[Her eyes momentarily hit the floor.]
…my children, so be it. I serve the motherland, and I serve with all my heart.
[She catches my eye.]
You’re wondering how this “existence” can be reconciled with our new fundamentalist state? Well, stop wondering, it can’t. All that religious dogma, that’s for the masses. Give them their opium and keep them pacified. I don’t think anyone in the leadership, or even the Church, really believes what they’re preaching, maybe one man, old Father Ryzhkov before they chucked him out into the wilderness. He had nothing left to offer, unlike me. I’ve got at least a few more children to give the motherland. That’s why I’m treated so well, allowed to speak so freely.
[Maria glances at the one-way glass behind me.]
What are they going to do to me? By the time I’ve exhausted my usefulness, I will have already outlived the average woman.
[She presents the glass with an extremely rude finger gesture.]
And besides, they want you to hear this. That is why they’ve let you into our country, to hear our stories, to ask your questions. You’re being used, too, you know. Your mission is to tell your world of ours, to make them see what will happen if anyone ever tries to fuck with us. The war drove us back to our roots, made us remember what it means to be Russian. We are strong again, we are feared again, and to Russians, that only means one thing, we are finally safe again! For the first time in almost a hundred years, we can finally warm ourselves in the protective fist of a Caesar, and I’m sure you know the word for Caesar in Russian.
BRIDGETOWN, BARBADOS, WEST INDIES FEDERATION
[The bar is almost empty. Most of the patrons have either left by their own power, or been carried out by the police. The last of the night staff clean the broken chairs, broken glass, and pools of blood off the floor. In the corner, the last of the South Africans sings an emotional, inebriated version of Johnny Clegg’s wartime rendition of “Asimbonaga.” T. Sean Collins absentmindedly hums a few bars, then downs his shot of rum, and hurriedly signals for another.]
I’m addicted to murder, and that’s about the nicest way I can put it. You might say that’s not technically true, that since they’re already dead I’m not really killing. Horseshit; it’s murder, and it’s a rush like nothing else. Sure, I can dis those prewar mercenaries all I want, the ’Nam vets and Hell’s Angels, but at this point I’m no different from them, no different from those jungle humpers who never came home, even when they did, or those World War II fighter jocks who traded in their Mustangs for hogs. You’re living on such a high, so keyed up all the time, that anything else seems like death.
I tried to fit in, settle down, make some friends, get a job and do my part to help put America back together. But not only was I dead, I couldn’t think about anything else but killing. I’d start to study people’s necks, their heads. I’d think, “Hmmmm, that dude’s probably got a thick frontal lobe, I gotta go in through the eye socket.” Or “hard blow to the occipital’d drop that chick pretty fast.” It was when the new prez, “the Whacko”—Jesus, who the hell am I to call anybody else that?—when I heard him speak at a rally, I must have thought of at least fifty ways to bring him down. That’s when I got out, as much for everyone else’s sake as my own. I knew one day I’d hit my limit, get drunk, get in a fight, lose control. I knew once I started, I couldn’t stop, so I said good-bye and joined the Impisi, same name as the South African Special Forces. Impisi: Zulu for Hyena, the one who cleans up the dead.
We’re a private outfit, no rules, no red tape, which is why I chose them over a regular gig with the UN. We set our own hours, choose our own weapons.
[He motions to what looks like a sharpened steel paddle at his side.]
“Pouwhenua”—got it from a Maori brother who used to play for the All Blacks before the war. Bad motherfuckers, the Maori. That battle at One Tree Hill, five hundred of them versus half of reanimated Auckland. The pouwhenua’s a tough weapon to use, even if this one’s steel instead of wood. But that’s the other perk of being a soldier of fortune. Who can get a rush anymore from pulling a trigger? It’s gotta be hard, dangerous, and the more Gs you gotta take on, the better. Of course, sooner or later there’s not gonna be any of them left. And when that happens…
[At that point the Imfingo rings its cast-off bell.]
There’s my ride.
[T. Sean signals to the waiter, then flips a few silver rand on the table.]
