“I so wish we could do an exposé on all of this,” said Becks wistfully. “I mean, the actual smuggler’s railroad? Think about the ratings!”
“Too bad we’re not purely in the ratings business these days, isn’t it?”
“Yeah. But still…”
“Think about it this way, Becks. If these people had been exposed a year ago, they wouldn’t be here to help us now. Everything’s a tradeoff.” I turned off the frontage road we’d been traveling down, onto a smaller, even less well-maintained frontage road.
Becks sighed. “I guess that’s true.”
I grew up in California, and if you’d asked me two years ago whether it was possible to drive from Oregon to my hometown without taking I-5, I would have said no. The longer I drove the route assembled by our modified GPS, the more I realized how wrong I’d been—and how much of the country we actually lost during the Rising. Most of the roads we were following didn’t appear in normal mapping software anymore, because they’d been abandoned to the dead, or were located in places that were considered impossible to secure. Deer and coyotes peeked out of the woods at us as we drove past, showing absolutely no fear. I couldn’t tell whether that was because they’d been infected, or because they had forgotten what humans were. As long as we stayed in the van, it didn’t really matter.
“There used to be bears out here, you know,” I said.
“Really?” Becks glanced up, frowning suspiciously in my direction. “Is there a reason you’re telling me this? Should I be going for the biggest gun I can get my hands on?”
“No. I’m just wondering if there might not be bears out here again. I mean, California used to have a grizzly bear on the state flag, even.”
Becks shuddered. “I do not understand how anyone ever thought that was appropriate. I like the current flag a lot better.”
“You don’t think it’s a little, well… sanitized?” The old bear flag might not have been politically correct in a post-Rising world, but it felt like there was passion behind it, like once upon a time, someone really cared about that symbol and the things it represented. Its replacement—a crossed redwood branch and California poppy—always struck me as something cooked up by a frantic marketing department for a governor who just needed something to hang over the state capitol.
“There’s a reason the word ‘sanitized’ contains the word ‘sanity.’ Using a giant carnivore as your state symbol is insane, zombies or no zombies.”
“What’s the Connecticut state flag?”
“A shield with three grapevines on it.”
What? George sounded confused.
“My sentiments exactly,” I muttered. Louder, I asked, “What’s that supposed to mean? ‘Welcome to Connecticut; we’ll get you nice and drunk before the dead start walking’?”
“I have no idea what it means. It’s just the stupid flag. What did the bear mean? ‘Come to California; you won’t have to wait for the zombies if you’re looking to get eaten’?” Becks shot me a glare, expression challenging.
I couldn’t help it. I started to laugh.
“What? What’s so funny?”
“We’re on the run from the Centers for Disease Control, heading for a gas station that caters to drug-runners and mad scientists, and we’re fighting about the meaning of state flags.”
Becks blinked at me. Then she put her tablet down on her knees, bent forward to rest her forehead on the dashboard, and began to laugh. Grinning, I hit the gas a little harder. If we were laughing, we weren’t thinking too hard about what was waiting for us down the road.
Years before I was born, President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs,” like drugs might somehow realize they were under siege and decide they’d be better off going somewhere else. That war went on for decades even before the Kellis-Amberlee virus gave us something more concrete to fight against. A sane person might think the dead rising would be a good reason to stop stressing out over a few recreational pharmaceuticals. It turns out the lobbyists and corporations who stood to benefit from keeping those nasty drugs illegal didn’t agree, and the war on drugs continued, even up to the present day.
Smuggling is a time-honored human tradition. Make something illegal, create scarcity, and people will find a way to get it. Better, they’ll find a way to make it turn a profit. In some ways, the Rising was the best thing that could have happened to the world’s drug smugglers, because suddenly, there were all these roads and highways and even entire towns with no population, no police force, and best of all, no one to ask what those funny smells coming out of your basement windows were. They had to be constantly vigilant, both against the threat of the infected and the threat of the DEA, but they had more space than they’d ever had before.
The question remained: How were they supposed to move their product into more civilized areas? If drugs had been the only things in need of smuggling, maybe the answer would have involved tanks, or strapping backpacks to zombies before releasing them back into the wild. But drugs weren’t the only things people needed to move. Weapons. Ammunition. Livestock—the illegal breeding farms on the other side of the Canadian Hazard Line were constantly looking for fresh genetic lines, and would go to incredible lengths to get them. George and I once followed a woman all the way to the California state border as she tried to get her Great Dane to safety without being stopped by the authorities.
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