation in the man’s voice. Though they were all on the same team, the H-Boys knew they were the all-stars. Barnes was sure the man was cussing to himself that a Quarantine Authority pilot in a Schweizer POS had spotted their objective before his boys did.
Barnes enjoyed making his reply. “Oh, I’m sure, Mama Bear. I estimate between forty and sixty uncles. Looks like they’ve got themselves three shrimp boats, too.”
There was a pause. Must be on the private line to Papa Bear, Barnes thought.
Finally, Mama Bear answered. “Roger that, Quarter Four-One. Go ahead and give ’em Mona.”
Come again, thought Barnes.
“Uh, Quarter Four-One, I didn’t copy. You said to give ’em Mona?”
“Mama Bear, did you copy they got three shrimp boats in the water?”
“Roger your three shrimp boats, Quarter Four-One. Echo Four-Three and Delta One-Six will fall in behind in case you need assistance. Now give ’em Mona.”
Give ’em Mona was the strategy most commonly employed by Quarantine Authority personnel when they spotted uncles trying to breach the wall. The expression came from the amplified zombie moans the Quarantine Authority personnel played over their PA systems. The moans carried for tremendous distances, attracting any zombies that might be in the area. Usually, the moans were enough to send the uncles into hiding.