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DENVER, COLORADO

[The weather is perfect for the neighborhood picnic in Victory Park. The fact that not one sighting has been recorded this spring gives everyone even more reason to celebrate. Todd Wainio stands in the outfield, waiting for a high fly ball that he claims “will never come.” Perhaps he’s right, as no one seems to mind me standing next to him.]

They called it “the road to New York” and it was a long, long road. We had three main Army Groups: North, Center, and South. The grand strategy was to advance as one across the Great Plains, across the Midwest, then break off at the Appalachians, the wings sweeping north and south, shoot for Maine and Florida, then grind across the coast and link up with AG Center as they slogged it over the mountains. It took three years.

Why so slow?

Dude, take your pick: foot transport, terrain, weather, enemies, battle doctrine…Doctrine was to advance as two solid lines, one behind the other, stretching from Canada to Aztlan…No, Mexico, it wasn’t Aztlan yet. You know when a plane goes down, how all these firemen or whoever would check a field for pieces of wreckage? They’d all go in a line, real slow, making sure not one inch of ground was missed. That was us. We didn’t skip one damn inch between the Rockies and the Atlantic. Whenever you spotted Zack, either in a group or just on his own, a FAR unit would halt…

FAR?

Force Appropriate Response. You couldn’t stop, like, the whole Army Group, for one or two zombies. A lot of the older Gs, the ones infected early in the war, they were starting to get pretty grody, all deflated, parts of their skulls starting to show, some bone poking through the flesh. Some of them couldn’t even stand anymore, and those are the ones you really had to watch for. They’d be crawling on their bellies toward you, or just thrashing facedown in the mud. You’d halt a section, a platoon, maybe even a company depending on how many you encountered, just enough to take ’em down and sanitize the battlefield. The hole your FAR unit left in the battle line was replaced by an equal force from the secondary line a click and a half behind you. That way the front was never broken. We leapfrogged this way all the way across the country. It worked, no doubt, but man, it took its time. Night also put the brakes on. Once the sun dipped, no matter how confident you felt or how safe the area seemed, the show was over till dawn the next morning.

And there was fog. I didn’t know fog could be so thick that far inland. I always wanted to ask a climatologist or someone about that. The whole front might get slammed, sometimes for days. Just sitting there in zero visibility, occasionally one of your Ks would start barking or a man down the line would shout “Contact!” You’d hear the moan and then the shapes would appear. Hard enough just standing still and waiting for them. I saw a movie once, 1 this BBC documentary about how because the UK was so foggy, the British army would never stop. There was a scene, where the cameras caught a real firefight, just sparks from their weapons and hazy silhouettes going down. They didn’t need that extra creepy soundtrack. 2 It freaked me out just to watch.

It also slowed us down to have to keep pace with the other countries, the Mexicans and Canucks. Neither army had the manpower to liberate their entire country. The deal was that they’d keep our borders clear while we get our house in order. Once the U.S. was secure, we’d give them everything they need. That was the start of the UN multinational force, but I was discharged long before those days. For me, it always felt like hurry up and wait, creeping along through rough terrain or built-up areas. Oh, and you wanna talk about speed bumps, try urban combat.

The strategy was always to surround the target area. We’d set up semipermanent defenses, recon with everything from satellites to sniffer Ks, do whatever we could to call Zack out, and go in only after we were sure no more of them were coming. Smart and safe and relatively easy. Yeah, right!

As far as surrounding the “area,” someone wanna tell me where that area actually begins? Cities weren’t cities anymore, you know, they just grew out into this suburban sprawl. Mrs. Ruiz, one of our medics, called it “in-fill.” She was in real estate before the war and explained that the hottest properties were always the land between two existing cities. Freakin’ “in-fill,” we all learned to hate that term. For us, it meant clearing block after block of burbland before we could even think of establishing a quarantine perimeter. Fast-food joints, shopping centers, endless miles of cheap, cookie-cutter housing.

Even in winter, it’s not like everything was safe and snuggly. I was in Army Group North. At first I thought we were golden, you know. Six months out of the year, I wouldn’t have to see a live G, eight months actually, given what wartime weather was like. I thought, hey, once the temp drops, we’re little more than garbage men: find ’em, Lobo ’em, mark ’em for burial once the ground begins to thaw, no problem. But I should be Lobo’d for thinking that Zack was the only bad guy out there.

