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DENVER, COLORADO, USA

[My train is late. The western drawbridge is being tested. Todd Wainio doesn’t seem to mind waiting for me at the platform. We shake hands under the station’s mural of Victory, easily the most recognizable image of the American experience in World War Z. Originally taken from a photograph, it depicts a squad of soldiers standing on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, their backs turned to us as they watch dawn break over Manhattan. My host looks very small and frail next to these towering, two-dimensional icons. Like most men of his generation, Todd Wainio is old before his time. With an expanding paunch, receding, graying hair, and three, deep, parallel scars down the side of his right cheek, it would be difficult to guess that this former U.S. Army infantryman is still, at least chronologically, at the beginning of his life.]

The sky was red that day. All the smoke, the crap that’d been filling the air all summer. It put everything in an amber red light, like looking at the world through hell-colored glasses. That’s how I first saw Yonkers, this little, depressed, rust-collar burb just north of New York City. I don’t think anybody ever heard of it. I sure as hell hadn’t, and now it’s up there with, like, Pearl Harbor…no, not Pearl…that was a surprise attack. This was more like Little Bighorn, where we…well…at least the people in charge, they knew what was up, or they should have. The point is, it wasn’t a surprise, the war…or emergency, or whatever you want to call it…it was already on. It had been, what, three months since everyone jumped on the panic train.

You remember what it was like, people just freaking out…boarding up their houses, stealing food, guns, shooting everything that moved. They probably killed more people, the Rambos and the runaway fires, and the traffic accidents and just the…the whole shit storm that we now call “the Great Panic”; I think that killed more people at first than Zack.

I guess I can see why the powers that be thought that one big stand-up battle was such a good idea. They wanted to show the people that they were still in charge, get them to calm the hell down so they could deal with the real problem. I get it, and because they needed a propaganda smackdown, I ended up in Yonkers.

It actually wasn’t the worst place to make a stand. Part of the town sat right in this little valley, and right over the west hills you had the Hudson River. The Saw Mill River Parkway ran right through the center of our main line of defense and the refugees streaming down the freeway were leading the dead right to us. It was a natural choke point, and it was a good idea…the only good idea that day.

[Todd reaches for another “Q,” the homegrown, American variety cigarette so named for its one-quarter tobacco content.]

Why didn’t they put us on the roofs? They had a shopping center, a couple of garages, big buildings with nice flat tops. They could have put a whole company right above the A&P. We could have seen the whole valley, and we would have been completely safe from attack. There was this apartment building, about twenty stories, I think…each floor had a commanding view of the freeway. Why wasn’t there a rifle team in each window?

You know where they put us? Right down on the ground, right behind sandbags or in fighting holes. We wasted so much time, so much energy preparing these elaborate firing positions. Good “cover and concealment,” they told us. Cover and concealment? “Cover” means physical protection, conventional protection, from small arms and artillery or air-dropped ordnance. That sound like the enemy we were about to go up against? Was Zack now calling in air strikes and fire missions? And why the hell were we worried about concealment when the whole point of the battle was to get Zack to come directly at us! So backasswards! All of it!

I’m sure whoever was in charge must have been one of the last of the Fulda Fucktards, you know, those generals who spent their nard-drop years training to defend West Germany from Ivan. Tight-assed, narrow-minded…probably pissed off from so many years of brushfire war. He must have been an FF because everything we did freakin’ stunk of Cold War Static Defense. You know they even tried to dig fighting holes for the tanks? The engineers blasted them right out of the A&P parking lot.

You had tanks?

Dude, we had everything: tanks, Bradleys, Humvees armed with everything from fifty cals to these new Vasilek heavy mortars. At least those might have been useful. We had Avenger Humvee mounted Stinger surface-to-air missile sets, we had this AVLB portable bridge layer system, perfect for the three-inch-deep creek that ran by the freeway. We had a bunch of XM5 electronic warfare vehicles all crammed with radar and jamming gear and…and…oh yeah, and we even had a whole FOL, Family of Latrines, just plopped right there in the middle of everything. Why, when the water pressure was still on and toilets were still flushing in every building and house in the neighborhood? So much we didn’t need! So much shit that only blocked traffic and looked pretty, and that’s what I think they were really there for, just to look pretty.

For the press.