I still got hope. Sounds crazy, but you never know. That’s why I save most of my fees instead of giving back to the host country or blowing it on who knows what. It can happen, finally getting the monkey off your back. A Canadian brother, “Mackee” Macdonald, right after clearing Baffin Island, he just decided he’d had enough. I hear he’s in Greece now, some monastery or something. It can happen. Maybe there’s still a life out there for me. Hey, a man can dream, right? Of course, if it doesn’t work out that way, if one day there’s still a monkey but no more Zack…
[He rises to leave, shouldering his weapon.]
Then the last skull I crack’ll probably be my own.
SAND LAKES PROVINCIAL WILDERNESS PARK, MANITOBA, CANADA
[Jesika Hendricks loads the last of the day’s “catch” into the sled, fifteen bodies and a mound of dismembered parts.]
I try not to be angry, bitter at the unfairness of it all. I wish I could make sense of it. I once met an ex-Iranian pilot who was traveling through Canada looking for a place to settle down. He said that Americans are the only people he’s ever met who just can’t accept that bad things can happen to good people. Maybe he’s right. Last week I was listening to the radio and just happened to hear [name withheld for legal reasons]. He was doing his usual thing—fart jokes and insults and adolescent sexuality—and I remember thinking, “This man survived and my parents didn’t.” No, I try not to be bitter.
TROY, MONTANA, USA
[Mrs. Miller and I stand on the back deck, above the children playing in the central courtyard.]
You can blame the politicians, the businessmen, the generals, the “machine,” but really, if you’re looking to blame someone, blame me. I’m the American system, I’m the machine. That’s the price of living in a democracy; we all gotta take the rap. I can see why it took so long for China to finally embrace it, and why Russia just said “fuck it” and went back to whatever they call their system now. Nice to be able to say, “Hey, don’t look at me, it’s not my fault.” Well, it is. It is my fault, and the fault of everyone of my generation.
[She looks down at the children.]
I wonder what future generations will say about us. My grandparents suffered through the Depression, World War II, then came home to build the greatest middle class in human history. Lord knows they weren’t perfect, but they sure came closest to the American dream. Then my parents’ generation came along and fucked it all up—the baby boomers, the “me” generation. And then you got us. Yeah, we stopped the zombie menace, but we’re the ones who let it become a menace in the first place. At least we’re cleaning up our own mess, and maybe that’s the best epitaph to hope for. “Generation Z, they cleaned up their own mess.”
[Kwang Jingshu does his final house call for the day, a little boy with some kind of respiratory illness. The mother fears it’s another case of tuberculosis. The color returns to her face when the doctor assures her it’s just a chest cold. Her tears and gratitude follow us down the dusty street.]
It’s comforting to see children again, I mean those who were born after the war, real children who know nothing but a world that includes the living dead. They know not to play near water, not to go out alone or after dark in the spring or summer. They don’t know to be afraid, and that is the greatest gift, the only gift we can leave to them.
Sometimes I think of that old woman at New Dachang, what she lived through, the seemingly unending upheaval that defined her generation. Now that’s me, an old man who’s seen his country torn to shreds many times over. And yet, every time, we’ve managed to pull ourselves together, to rebuild and renew our nation. And so we will again—China, and the world. I don’t really believe in an afterlife—the old revolutionary to the end—but if there is, I can imagine my old comrade Gu laughing down at me when I say, with all honesty, that everything’s going to be all right.
WENATCHEE, WASHINGTON, USA
[Joe Muhammad has just finished his latest masterpiece, a thirteen-inch statuette of a man in midshuffle, wearing a torn Baby Bjorn, staring ahead with lifeless eyes.]