We had quislings, just like the real thing, but winterized. We had these Human Reclamation units, pretty much just glorified animal control. They’d do their best to dart any quislings we came across, tie ’em down, ship ’em to rehabilitation clinics, back when we thought we could rehabilitate them.

Ferals were a much more dangerous threat. A lot of them weren’t kids anymore, some were teenagers, some full grown. They were fast, smart, and if they chose fight instead of flight, they could really mess up your day. Of course, HR would always try and dart them, and, of course, that didn’t always work. When a two-hundred-pound feral bull is charging balls out for your ass, a couple CCs of tranq ain’t gonna drop him before he hits home. A lot of HRs got pretty badly smashed up, a few had to be tagged and bagged. The brass had to step in and assign a squad of grunts for escort. If a dart didn’t stop a feral, we sure as hell did. Nothing screams as high as a feral with a PIE round burning in his gut. The HR pukes had a real problem with that. They were all volunteers, all sticking to this code that human life, any human’s life, was worth trying to save. I guess history sorta backed them up now, you know, seeing all those people that they managed to rehabilitate, all the ones we just woulda shot on sight. If they had had the resources, they might have been able to do the same for animals.

Man, feral packs, that freaked me out more than anything else. I’m not just talking dogs. Dogs you knew how to deal with. Dogs always telegraphed their attacks. I’m talking “Flies” 3 : F-Lions, cats, like part mountain lion, part ice age saberfuck. Maybe they were mountain lions, some sure looked like them, or maybe just the spawn of house cats that had to be super badass just to make it. I’ve heard that they grew bigger up north, some law of nature or evolution. 4 I don’t really get the whole ecology thing, not past a few prewar nature shows. I hear it’s because rats were, like, the new cows; fast and smart enough to get away from Zack, livin’ on corpses, breeding by the millions in trees and ruins. They’d gotten pretty badass themselves, so anything tough enough to hunt them has to be a whole lot badder. That’s an F-lion for you, about twice the size of a prewar puffball, teeth, claws, and a real, real jonesing for warm blood.

That must have been a hazard for the sniffer dogs.

Are you kidding? They loved it, even the little dachmutts, made ’em feel like dogs again. I’m talking about us, getting jumped from a tree limb, or a roof. They didn’t charge you like F-hounds, they just waited, took their sweet time until you were too close to raise a weapon.

Outside of Minneapolis, my squad was clearing a strip mall. I was stepping through the window of a Starbucks and suddenly three of them leap at me from behind the counter. They knock me over, start tearing at my arms, my face. How do you think I got this?

[He refers to the scar on his cheek.]

I guess the only real casualty that day was my shorts. Between the bite-proof BDUs and body armor we’d started wearing, the vest, the helmet…I hadn’t worn a hard cover in so long, you forget how uncomfortable it is when you’re used to going soft top.

Did ferals, feral people that is, know how to use firearms?

They didn’t know how to do anything human, that’s why they were ferals. No, the body armor was for protection against some of the regular people we found. I’m not talking organized rebels, just the odd LaMOE, 5 Last Man on Earth. There was always one or two in every town, some dude, or chick, who managed to survive. I read somewhere that the United States had the highest number of them in the world, something about our individualistic nature or something. They hadn’t seen real people in so long, a lot of the initial shooting was just accidental or reflex. Most of the time we managed to talk them down. Those we actually called RCs, Robinson Crusoes—that was the polite term for the ones who were cool.

The ones we called LaMOEs, those were the ones who were a little too used to being king. King of what, I don’t know, Gs and quislings and crazy F-critters, but I guess in their mind they were living the good life, and here we were to take it all away. That’s how I got nailed.

We were closing on the Sears Tower in Chicago. Chicago, that was enough nightmares for three lifetimes. It was the middle of winter, wind whipping off the lake so hard you could barely stand, and suddenly I felt Thor’s hammer smash me in the head. Slug from a high-powered hunting rifle. I never complained about our hard covers anymore after that. The gang in the tower, they had their little kingdom, and they weren’t giving it up for anyone. That was one of the few times we went full convent; SAWs, nades, that’s when the Bradleys started making a comeback.

