A Story of World War Z



Thomas Kiersted looks exactly like his prewar picture. His frame may have thinned considerably, and his salt-and-pepper hair may have lost all its pepper, but his eyes show no trace of 'survivors' stare'. He waves to me from the deck of The African Queen. The three- hundred-foot former sailing yacht is still a magnificent vessel, despite her patched sails and naval grey paintwork. This former plaything of the Saudi royal family now flies the flag of the European Union and is the mobile headquarters of 'Closure, Limited'.

Welcome aboard! Doctor Kiersted holds out a hand as the supply launch pulls alongside. Quite a party, eh? He refers to the collection of warships and troop transports anchored in the fjord. Good thing for us this is only a recce expedition. It's getting harder and harder to secure our subjects. South and East Asia are secure, Africa's drying up. Russia used to be our best exporter, unofficially, of course, but now . . . They really mean it, closing their borders. No more 'flexible negotiations', not even on the individual level. What's this world coming to when you can't bribe a Russian?

He chuckles as we head below to B deck. A loud commotion roars down the passageway from a lit hatchway.

No, it's not that. Kiersted gestures over his shoulder. Cricket season, Sri Lanka versus the West Indies. We get the BBC live feed directly from Trinidad. No, our subjects are all kept below in specially modified cabins. Not cheap, but nothing we do here is.

We descend to C deck, past crew cabins and various equipment lockers. Officially our funding comes from the EU Ministry of Health. They provide the ship, the crew, a military liaison to help collect subjects, or, if no troops are available, enough money to pay for private contractors like 'the Impisi', you know, the 'Hyenas'. They don't come cheap either.

None of our public funding comes from America. I watched the debates your Congress had on C-SPAN. I cringed when that one senator tried to support it openly. He is now, what, working as an underling in your Department of National Graves Registration?

The irony is most of our money comes from America, from private individuals or charities. Your (Name Removed for Legal Reasons) set up the fund that's given dozens of your countrymen a chance to use our services. We need every dollar, or Cuban peso, I should say, the only money that really means anything now.

It's difficult and dangerous to collect subjects, very dangerous, but that part of the process is relatively inexpensive. The preparation - that is where the real money goes. It's not enough to just find a subject with the right height, build, gender, and reasonably close facial features. Once we have them - he shakes his head - then the real work begins.

Hair has to be cleaned, cut, possibly dyed. Most of the time facial features have to be reconstructed or else actually sculpted from scratch. We have some of the best specialists in Europe . . . and America. Most of them work for standard wages, or even 'pro bono', but some know exactly how much their talent is worth and charge for every second of their time. Talented bastards.

We come to E deck, now closed off by an armored hatch guarded by two large armed men. Kiersted speaks to them in Danish. They nod, then look at me. My apologies, he says, I don't make the rules. I show my ID, both U.S. and U.N., a signed copy of my legal disclaimer, and my letter of consent, stamped with the seal of the European Union's Minister of Mental Health. The guards examine them closely, even using prewar ultraviolet lights, then nod to me and open the door. Kiersted and I pass into an artificially lit passageway. The air is still, odorless, and extremely dry. I hear the thrum of either several small or one extremely large and powerful dehumidifier. The hatches on either side of us are solid steel, opened only by electronic key, and warning in several languages for unauthorized personnel to stay out. Kiersted lowers his voice slightly. This is where it happens. Preparation. I am sorry we can't enter; a safety issue for the workers, you understand.

We continue down the passageway. Kiersted gestures to the doors without touching them. Face and hair are only part of the preparation. 'Wardrobe personalization' - that is a challenge. The process simply won't work if the subjects are, say, wearing the wrong clothes or missing some kind of personal item. Here, at least, we can thank globalization. The same T-shirt, say, made in China, could be found in Europe, America, anywhere. The same for electronic items, or jewelry; we have a jeweler on contract for specialty items, but you'd be surprised how many times we've found clones for so-called 'one-of-a-kind' pieces. We also have a specialist for children's toys, you see, not to make them, but to modify them. Children specialize their toys like no one else. A certain teddy bear is missing an eye, or an action figure has one black boot and one brown. Our specialist, she has a warehouse in Lund. I've even seen it, a massive old airplane hangar, with nothing but specialty piles of exact toy pieces: dolls' hairbrushes and Action Man guns - hundreds of piles, thousands. Reminds me of when I visited Auschwitz as a student - the hills of eyeglasses and little children's shoes. I don't know how she does it, Ingvilde. She is driven.

I remember once we needed a 'special penny'. The client was specific. He used to be some kind of 'entertainment agent' in Hollywood, managed (Name Withheld for Legal Reasons) and a lot of other dead stars. In his letter he said that he once took his son to a place called 'Travel Town', some sort of train museum in Los Angeles. He said it was the only time he'd ever spent a full afternoon with his son. Travel Town had one of those machines where you put a penny in, and cranking the handle presses it into a special medallion. The client had said that on the day they fled, his son had refused to leave it behind. He even made his father punch a hole through it so he could wear it around his neck on a shoelace. Half the client's letter was devoted to describing that special penny. Not just the design, but the color, aging, thickness, even the spot on it where he'd punched the hole. I knew we'd never find anything close to that. So did Ingvilde, but you know what she did? She made another one, completely identical. She found the company's records online and gave a copy of the design to a local machinist. She aged it like a master chemist - the right combination of salt, oxygen, and artificial sunlight. Most importantly, she made sure that the penny was made before the 1980s, before the American government removed most of the copper. You see, when you squeeze it flat and the inside metal shows . . . Sorry . . . 'too much information' as you Americans say. I only mention it to illustrate the kind of dedication we have to our work here. Ingvilde, incidentally, works on a subsistence salary. She's like me - 'rich person's guilt'.