Hell yeah, there must have been at least one reporter for every two or three uniforms! 1 On foot and in vans, I don’t know how many news choppers must have been circling…you’d think with so many they’d spare a few to try and rescue people from Manhattan…hell yeah, I think it was all for the press, show them our big green killpower…or tan…some were just back from the desert, they hadn’t even been repainted yet. So much of it was for show, not just the vehicles but us as well. They had us in MOPP 4, dude, Mission Oriented Protective Posture, big bulky suits and masks that are supposed to protect you from a radioactive or biochem environment.

Could your superiors have believed the undead virus was airborne?

If that’s true, why didn’t they protect the reporters? Why didn’t our “superiors” wear them, or anyone else immediately behind the line. They were cool and comfortable in their BDUs while we sweated under layers of rubber, charcoal, and thick, heavy body armor. And what genius thought to put us in body armor anyway? Because the press reamed ’em for not having enough in the last war? Why the hell do you need a helmet when you’re fighting a living corpse? They’re the ones who need the helmets, not us! And then you’ve got the Net Rigs…the Land Warrior combat integration system. It was this whole personal electronics suite that allowed each one of us to link up with each other and the higher-ups to link up with us. Through your eyepiece you could download maps, GPS data, real-time satellite recon. You could find your exact position on a battlefield, your buddies’ positions, the bad guys…you could actually look through the video camera on your weapon, or anyone else’s, to see what’s over a hedge or around a corner. Land Warrior allowed every soldier to have the information of an entire command post, and let the command post control those soldiers as a single unit. “Netrocentric,” that’s what I kept hearing from the officers in front of the cameras. “Netrocentric” and “hyperwar.” Cool terms, but they didn’t mean shit when you’re trying to dig a fighting hole with MOPP gear and body armor, and Land Warrior and standard combat load, and all of it on the hottest day in what was one of the hottest summers on record. I can’t believe I was still standing when Zack began to show up.

It was just a trickle at first, ones and twos staggering between the abandoned cars that jammed the deserted freeway. At least the refugees had been evacuated. Okay, that was another thing they did right. Picking a choke point and clearing the civilians, great job. Everything else…

Zack started entering the first kill zone, the one designated for the MLRS. I didn’t hear the rockets launch, my hood muffled the noise, but I saw them streak toward the target. I saw them arch on their way down, as their casings broke away to reveal all those little bomblets on plastic streamers. They’re about the size of a hand grenade, antipersonnel with a limited antiarmor capacity. They scattered amongst the Gs, detonating once they hit the road or an abandoned car. Their gas tanks went up in like little volcanoes, geysers of fire and debris that added to the “steel rain.” I got to be honest, it was a rush, dudes were cheering in their mikes, me too, watching ghouls start to tumble. I’d say there were maybe thirty, maybe forty or fifty, zombies spread out all across this half mile stretch of freeway. The opening bombardment took out at least three-quarters of them.

Only three-quarters.

[Todd finishes his cigarette in one long, angry drag. Immediately, he reaches for another.]

Yep, and that’s what should have made us worry right then and there. “Steel rain” hit each and every single one of them, shredded their insides; organs and flesh were scattered all over the damn place, dropping from their bodies as they came toward us…but head shots…you’re trying to destroy the brain, not the body, and as long as they got a working thinker and some mobility…some were still walking, others too thrashed to stand were crawling. Yeah, we should have worried, but there wasn’t time.

The trickle was now turning into a stream. More Gs, dozens now, thick among the burning cars. Funny thing about Zack…you always think he’s gonna be dressed in his Sunday best. That’s how the media portrayed them, right, especially in the beginning…Gs in business suits and dresses, like, a cross section of everyday America, only dead. That’s not what they looked like at all. Most infected, the early infected, the ones who went in that first wave, they either died under treatment or at home in their own beds. Most were either in hospital gowns, or pajamas and nightshirts. Some were in sweats or their undies…or just na**d, a lot of them completely buck bare. You could see their wounds, the dried marks on their bodies, the gouges that made you shiver even inside that sweltering gear.

The second “steel rain” didn’t have half the impact of the first, no more gas tanks to catch, and now the more tightly packed Gs just happened to be shielding each other from a possible head wound. I wasn’t scared, not yet. Maybe my wood was gone, but I was pretty sure it’d be back when Zack entered the Army’s kill zone.