After Chicago, the brass knew we were now in a full, multithreat environment. It was back to hard covers and body armor, even in summer. Thanks, Windy City. Each squad was issued pamphlets with the “Threat Pyramid.”

It was ranked according to probability, not lethality. Zack at the bottom, then F-critters, ferals, quislings, and finally LaMOEs. I know a lot of guys from AG South like to bitch about how they always had it tougher on their end, ’cause, for us, winter took care of Zack’s whole threat level. Yeah, sure, and replaced it with another one: winter!

What do they say the average temperature’s dropped, ten degrees, fifteen in some areas? 6 Yeah, we had it real easy, up to our ass in gray snow, knowing that for every five Zacksicles you cracked there’d be at least as many up and at ’em at first thaw. At least the guys down south knew that once they swept an area, it stayed swept. They didn’t have to worry about rear area attacks like us. We swept every area at least three times. We used everything from ramrods and sniffer Ks to high-tech ground radar. Over and over again, and all of this in the dead of winter. We lost more guys to frostbite than to anything else. And still, every spring, you knew, you just knew…it’d be like, “oh shit, here we go again.” I mean, even today, with all the sweeps and civilian volunteer groups, spring’s like winter used to be, nature letting us know the good life’s over for now.

Tell me about liberating the isolated zones.

Always a hard fight, every single one. Remember these zones were still under siege, hundreds, maybe even thousands. The people holed up in the twin forts of Comerica Park/Ford Field, they must have had a combined moat—that’s what we called them, moats—of at least a million Gs. That was a three-day slugfest, made Hope look like a minor skirmish. That was the only time I ever really thought we were gonna be overrun. They piled up so high I thought we’d be buried, literally, in a landslide of corpses. Battles like that, they’d leave you so fried, just wasted, body and mind. You’d want to sleep, nothing more, not eat or bathe or even f**k. You’d just want to find someplace warm and dry, close your eyes, forget everything.

What were the reactions of the people who you liberated?

Kind of a mix. The military zones, that was pretty low-key. A lot of formal ceremonies, raising and lowering of flags, “I relieve you, sir—I stand relieved,” shit like that. There was also a little bit of wienie wagging. You know “we didn’t need any rescuing” and all. I understand. Every grunt wants to be the one riding over the hill, no one likes to be the one in the fort. Sure you didn’t need rescuing, buddy.

Sometimes it was true. Like the zoomies outside of Omaha. They were a strategic hub for airdrops, regular flights almost on the hour. They were actually living better than us, fresh chow, hot showers, soft beds. It almost felt like we were being rescued. On the other hand, you had the jarheads at Rock Island. They wouldn’t let on how rough they had it, and that was cool with us. For what they went through, bragging rights was the least we could give them. Never met any of them personally, but I’ve heard the stories.

What about the civilian zones?

Different story entirely. We were so the shit! They’d be cheering and shouting. It was like what you’d think war was supposed to be, those old black-and-whites of GIs marching into Paris or wherever. We were rock stars. I got more…well…if there’s a bunch of little dudes between here and the Hero City that happen to look like me…[Laughs.]

But there were exceptions.

Yeah, I guess. Maybe not all the time but there’d be this one person, this angry face in the crowd screaming shit at you. “What the f**k took you so long?” “My husband died two weeks ago!” “My mother died waiting for you!” “We lost half our people last summer!” “Where were you when we needed you?” People holding up photos, faces. When we marched into Janesville, Wisconsin, someone was holding up a sign with a picture of a smiling little girl. The words above it read “Better late than never?” He got beat down by his own people; they shouldn’t have done that. That’s the kind of shit we saw, shit that keeps you awake when you haven’t slept in five nights.

Rarely, like, blue-moon rarely, we’d enter a zone where we were totally not welcome. In Valley City, North Dakota, they were like, “Fuck you, army! You ran out on us, we don’t need you!”

Was that a secessionist zone?

Oh no, at least these people let us in. The Rebs only welcomed you with gunshots. I never got close to any of those zones. The brass had special units for Rebs. I saw them on the road once, heading toward the Black Hills. That was the first time since crossing the Rockies that I ever saw tanks. Bad feeling; you knew how that was gonna end.

There’s been a lot of stories about questionable survival methods used by certain isolated zones.

Yeah, so? Ask them about it.