I’m not going to say the war was a good thing. I’m not that much of a sick fuck, but you’ve got to admit that it did bring people together. My parents never stopped talking about how much they missed the sense of community back in Pakistan. They never talked to their American neighbors, never invited them over, barely knew their names unless it was to complain about loud music or a barking dog. Can’t say that’s the kind of world we live in now. And it’s not just the neighborhood, or even the country. Anywhere around the world, anyone you talk to, all of us have this powerful shared experience. I went on a cruise two years ago, the Pan Pacific Line across the islands. We had people from everywhere, and even though the details might have been different, the stories themselves were all pretty much the same. I know I come off as a little too optimistic, because I’m sure that as soon as things really get back to “normal,” once our kids or grandkids grow up in a peaceful and comfortable world, they’ll probably go right back to being as selfish and narrow-minded and generally shitty to one another as we were. But then again, can what we all went through really just go away? I once heard an African proverb, “One cannot cross a river without getting wet.” I’d like to believe that.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I don’t miss some things about the old world, mainly just stuff, things I used to have or things I used to think I could have one day. Last week we had a bachelor party for one of the young guys on the block. We borrowed the only working DVD player and a few prewar skin flicks. There was one scene where Lusty Canyon was getting reamed by three guys on the hood of this pearl gray BMW Z4 convertible, and all I could think was Wow, they sure don’t make cars like that anymore.
TAOS, NEW MEXICO, USA
[The steaks are almost done. Arthur Sinclair flips the sizzling slabs, relishing the smoke.]
Of all the jobs I’ve done, being a money cop was best. When the new president asked me to step back into my role as SEC chairman, I practically kissed her on the spot. I’m sure, just like my days at DeStRes, I only have the job because no one else wants it. There’s still so many challenges ahead, still so much of the country on the “turnip standard.” Getting people away from barter, and to trust the American dollar again…not easy. The Cuban peso is still king, and so many of our more affluent citizens still have their bank accounts in Havana.
Just trying to solve the surplus bill dilemma is enough for any administration. So much cash was scooped up after the war, in abandoned vaults, houses, on dead bodies. How do you tell those looters apart from the people who’ve actually kept their hard-earned greenbacks hidden, especially when records of ownership are about as rare as petroleum? That’s why being a money cop is the most important job I’ve ever had. We have to nail the bastards who’re preventing confidence from returning to the American economy, not just the penny-ante looters but the big fish as well, the sleazebags who’re trying to buy up homes before survivors can reclaim them, or lobbying to deregulate food and other essential survival commodities…and that bastard Breckinridge Scott, yes, the Phalanx king, still hiding like a rat in his Antarctic Fortress of Scumditude. He doesn’t know it yet, but we’ve been in talks with Ivan not to renew his lease. A lot of people back home are waiting to see him, particularly the IRS.
[He grins and rubs his hands together.]
Confidence, it’s the fuel that drives the capitalist machine. Our economy can only run if people believe in it; like FDR said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” My father wrote that for him. Well, he claimed he did.
It’s already starting, slowly but surely. Every day we get a few more registered accounts with American banks, a few more private businesses opening up, a few more points on the Dow. Kind of like the weather. Every year the summer’s a little longer, the skies a little bluer. It’s getting better. Just wait and see.
[He reaches into a cooler of ice, pulling out two brown bottles.]
[It is a historic day for the Shield Society. They have finally been accepted as an independent branch of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. Their main duty will be to teach Japanese civilians how to protect themselves from the living dead. Their ongoing mission will also involve learning both armed and unarmed techniques from non-Japanese organizations, and helping to foster those techniques around the world. The Society’s anti-firearm as well as prointernational message have already been hailed as an instant success, drawing journalists and dignitaries from almost all UN nations.
Tomonaga Ijiro stands at the head of the receiving line, smiling and bowing as he greets his parade of guests. Kondo Tatsumi smiles as well, looking at his teacher from across the room.]
You know I don’t really believe any of this spiritual “BS,” right? As far as I’m concerned, Tomonaga’s just a crazy old hibakusha, but he has started something wonderful, something I think is vital for the future of Japan. His generation wanted to rule the world, and mine was content to let the world, and by the world I mean your country, rule us. Both paths led to the near destruction of our homeland. There has to be a better way, a middle path where we take responsibility for our own protection, but not so much that it inspires anxiety and hatred among our fellow nations. I can’t tell you if this is the right path; the future is too mountainous to see too far ahead. But I will follow Sensei Tomonaga down this path, myself and the many others who join our ranks every day. Only “the gods” know what awaits us at its end.