Again, I couldn’t hear the Paladins, too far back up the hill, but I sure heard, and saw, their shells land. These were standard HE 155s, a high explosive core with a fragmentation case. They did even less damage than the rockets!

Why is that?

No balloon effect for one. When a bomb goes off close to you, it causes the liquid in your body to burst, literally, like a freakin’ balloon. That doesn’t happen with Zack, maybe because he carries less bodily fluid than us or because that fluid’s more like a gel. I don’t know. But it didn’t do shit, neither did the SNT effect.

What is SNT?

Sudden Nerve Trauma, I think that’s what you call it. It’s another effect of close-in high explosives. The trauma is so great sometimes that your organs, your brain, all of it, just shuts down like God flickin’ your life switch. Something to do with electrical impulses or whatnot. I don’t know, I’m not a f**kin’ doctor.

But that didn’t happen.

Not once! I mean…don’t get me wrong…it’s not like Zack just skipped through the barrage unscathed. We saw bodies blown to shit, tossed into the air, ripped to pieces, even complete heads, live heads with eyes and jaws still moving, popping sky high like freakin’ Cristal corks…we were taking them down, no doubt, but not as many or as fast as we needed to!

The stream was now like a river, a flood of bodies, slouching, moaning, stepping over their mangled bros as they rolled slowly and steadily toward us like a slow-motion wave.

The next kill zone was direct fire from the heavy arms, the tank’s main 120s and Bradleys with their chain guns and FOTT missiles. The Humvees also began to open up, mortars and missiles and the Mark-19s, which are, like, machine guns, but firing grenades. The Comanches came whining in at what felt like inches above our heads with chains and Hellfires and Hydra rocket pods.

It was a f**kin’ meat grinder, a wood chipper, organic matter clouding like sawdust above the horde.

Nothing can survive this, I was thinking, and for a little while, it looked like I was right…until the fire started to die.

Started to die?

Petering out, withering…

[For a second he is silent, and then, angrily, his eyes refocus.]

No one thought about it, no one! Don’t pull my pud with stories about budget cuts and supply problems! The only thing in short supply was common f**king sense! Not one of those West Point, War College, medals-up-the-ass, four-star fart bags said, “Hey, we got plenty of fancy weapons, we got enough shit for them to shoot!?!” No one thought about how many rounds the artillery would need for sustained operations, how many rockets for the MLRS, how many canister shots…the tanks had these things called canister shots…basically a giant shotgun shell. They fired these little tungsten balls…not perfect you know, wasting like a hundred balls for every G, but f**k, dude, at least it was something! Each Abrams only had three, three! Three out of a total loadout of forty! The rest were standard HEAT or SABOT! Do you know what a “Silver Bullet,” an armor-piercing, depleted-uranium dart is going to do to a group of walking corpses? Nothing! Do you know what it feels like to see a sixty-something-ton tank fire into a crowd with absolutely ass-all result! Three canister rounds! And what about flechettes? That’s the weapon we always hear about these days, flechettes, these little steel spikes that turn any weapon into an instant scattergun. We talk about them like they’re a new invention, but we had them as far back as, like, Korea. We had them for the Hydra rockets and the Mark-19s. Just imagine that, just one 19 firing three hundred and fifty rounds a minute, each round holding, like, a hundred 2 spikes! Maybe it wouldn’t have turned the tide…but…Goddammit!

The fire was dying, Zack was still coming…and the fear…everyone was feeling it, in the orders from the squad leaders, in the actions of the men around me…That little voice in the back of your head that just keeps squeaking “Oh shit, oh shit.”

We were the last line of defense, the afterthought when it came to firepower. We were supposed to pick off the random lucky G who happened to slip through the giant bitchslap of our heavier stuff. Maybe one in three of us was expected to fire his weapon, one in every ten was expected to score a kill.

They came by the thousands, spilling out over the freeway guardrails, down the side streets, around the houses, through them…so many of them, their moans so loud they echoed right through our hoods.

We flipped our safeties off, sighted our targets, the order came to fire…I was a SAW 3 gunner, a light machine gun that you’re supposed to fire in short, controlled bursts about as long as it takes to say “Die motherfucker die.” The initial burst was too low. I caught one square in the chest. I watched him fly backward, hit the asphalt, then get right back up again as if nothing had happened. Dude…when they get back up…

[The cigarette has burned down to his fingers. He drops and crushes it without noticing.]