Did you see any?

Nope, and I didn’t want to. People tried to tell me about it, people we liberated. They were so wound up inside, they just wanted to get it off their chests. You know what I used to say to them, “Keep it on your chest, your war’s over.” I didn’t need any more rocks in my ruck, you know?

What about afterward? Did you talk to any of those people?

Yeah, and I read a lot about the trials.

How did they make you feel?

Shit, I don’t know. Who am I to judge those people? I wasn’t there, I didn’t have to deal with that. This conversation we’re having now, this question of “what if,” I didn’t have time for that back then. I still had a job to do.

I know historians like to talk about how the U.S. Army had such a low casualty rate during the advance. Low, as in compared to other countries, China or maybe the Russkies. Low, as in only counting the casualties caused by Zack. There were a million ways to get it on that road and over two-thirds weren’t on that pyramid.

Sickness was a big one, the kinds of diseases that were supposed to be gone, like, in the Dark Ages or something. Yeah, we took our pills, had our shots, ate well, and had regular checkups, but there was just so much shit everywhere, in the dirt, the water, in the rain, and the air we breathed. Every time we entered a city, or liberated a zone, at least one guy would be gone, if not dead then removed for quarantine. In Detroit, we lost a whole platoon to Spanish flu. The brass really freaked on that one, quarantined the whole battalion for two weeks.

Then there were mines and booby traps, some civilian, some laid during our bugout west. Made a lot of sense back then. Just seed mile after mile and wait for Zack to blow himself up. Only problem is, mines don’t work that way. They don’t blow up a human body, they take off a leg or ankle or the family jewels. That’s what they’re designed for, not to kill people, but to wound ’em so the army will spend valuable resources keeping them alive, and then send ’em home in a wheelchair so Ma and Pa Civilian can be reminded every time they see ’em that maybe supporting this war isn’t such a good idea. But Zack has no home, no Ma and Pa Civilian. All conventional mines do is create a bunch of crippled ghouls that, if anything, just makes your job that much harder because you want them upright and easy to spot, not crawling around the weeds waiting to be stepped on like land mines themselves. You couldn’t know where most mines were; a lot of the units that set them during the retreat hadn’t marked them correctly or had lost their coordinates or simply weren’t alive anymore to tell you. And then you had all those stupid f**kin’ LaMOE jobs, the punji stakes and trip-wired shotgun shells.

I lost a buddy of mine that way, in a Wal-Mart in Rochester, New York. He was born in El Salvador but grew up in Cali. You ever heard of the Boyle Heights Boyz? They were these hard-core LA bangers who were deported back to El Salvador because they were technically illegal. My buddy was plopped there right before the war. He fought his way back up through Mexico, all during the worst days of the Panic, all on foot with nothing but a machete. He didn’t have any family left, no friends, just his adopted home. He loved this country so much. Reminded me of my grandpa, you know, the whole immigrant thing. And then to catch a twelve-gauge in the face, probably set by a LaMOE who’d stopped breathing years before. Fuckin’ mines and booby traps.

And then you just had accidents. So many buildings had been weakened from the fighting. Throw in years of neglect, and foot after foot of snow. Whole roofs collapsed, no warning, whole structures just tumbling down. I lost someone else like that. She had a contact, a feral running at her across an abandoned auto garage. She fired her weapon, that’s all it took. I don’t know how many pounds of snow and ice brought that roof down. She was…we were…close, you know. We never did anything about it. I guess we thought that would make it “official.” I guess we thought it would make it easier in case something happened to one of us.

[He looks over at the bleachers, smiling at his wife.]

Didn’t work.

[He takes a moment, a long breath.]

And then there were psych casualties. More than anything else combined. Sometimes we’d march into barricaded zones and find nothing but rat-gnawed skeletons. I’m talking about the zones that weren’t overrun, the ones that fell to starvation or disease, or just a feeling that tomorrow wasn’t worth seeing. We once broke into a church in Kansas where it was clear the adults killed all the kids first. One guy in our platoon, an Amish guy, used to read all their suicide notes, commit them to memory, then give himself this little cut, this tiny half-inch nick somewhere on his body so he would “never forget.” Crazy bastard was sliced from his neck to the bottom of his toes. When the LT found out about it…sectioned eight his ass right outa there.