We reach F deck, the deepest level aboard The African Queen. Although artificially lit like the deck above, these bulbs are as bright as the prewar sun. We try to simulate sunlight, Kiersted explains, and each compartment is specially equipped with sounds and smells tailored to the client. Most of the time it's peaceful - the smell of pine and the chirp of birds - but it really depends on the individual. We once had a man from mainland China, a test case, to see if it was worth their government setting up their own operation. He was from Chongqing, and he needed the sounds of traffic and the smells of industrial pollution. Our team actually had to mix up an audio file of specific Chinese cars and trucks, as well as this noxious brew of coal and sulfur and lead-filled gasoline.

It succeeded. Just like the special penny. It had to. Otherwise why the hell would we do it? Not just spend all the time and money, but the sanity of our workers. Why are we constantly reliving something the whole bleeding world is trying to forget? Because it works. Because we help people, we give them exactly what the company name says. We have a seventy- four-percent success rate. Most of our clients are able to rebuild some semblance of a life, to move beyond their tragedy, obtain some semblance of 'closure'. That's the only reason you'd find someone like me here. This is the best place to work through 'rich person's guilt'.

We come to the last compartment. Kiersted reaches for his key, then turns to face me. You know, before the war, 'rich' used to mean material possessions - money, things. My parents didn't have either, even in a socialist country like Denmark. One of my friends was rich, always paid for everything, even though I never asked him to. He always felt guilty about his wealth, even admitted it to me once, about how 'unfair' it was that he had so much. 'Unfair.' For the first time since our meeting, his smile fades. I didn't lose one family member. I mean it. We all survived. I could figure out what was coming, as Americans say, 'put two and two together'. I knew enough to sell my house, buy the tools to survive, and get my family to Svalbard six months before the panic. My wife, our son, our two daughters, my brother, and his whole family - they're all still alive - with three grandchildren and five great nieces and nephews. My friend who had 'so much', I treated him last month. They call it 'rich person's guilt', because life is the new wealth. Maybe they should call it 'rich person's shame', because, for some reason, people like us almost never talk about it. Not even to each other. One time I met with Ingvilde at her shop. She had a picture on her desk, facing away from me when I entered. I didn't knock, so I surprised her a little bit. She snapped that frame down on her desk before she even knew it was me. Instinct. Guilt. Shame. I didn't ask who was in the picture.

We stop at the final compartment. A clipboard rests on the bulkhead next to the hatch, a clipboard holding another legal disclaimer. Kiersted looks at it, then me, uncomfortably.

I apologize. I know you've already signed one, but because you're not an EU citizen, regulations demand that you reread and re-sign another form. The rereading part is a pain in the arse, and if it were up to me, I'd allow you to just sign it, but . . . His eyes flick to the surveillance camera on the overhead.

I pretend to read. Kiersted sighs.

I know that a lot of people don't agree with what we do here. They think it's immoral, or at least wasteful. I understand. For a lot of them, not knowing is a gift. It protects them and drives them. They use it to push their lives forward, rebuild both physically and mentally, because they want to be ready for the day when that missing person suddenly walks through the door. For them, limbo is hope, and sometimes, closure is the death of hope.

But what about the other type of survivors, the ones who're paralyzed by limbo? These are the ones who search endlessly through ruins and mass graves and endless, endless lists. These are the survivors who've chosen truth over hope but can't move forward without some physical proof of that truth. Of course, what we provide isn't the truth, and they know it, deep down. But they believe it because they want to believe it, just like the ones who look into the void and see hope.

I finish filling out the last page of the form. Kiersted reaches for his key card.

Incidentally we've managed to assemble a basic psychological profile of those who seek our help. They tend to be of an aggressive nature - active, decisive, used to making their own destiny. His eyes dart sideways to me. This is a broad generalization, naturally, but for many of them, losing control was the worst part of that time, and this process is as much about regaining that control as it is about saying goodbye.

Kiersted slides his card, the lock flashes from red to green, and the door opens. The compartment I step into smells like sage and eucalyptus, and the sound of waves crashing echoes through bulkhead-mounted speakers. I stare at the subject in front of me. It stares back. It pulls at the restraints, trying to get to me. Its jaw drops open. It moans.

I am not sure how long I stare at the 'subject' in front of me. Eventually I turn to Kierstad, nod my approval, and notice the smile return to his face.

The Danish psychiatrist walks to a small locked cabinet on the rear bulkhead. I see you didn't bring your own.

I shake my head.

Kiersted returns from the cabinet and places a small automatic pistol into my hand. He checks to make sure there is only one round in the chamber, then he steps back, exits the compartment, and closes the hatch behind me.

I center the laser sight on the subject's forehead. It lunges at me, rasping and snapping. I pull the trigger.