I did my best to control my fire, and my sphincter. “Just go for the head,” I kept telling myself. “Keep it together, just go for the head.” And all the time my SAW’s chattering “Die motherfucker die.”

We could have stopped them, we should have, one guy with a rifle, that’s all you need, right? Professional soldiers, trained marksmen…how could they get through? They still ask that, critics and armchair Pattons who weren’t there. You think it’s that simple? You think that after being “trained” to aim for the center mass your whole military career you can suddenly make an expert head shot every time? You think in that straitjacket and suffocation hood it’s easy to recharge a clip or clear a weapon jam? You think that after watching all the wonders of modern warfare fall flat on their high-tech hyper ass, that after already living through three months of the Great Panic and watching everything you knew as reality be eaten alive by an enemy that wasn’t even supposed to exist that you’re gonna keep a cool f**king head and a steady f**king trigger finger?

[He stabs that finger at me.]

Well, we did! We still managed to do our job and make Zack pay for every f**kin’ inch! Maybe if we’d had more men, more ammo, maybe if we’d just been allowed to focus on our job…

[His finger curls back into his fist.]

Land Warrior, high-tech, high-priced, high-profile netro-fucking-centric Land Warrior. To see what was in front of our face was bad enough, but spybird uplinks were also showing how truly large the horde was. We might be facing thousands, but behind them were millions! Remember, we were taking on the bulk of New York City’s infestation! This was only the head of one really long undead snake stretching all the way back to Times Fuckin’ Square! We didn’t need to see that. I didn’t need to know that! That little scared voice wasn’t so little anymore. “Oh shit, OH SHIT!” And suddenly it wasn’t in my head anymore. It was in my earpiece. Every time some jerkoff couldn’t control his mouth, Land Warrior made sure the rest of us heard it. “There’s too many!” “We gotta get the f**k outta here!” Someone from another platoon, I didn’t know his name, started hollering “I hit him in the head and he didn’t die! They don’t die when you shoot them in the head!” I’m sure he must have missed the brain, it can happen, a round just grazing the inside of the skull…maybe if he’d been calm and used his own brain, he would have realized that. Panic’s even more infectious than the Z Germ and the wonders of Land Warrior allowed that germ to become airborne. “What?” “They don’t die?” “Who said that?” “You shot it in the head?” “Holy crap! They’re indestructible!” All over the net you could hear this, browning shorts across the info superhighway.

“Everyone pipe down!” someone shouted. “Hold the line! Stay off the net!” an older voice, you could tell, but suddenly it was drowned out in this scream and suddenly my eyepiece, and I’m sure everyone else’s, was filled with the sight of blood spurting into a mouth of broken teeth. The sight was from a dude in the yard of a house behind the line. The owners must have left a few reanimated family members locked in when they bugged out. Maybe the shock from the explosions weakened the door or something, because they came bursting out, right into this poor bastard. His gun camera recorded the whole thing, fell right at the perfect angle. There were five of them, a man, a woman, three kids, they had him pinned on his back, the man was on his chest, the kids had him by the arms, trying to bite through his suit. The woman tore his mask off, you could see the terror in his face. I’ll never forget his shriek as she bit off his chin and lower lip. “They’re behind us!” someone was shouting. “They’re coming out of the houses! The line’s broken! They’re everywhere!” Suddenly the image went dark, cut off from an external source, and the voice, the older voice, was back again…“Stay off the net!” he ordered, trying real hard to control his voice and then the link went dead.

I’m sure it must have taken more than a few seconds, it had to, even if they’d been hovering above our heads, but, it seemed like right after the communications line blacked out that the sky was suddenly screaming with JSFs. 4 I didn’t see them release their ordnance. I was at the bottom of my hole cursing the army and God, and my own hands for not digging deeper. That ground shook, the sky went dark. Debris was everywhere, earth and ash and burning whatever flying above my head. I felt this weight slam between my shoulder blades, soft and heavy. I rolled over, it was a head and torso, all charred black and still smoking and still trying to bite! I kicked it away and scrambled out of my hole seconds after the last of the JSOW 5 fell.

I found myself staring into this cloud of black smoke where the horde had been. The freeway, the houses, everything was covered by this midnight cloud. I vaguely remember other guys getting out of their holes, hatches opening on tanks and Bradleys, everyone just staring into the darkness. There was a quiet, a stillness that, in my mind, lasted for hours.