Most of the Eight Balls were later in the war. Not from the stress, though, you understand, but from the lack of it. We all knew it would be over soon, and I think a lot of people who’d been holding it together for so long must’ve had that little voice that said, “Hey, buddy, it’s cool now, you can let go.”

I knew this one guy, massive ’roidasaurus, he’d been a professional wrestler before the war. We were walking up the freeway near Pulaski, New York, when the wind picked up the scent of a jackknifed big rig. It’d been loaded with bottles of perfume, nothing fancy, just cheap, strip mall scent. He froze and started bawlin’ like a kid. Couldn’t stop. He was a monster with a two grand body count, an ogre who’d once picked up a G and used it as a club for hand-to-hand combat. Four of us had to carry him out on a stretcher. We figured the perfume must have reminded him of someone. We never found out who.

Another guy, nothing special about him, late forties, balding, bit of a paunch, as much as anyone could have back then, the kinda face you’d see in a prewar heartburn commercial. We were in Hammond, Indiana, scouting defenses for the siege of Chicago. He spied a house at the end of a deserted street, completely intact except for boarded-up windows and a crashed-in front door. He got a look on his face, a grin. We should have known way before he dropped out of formation, before we heard the shot. He was sitting in the living room, in this worn, old easy chair, SIR between his knees, that smile still on his face. I looked up at the pictures on the mantelpiece. It was his home.

Those were extreme examples, ones that even I could have guessed. A lot of the others, you just never knew. For me, it wasn’t just who was cracking up, but who wasn’t. Does that make sense?

One night in Portland, Maine, we were in Deering Oaks Park, policing piles of bleached bones that had been there since the Panic. Two grunts pick up these skulls and start doing a skit, the one from Free to Be, You and Me, the two babies. I only recognized it because my big brother had the record, it was a little before my time. Some of the older Grunts, the Xers, they loved it. A little crowd started gathering, everyone laughing and howling at these two skulls. “Hi-Hi-I’m a baby.—Well what do you think I am, a loaf’a bread?” And when it was over, everyone spontaneously burst into song, “There’s a land that I see…” playing femurs like goddamn banjos. I looked across the crowd to one of our company shrinks. I could never pronounce his real name, Doctor Chandra-something. 7 I made eye contact and gave him this look, like “Hey, Doc, they’re all nut jobs, right?” He must have known what my eyes were asking because he just smiled back and shook his head. That really spooked me; I mean, if the ones who were acting loopy weren’t, then how did you know who’d really lost it?

Our squad leader, you’d probably recognize her. She was in The Battle of the Five Colleges. Remember the tall, amazon chick with the ditch blade, the one who’d sung that song? She didn’t look like she used to in the movie. She’d burned off her curves and a crew cut replaced all that long, thick, shiny black hair. She was a good squad leader, “Sergeant Avalon.” One day we found a turtle in a field. Turtles were like unicorns back then, you hardly saw them anymore. Avalon got this look, I don’t know, like a kid. She smiled. She never smiled. I heard her whisper something to the turtle, I thought it was gibberish: “Mitakuye Oyasin.” I found out later that it was Lakota for “all my relations.” I didn’t even know she was part Sioux. She never talked about it, about anything about her. And suddenly, like a ghost, there was Doctor Chandra, with that arm he always put around their shoulders and that soft, no-big-deal offer of “C’mon, Sarge, let’s grab a cup of coffee.”

That was the same day the president died. He must have also heard that little voice. “Hey, buddy, it’s cool now, you can let go.” I know a lot of people weren’t so into the VP, like there was no way he could replace the Big Guy. I really felt for him, mainly ’cause I was now in the same position. With Avalon gone, I was squad leader.

It didn’t matter that the war was almost over. There were still so many battles along the way, so many good people to say good-bye to. By the time we reached Yonkers, I was the last of the old gang from Hope. I don’t know how I felt, passing all that rusting wreckage: the abandoned tanks, the crushed news vans, the human remains. I don’t think I felt much of anything. Too much to do when you’re squad leader, too many new faces to take care of. I could feel Doctor Chandra’s eyes boring into me. He never came over though, never let on that there was anything wrong. When we boarded the barges on the banks of the Hudson, we managed to lock eyes. He just smiled and shook his head. I’d made it.