And then they came, right out of the smoke like a freakin’ little kid’s nightmare! Some were steaming, some were even still burning…some were walking, some crawling, some just dragging themselves along on their torn bellies…maybe one in twenty was still able to move, which left…shit…a couple thousand? And behind them, mixing with their ranks and pushing steadily toward us, the remaining million that the air strike hadn’t even touched!

And that was when the line collapsed. I don’t remember it all at once. I see these flashes: people running, grunts, reporters. I remember a newsman with a big Yosemite Sam mustache trying to pull a Beretta from his vest before three burning Gs pulled him down…I remember a dude forcing open the door of a news van, jumping in, throwing out a pretty blond reporter, and trying to drive away before a tank crushed them both. Two news choppers crashed together, showering us with their own steel rain. One Comanche driver…brave, beautiful motherfucker…tried to turn his rotor into the oncoming Gs. The blade diced a path right down their mass before catching on a car and hurling him into the A&P. Shooting…crazy random shooting…I took a round in the sternum, in my armor’s center plate. I felt like I’d run into a wall, even though I’d been standing still. It knocked me on my ass, I couldn’t breathe, and just then some dumbass lobbed a flash bang right in front of me.

The world was white, my ears were ringing. I froze…hands were clawing me, grabbing my arms. I kicked and punched, I felt my crotch get warm and wet. I shouted but couldn’t hear my own voice. More hands, stronger, were trying to haul me somewhere. Kicking, squirming, cursing, crying…suddenly a fist clocked me in the jaw. It didn’t knock me out, but I was suddenly relaxed. These were my buddies. Zack don’t punch. They dragged me into the closest Bradley. My vision cleared just long enough to see the line of light vanish with the closing hatch.

[He reaches for another Q, then abruptly decides against it.]

I know “professional” historians like to talk about how Yonkers represented a “catastrophic failure of the modern military apparatus,” how it proved the old adage that armies perfect the art of fighting the last war just in time for the next one. Personally, I think that’s a big ’ole sack of it. Sure, we were unprepared, our tools, our training, everything I just talked about, all one class-A, gold-standard clusterfuck, but the weapon that really failed wasn’t something that rolled off an assembly line. It’s as old as…I don’t know, I guess as old as war. It’s fear, dude, just fear and you don’t have to be Sun freakin Tzu to know that real fighting isn’t about killing or even hurting the other guy, it’s about scaring him enough to call it a day. Break their spirit, that’s what every successful army goes for, from tribal face paint to the “blitzkrieg” to…what did we call the first round of Gulf War Two, “Shock and Awe”? Perfect name, “Shock and Awe”! But what if the enemy can’t be shocked and awed? Not just won’t, but biologically can’t! That’s what happened that day outside New York City, that’s the failure that almost lost us the whole damn war. The fact that we couldn’t shock and awe Zack boomeranged right back in our faces and actually allowed Zack to shock and awe us! They’re not afraid! No matter what we do, no matter how many we kill, they will never, ever be afraid!

Yonkers was supposed to be the day we restored confidence to the American people, instead we practically told them to kiss their ass good-bye. If it wasn’t for the Sou’frican Plan, I have no doubt, we’d all be slouching and moaning right now.

The last thing I remember was the Bradley being tossed like a Hot Wheels car. I don’t know where the hit was, but I’m guessing it must have been close. I’m sure had I still been standing out there, exposed, I wouldn’t be standing here today.

Have you ever seen the effects of a thermobaric weapon? Have you ever asked anyone with stars on their shoulders about them? I bet my ballsack you’ll never get the full story. You’ll hear about heat and pressure, the fireball that continues expanding, exploding, and literally crushing and burning everything in its path. Heat and pressure, that’s what thermobaric means. Sounds nasty enough, right? What you won’t hear about is the immediate aftereffect, the vacuum created when that fireball suddenly contracts. Anyone left alive will either have the air sucked right out of their lungs, or—and they’ll never admit this to anyone—have their lungs ripped right out of their mouth. Obviously no one’s going to live long enough to tell that kind of horror story, probably why the Pentagon’s been so good at covering up the truth, but if you ever see a picture of a G, or even an example of a real walking specimen, and he’s got both air bags and windpipe just dangling out from his lips, make sure you give him my number. I’m always up for meeting another veteran of Yonkers.